Blogging on EARTH: "Climategate" scientist tells his side

SAN FRANCISCO: In November, hackers broke into the e-mail server of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and stole thousands of e-mails dating back to 1996 written by and to climate scientists. The e-mails, which were then leaked to the public, contained the typical stuff of science (and of e-mails, for that matter): amid discussions of data and theory, there was debate, confusion, flippancy, dark humor and questioning.

Climate change deniers pointed to certain parts of the e-mails (RealClimate has a detailed discussion of them here and here) to suggest that scientists were at best misrepresenting their uncertainty about aspects of climate change and at worst falsifying or withholding data. The resulting brouhaha became known as “Climategate.”

But the scientists who wrote the e-mails say it’s all a tempest in a teapot: Although they may wish they had said some things differently — now that it has turned out to be for posterity — none of the e-mails call into question the actual science, they say.

But Climategate hasn’t gone away just yet. At the center of the storm, climatologist Phil Jones, who wrote many of the e-mails and is head of the Climate Research Unit, stepped down in early December pending an independent investigation. Meanwhile, another of the scientists caught in the whirlwind, Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann, agreed to talk to press today at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.

Mann says he is used to being a lightning rod for controversy in the climate debate, in large part due to his famous “hockey stickclimate graph, which describes changes in Northern Hemisphere mean temperature over the past 1,000 years, including a sharp uptick in the last 100 years.

At the press conference today, Mann appeared weary and bemused, calling the e-mail hacking “a new low in the climate change denial effort.” The timing — occurring right before the Copenhagen climate talks — wasn’t coincidental, he said. “What has happened is this false controversy has been manufactured in a way that allows critics of climate change to make specious allegations about the science,” in an effort to distract the policymakers at Copenhagen.

The hackers, he said, mined the e-mails for words and phrases to take out of context, thus misrepresenting what the scientists were actually saying to each other. Two specific examples included a couple of phrases used by Jones in a 1999 email, in which he wrote (on the subject of reconstructing temperatures), “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

These are two of the most often-repeated examples, Mann said, but that’s “taking an innocent discussion between scientists out of context.” For example, by “hiding the decline,” Jones was not suggesting withholding data; he was referring specifically to a very well-known subject in the climate science community: A divergence in temperature reconstruction post-1960 between a 1998 Nature study based on tree ring density data by Keith Briffa and other temperature records. Briffa himself, in fact, had recommended not using the post-1960 part of his reconstruction, because it is not yet clear why that divergence occurs.

As for Jones’ use of the word “trick,” Mann noted, the scientific and mathematical community often use the term as a clever way to solve a problem — as in, “trick of the trade,” “the trick to solving the problem.”

What impact the controversy will have on government efforts to mitigate climate change is not yet clear. Some members of Congress have called for a formal investigation. That may never happen — although Mann said he and other scientists involved in the controversy did receive a letter from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) warning them not to delete any emails. “Since I haven’t deleted any anyway, it wasn’t a problem,” he added.

But if Congress does decide to investigate further, he said, “I have every reason to believe that legitimate investigations and inquiries into what is or isn’t indicated by emails will end up finding nothing wrong here other than people speaking openly in emails the way you might expect them to … There’s nothing in any of these e-mails that in any way calls into question the reality of the validity of science behind climate change.”

Carolyn Gramling
Thursday, December 17, 2009 - 14:30

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