Explaining ClimateGate: A history of distrust

Asking researchers to delete e-mails after receiving an FOI request is never a good idea. So why did it happen?

Published November 23, 2009 5:40PM (EST)

If there is one thing that the case of the hacked climate-change e-mails proves, it is that scientists are human. And humans do stupid things. Because no matter what the context or motivation, some e-mails should never be written:

Exhibit A:

From: Phil Jones

To: "Michael E. Mann"

Subject: IPCC & FOI

Date: Thu May 29 11:04:11 2008

Mike, Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise. He's not in at the moment -- minor family crisis. Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don't have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise. I see that CA claim they discovered the 1945 problem in the Nature paper!!

Cheers Phil

Prof. Phil Jones

Some context: Phil Jones is the director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, a critically important institution in climate change science. Michael Mann is an American climate researcher perhaps most famous for coming up with the hockey stick graph purporting to show that the globe warmed unprecedentedly rapidly in the last half of the 20th century. IPCC = International Panel on Climate Change. FOI = Freedom of Information. AR4 = Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. CA = Climate Audit, a blog maintained by Steve McIntyre, a leading climate skeptic. Sometime last week, an unknown hacker broke into CRU's computer systems and downloaded hundreds of e-mails and other documents relating to climate change research and posted them on the Internet.

It should go without saying that writing an e-mail that includes Freedom of Information in the subject line and advises other people to delete e-mails is an act of amazing boneheadedness. At the very least, it stinks to high heaven. Of all the hacked e-mails I've been able to review so far, this one strikes me as the most damning, coming, as it does, in the context of others that make it clear that Jones was dead set on resisting Freedom of Information requests.

So why would he do such a thing?

According to a report by Olive Heffernan in Nature magazine this past August, the story starts, more or less, with the publication of the original hockey stick paper in Nature in 1998. From early on, two Canadians, Ross McKittrick and Steve McIntyre, attacked Mann's conclusions and questioned his data. In the political fight over  climate change, their attacks received quite a bit of publicity, particularly from Republican legislators in the U.S. determined to stop any movement toward action on climate change.

From Nature:

McIntyre, who runs the Climate Audit blog, is best known for questioning the validity of the statistical analyses used to create the "hockey stick" graph ...

More recently, McIntyre has turned his attention to criticizing the quality of global temperature data held by institutes such as NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies. Several organizations worldwide collect and report global average temperature data for each month. Of these, a temperature data set held jointly by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre in Exeter, known as HadCRU, extends back the farthest, beginning in 1850.

Since 2002, McIntyre has repeatedly asked Phil Jones, director of CRU, for access to the HadCRU data. Although the data are made available in a processed gridded format that shows the global temperature trend, the raw station data are currently restricted to academics. While Jones has made data available to some academics, he has refused to supply McIntyre with the data. Between 24 July and 29 July of this year, CRU received 58 freedom of information act requests from McIntyre and people affiliated with Climate Audit. In the past month, the UK Met Office, which receives a cleaned-up version of the raw data from CRU, has received ten requests of its own.

Fifty-eight FOI requests in five days!

So why won't CRU comply?

According to Heffernan:

Jones says that he tried to help when he first received data requests from McIntyre back in 2002, but says that he soon became inundated with requests that he could not fulfill, or that he did not have the time to respond to. He says that, in some cases, he simply couldn't hand over entire data sets because of long-standing confidentiality agreements with other nations that restrict their use.

Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist who helps run the RealClimate blog and is closely affiliated with many of the key players in this story, amplified this line of defense in one of his comments responding to the hacked e-mails contretemps here:

Because, as [Jones] has explained frequently, that in order to get the maximum amount of data available they gave assurances and signed memoranda with many national weather services not to distribute raw data that the NWS's would rather sell.

This argument may or not be true -- there appears to be some confusion over whether or not written copies of these confidentiality agreements exist. Insofar as I have been able to tell, the FOI requests were denied, so perhaps there was some legal basis for doing so.

But there's a much more personal and political struggle going on here.

Bluntly put, the climate scientists who have devoted their careers to proving global warming is happening do not believe that Steve McIntyre is a legitimate scientist whose real goal is the advancement of climate change science. They believe his primary goal is to undermine their work by any means necessary, and that any data they give him will be misused, abused and ultimately become political fodder for the conservative forces who are fighting any efforts to do anything about climate change.

You can't put it more clearly than does Thomas Karl, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, in one of the hacked e-mails.

We should be able to conduct our scientific research without constant fear of an "audit" by Steven McIntyre; without having to weigh every word we write in every email we send to our scientific colleagues. In my opinion, Steven McIntyre is the self-appointed Joe McCarthy of climate science. I am unwilling to submit to this McCarthy-style investigation of my scientific research. As you know, I have refused to send McIntyre the "derived" model data he requests, since all of the primary model data necessary to replicate our results are freely available to him. I will continue to refuse such data requests in the future. Nor will I provide McIntyre with computer programs, email correspondence, etc. I feel very strongly about these issues. We should not be coerced by the scientific equivalent of a playground bully. I will be consulting LLNL's Legal Affairs Office in order to determine how the DOE and LLNL should respond to any FOI requests that we receive from McIntyre.

From the perspective of the climate scientists involved, it seems clear that they did not trust McIntyre, did not feel that his FOI requests were legitimate scientific inquiry, and were determined to do whatever possible to resist him.

Does that exculpate them? Absolutely not. Does it explain why Phil Jones thought that private e-mails from climate researchers discussing the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC should be deleted? Nope, not at all. Does it demonstrate that scientific progress, despite supposedly being based on the accumulation of data and the testing of theories, can be a messy, messy business, full of personal intrigue and antipathies? Absolutely yes.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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