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A retrospective of the Climategate retrospectives

Posted on 2 January 2011 by John Cook

It's around that time of the year when everyone looks back over the year that was. Okay, it was actually a few days ago but I'm taking a while to get moving again after the Christmas break (and am still in mourning over Australia losing the Ashes). So for my retrospective, I'm only going as far back as last November. At that time, we reached the 12 month anniversary of 'Climategate', when private emails were stolen from the University of Anglia's server, then the Real Climate server was hacked and the emails uploaded onto their server.

There were a number of Climategate retrospectives. The better retrospectives pointed us back to the scientific evidence - what nature is telling us. After all, that's really what Climategate was about - trying to distract us from the realities being observed now in nature. So here is a retrospective on some of the Climategate retrospectives:

Starting at Skeptical Science (of course), I propose The question that skeptics don't want to ask about 'Climategate' which was 'Has Climategate changed our scientific understanding of global warming?' The answer being, of course, that the evidence for human caused global warming is as solid as ever. In fact, the observations of the climate response to greenhouse warming have only gotten stronger over the last year (which we will see shortly).

That week, James Wight also wrote a series of SkS blog posts addressing specific Climategate issues on temperature data, hiding the decline, peer review, the IPCC and FOI (he's a prolific lad). In December, James diligently adapted his blog posts into rebuttals which have recently been added to our ever growing list of skeptic arguments:

  Skeptic Argument vs What the Science Says
77 "Mike's Nature trick to 'hide the decline'" Phil Jones was quoted out of context, and nothing was hidden.
88 "Peer review process was corrupted" An Independent Review concluded that CRU's actions were normal and didn't threaten the integrity of peer review.
89 "Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were ignored" An independent inquiry found CRU is a small research unit with limited resources and their rigour and honesty are not in doubt.
135 "Skeptics were kept out of the IPCC?" Official records, Editors and emails suggest CRU scientists acted in the spirit if not the letter of IPCC rules.
136 "CRU tampered with temperature data" An independent inquiry went back to primary data sources and were able to replicate CRU's results.

We are sure to see the misinformation concerning Climategate continue to propagate in 2011 (in fact, I predict an increase). Consequently, these rebuttals stand as a resource for those looking to add proper context to the disinformation. Many thanks to James for creating these resources.

Now onto other blogs. A must-read piece from Joe Romm is A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice. Joe points out that Climategate’s biggest impact was probably on the media, continuing their downward trend of focusing on style over substance. To shift the focus back on substance, Joe lists just some of the research published over the last year, observing a greater climate response than expected and predicting worse to come.

Nature Did Not Read the Hacked Emails strikes a similar theme. This is a rich compilation by Scott Mandia of much of the evidence that has continued to build over the last 12 months, along with many vivid graphs (mmm... graphs).

The Real Story of Climategate is a thorough and well written overview of the whole Climategate tale by Kate from ClimateSight. It puts the whole incident in perspective and shines a light on the real and often overlooked story of Climategate: the illegal smear campaign against the scientific community.

In The nothing that was Climategate, Arthur Smith puts some perspective on the tone of the Climategate emails by giving us an entertaining (and somewhat amusing) insider look at some of the comments he encounters in his work for research journals. My favourite is "In the Comment attached one can find how to obtain all Author's results in a single line". Ouch!

The Yale Forum have a fascinating read, A Yale Forum Two-Part Special Feature: Scientists and Journalists on ‘Lessons Learned’ (Pt. 1) and Part 2. This is a compilation of quotes from a number of climate scientists on the lessons learned by climate science from the events of the last 12 months. Some handy insights from the guys at the coal face (hmm, perhaps not the best metaphor).

In Climate Scientists Strike Back, Kate Shepherd writes of an encouraging development (and this theme is echoed in Time Magazine's Getting past "Climategate Syndrome"). Scientists are emerging from their ivory towers and more actively engaging the public and media about the science. One such effort is the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. This is driven by John Abraham, Scott Mandia and Ray Weymann who act as "matchmakers", connecting media and policy makers who have climate questions to the relevant scientific expert. They currently have over 100 climate scientists in their team across many diverse areas of research and in the short time since the CSRRT began, have already been successful in helping get accurate science into a number of mainstream media articles.

Dan Moutal from Irregular Climate devotes an entire podcast to Climategate, giving an excellent audio overview of the whole issue.

Lastly, “Climategate”: The scandal that wasn’t and the scandal that was by Bart Verheggen discusses the real scandal of Climategate and features a cartoon which sums up Climategate more eloquently than I ever could:

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Comments

Comments 1 to 12:

  1. More than anything else, the so-called "climategate" emails proved that climate-scientists can get very angry when journal papers containing freshman C-student errors are used as political weapons against them.
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  2. I dont think the CRU team were blameless in the FOI requests. I think its shades of gray. That being said the in the febrile atmosphere of climate gate I dont think there was a lot of space for nuance. Stuff like 'hide the decline' were in many ways spectacular own goals by the contrairians as they were easily shown up as being overhyped. They polarised the debate and motivated the more vocal sceptics but I strongly think that it made scepticism appear to be hyperbolic and politically motivated, precisely what people accuse mainstream climate science of being to the lay public.

    It was amplified by the surge to the right in the UK and US politically and the cold winters, but in the long run served to make sceptics sound shrill by giving the loudest voices to the least capable of making a scientific case for low climate sensitivity.

    The real damage of climategate was the press seeking to sell a controvesy rather than explain science. Amist one of the three strongest la Ninas for the past 60 years and very low solar activity we are still smaking straight into the 30 year average on the UAH dataset
    http://discover.itsc.uah.edu/amsutemps/
    (as a measure of mid troposphere temps UAH and RSS tend to show a bigger swing through ENSO cycles)

    By the peak of the next el Nino, in all likleyhood any loss of public confidence will have been reveresed as the data continues to pile in. I strongly suspect that pressure on governments from the public, the scientific comunity and increasingly business (who will see that they need to understand how governments will tackle CO2 levels so they can make long term planning decisions) will break in the favour of taking action as the data piles in.

    My personal hunch is that the trend for 2011 will see political comentators and bloggers making it clear they were always luke warmers and never disputed sensitivities of up to 2C (perhaps even 3C). McKintyre has been on this for a while (and he is one of the sharpest of the contrarians).
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  3. Never has so many
    made so much
    about so little.

    The Yooper
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  4. Great cartoon.
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  5. Not only the cartoon, but that title, "Nature did not Read the Hacked Emails" was right on the money.

    But I am surprised so few others have made the connection: the disastrous deluge of disinformation called 'climategate' is a perfect illustration of why Assange and all his puerile supporters are SO wrong when they glibly proclaim "sunshine is good". It is because people will read things out of context that some communications should be kept private. There is NOTHING shady about doing so.
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  6. #2 dorlomin
    "The real damage of climategate was the press seeking to sell a controvesy rather than explain science. Amist one of the three strongest la Ninas for the past 60 years and very low solar activity we are still smaking straight into the 30 year average on the UAH dataset
    http://discover.itsc.uah.edu/amsutemps/
    (as a measure of mid troposphere temps UAH and RSS tend to show a bigger swing through ENSO cycles)"
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Good observation, but I don't share your optimism, given the politicians who are moving into the US House of Representative, and State Capitals with their agenda.

    They, and the multimillion dollar lobbyists feeding them, are going to attack climate science with new plateaus of ruthlessness and public relations campaigns!

    So hang on, if you want to defend honest science it will be a rough ride, especially in Washington DC!
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  7. They, and the multimillion dollar lobbyists feeding them, are going to attack climate science with new plateaus of ruthlessness and public relations campaigns!
    = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
    But you can only run a political campaign against science for so long. After a while it starts to really damage your credibility on other issues. The right wing will make some hay for a year or so yet, but one big arctic melt season or big el Nino and it will be egg on face time.

    IMHO the party managers are not stupid and will likely be seeking position that allows them to get some distance between the mainstream party and the louder, more strident 'its all a fraud' types.

    It they are not then their science (and some of their political) credibility is hostage to the next big global warming story.
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  8. dorlomin,

    Yes, I think we know how this will play out. Sometime in the future a serious weather/ climate disaster will just make it all so obvious. Unfortunately, a series of minor disasters can be easily hidden on the back pages, so it will have to be a major showstopper.

    Like the British Appeasers after 1939, or the American Isolationists after Pearl Harbor, suddenly denialism will disappear. Not that denialists will disappear, especially the political ones. What's the betting many will become more climate-hawkish than the climate hawks? Suddenly they will "always have believed in the science".

    I only hope too much damage has not been done, and that it is not too late, when this comes about.
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  9. After my rant about what a distasteful act this was, I tried to balance that out by also looking at what we could possibly learn from this affair (or what came into clearer focus):

    http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/climategate-lessons-learned/

    - There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do.
    - Values and ideals clash in public climate discussions, and this greatly affects the perception and communication of the science.
    - The animosity towards climate science is even greater and more widespread than we thought it was.
    - There are many other aspects besides science that influence one’s policy preferences.
    - The need for increased transparency and openness of data and code is now widely shared.
    - Citizen science has taken off over the last year.
    - Don’t let your anger or frustration shine through in your communication. It doesn’t go over well (except with people who share your PoV).
    - We should rethink our communication strategy (which one? exactly.) Even when we get more angry because of such events, I think we should try to minimize our venging of anger (note to self: me too). As difficult at it is, we should probably try to be more respectful to those who are critical of the science for whatever reason, even if they don't pay us that respect. A very difficult cookie to swallow, but I think it's the only way to have science regain its deserved credibility. Going full attack mode as some favour will beakfire, as "climategate" has shown.
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  10. Just in case anyone is interested (and sees this !), there was another good BBC programme on today, to do with Climate Change, the difference between what the public may believe and what the science says, and the role of 'Climategate'.

    It was a HORIZON programme called 'Science under attack' and is available on iPlayer until Sunday 30 Jan 11.
    (Don't know if it will work for those outside the UK but hopefully you'll be able to find it on YouTube or something. Definitely worth watching, for what could be the start of the scientific fightback...and for seeing James Delingpole make a fool of himself. As usual)
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  11. The final, final report...or do the so-called skeptics still want more until they have one that says what they want it to say ? Oh, I forgot : they got the one from Montford but that was ignored by all and sundry. Shame.

    The Science and Technology Committee today publishes its follow-up report on the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

    The disclosure of data from the Climatic Research Unit has been a traumatic and challenging experience for all involved and to the wider world of science. Much rests
    on the accuracy and integrity of climate science. This is an area where strong and opposing views are held. It is, however, important to bear in mind the considered view of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, that "the general issues on overall global temperature, on sea level and so on, are all pretty
    unequivocal". While we do have some reservations about the way in which UEA operated, the SAP review and the ICCER set out clear and sensible recommendations. In our view it is time to make the changes and improvements recommended and with greater openness and transparency move on.
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  12. The House of Commons report cited by JMurphy in #11 is the subject of a BBC article, “ClimateGate affair: 'Learn and move on', say MPs” written by Richard Black and posted on Jan 24, 2010.
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