Jul 08, 2010
"You are a fucking douchebag. You pathetic fucking Phony. I hope
there is an earthquake right under your fucking house and swallows you
Does this offend you? If so, you haven't been involved in the
climate wars. This message, one of many sent recently to climate
scientists and now published by the Guardian(1), is almost sweet by comparison to the gallant emails some of us receive every week.
Many of these missives, perhaps revealing more about the senders
than they intend, involve promises to insert implausibly large items of
military hardware into the recipient's anus. At first, years ago, they
alarmed me. After a while, realising that most of the silver-tongued
chevaliers who send them live on the other side of the Atlantic, don't
possess passports and would struggle to place the United Kingdom on a
map, I stopped worrying. But to stay in this game you need, among other
anatomical impossibilities, a tungsten skin.
By reacting like this, those who deny manmade climate change pay the
issue a backhanded compliment. The viciousness of their invective,
often directed at the authors of obscure studies of Siberian tree rings
or oceanic chemistry, bears witness to the importance of climate
science and the political weight its findings must carry.
The latest and thankfully last review of the emails hacked from the
climatic research unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia will do
nothing to dam the tide of filth and fury(2).
The two previous reviews, both of which mostly exonerated the unit,
were immediately identified as part of the ever-widening conspiracy (it
now involves a fair proportion of the world's population). The
vituperation climate scientists must bear helps to explain, if not
excuse, the intemperate comments the emails contain.
Almost all the claims made about these messages are false. Their
contents have been wildly and wilfully misinterpreted, their authors
demonised, their implications inflated. But a handful of allegations do
appear to carry weight. Yesterday, before the Russell review was
published, I wrote down what I believed were the four key charges that
needed to be answered. Here they are, in ascending order of importance.
1. The loss of Chinese weather station documents. A paper written in
1990 by Phil Jones, who later became head of CRU, claimed that almost
all the Chinese stations whose data he was using had stayed put(3).
This claim was used to argue that the rising temperatures in those
places could not have been caused by creeping urbanisation. It later
emerged that most of them had in fact moved, that many of the records
of their locations had been lost and that Jones and his co-author
appear to have been reluctant to admit it(4).
2. The failure to release data and analytical tools. CRU scientists
kept blocking requests from their critics for the data and computer
codes that they used to create their temperature records.
3. Using improper methods to exclude papers from journals or from
reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Some
of the emails show scientists at CRU reviewing papers that clash with
their own findings and apparently rejecting them out of hand. At one
point Phil Jones announced that he would keep two papers out of an IPCC
report "somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer review
4. Frustrating freedom of information (FoI) requests. CRU repeatedly
sought to fend off legitimate requests. In one case Phil Jones asked
another scientist to delete some emails, apparently in breach of the
In another message, Jones recommended that a colleague at CRU should
make a false claim that he had not received certain documents relating
to a review for the IPCC(7).
How did the Russell report handle these issues? Its treatment of the
first one is unsatisfactory. It lays out the allegations, notes that
Jones admitted in an interview this year that the loss of the weather
station records was "not acceptable"(8), then leaves the issue hanging. It offers no findings and no specific conclusions. Not a good start.
The second issue, by contrast, it handles cleverly and conclusively.
Instead of relying on other people's testimony, the review team carried
out its own test: did publicly-available data exist that would allow
people to replicate CRU's temperature results? It found that the raw
data were freely available on three US academic sites. It also found
that competent researchers could write the computer code required to
analyse them in less than two days, without asking CRU. It carried out
its own analysis and produced a graph almost identical to CRU's(9).
Four obvious conclusions follow. First, that all the information
required to test CRU's results was already freely available. Second,
that the stonking fuss its critics made about alleged manipulation of
its data was groundless. Third, that there was nothing special about
the unit's computer codes: the corresponding fuss that climate
scientists made about CRU's intellectual property was also bogus. And
fourth that, by reacting so defensively, the scientists at the unit
kept this fake scandal alive.
On the issue of excluding inconvenient papers, the review is also -
mostly - convincing. It demonstrates the importance of context. A
single email suggests that a journal editor is trying to shut out a
paper whose conclusions he rejects(10).
But read the whole series and it emerges as the final step in a
painfully fair process(11). The review also shows that the IPCC's
selection process was rigorous, that papers weren't improperly excluded
and that Jones didn't act alone to shut them out, and couldn't have.
But the case that might have provided the clearest evidence of unfair
exclusion - Jones's apparent flat rejection of a paper challenging his
findings by the Swedish scientist Lars Kamel(12) - was not investigated.
The Russell review's harshest results concern the FoI issue. Again
the scientists were their own worst enemies: their "unhelpful" and
"overly defensive" response triggered the avalanche of FoI requests
that eventually threatened to smother them. But the report shared the
blame for this "consistent pattern of failing to display the proper
degree of openness" between the research unit and the university(13).
It doesn't comment on the possible illegality of Phil Jones's requests.
Overall it shows, in most cases persuasively, that there is no
evidence of fraud, manipulation or a lack of rigour and honesty on the
part of the CRU scientists. The science is sound; the IPCC has not been
So was I wrong to have called, soon after this story broke, for Jones's resignation?(14)
I think, on balance, that I was. He said some very stupid things. At
times he squelched the scientific principles of transparency and
openness. He might have broken the law. But he was also provoked beyond
endurance. I think, in the light of everything I've now seen and read,
that if I were to write that article again I would conclude that Phil
Jones should hang on - but only just. I hope the last review gives him
2. Muir Russell et al, July 2010. The Independent Climate Change E-mails Review. https://www.cce-review.org/pdf/FINAL%20REPORT.pdf
3. PD Jones et al, 1990. Assessment of Urbanisation effects in Time
Series of Surface Air Temperature Over Land. Nature, Vol. 347,
4. See Fred Pearce, 2010. The Climate Files. Guardian Books.
9. Figure 6.1, page 47, Muir Russell et al, ibid.
11. Page 67, Muir Russell et al, ibid.
13. Page 11, Muir Russell et al, ibid.
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