Climategate: the missing context

The Muir Russell report into the “climategate” email affair has its good parts (the seven points on page 154 make certain prominent CRU critics and their “free the data” campaign look — how shall I put it — less than competent, more than disingenuous), but it also exemplifies a key failing of all the investigations that have exonerated Phil Jones and his team. It makes no attempt to examine the real context for the theft of the emails and their use as a pre-Copenhagen propaganda tool. All three UK investigations have looked at the accusations being levelled at Phil Jones et al (where al is climate science in general), but have done so within the framing of the issue established in the days following the publication of the stolen mails.

Here’s an egregious example of how that framing operates.


Andy Revkin, writing on his Dot Earth blog:

The press, including me, was excoriated for devoting too much ink (and electrons) to the disclosed files in the first place. Some coverage was indeed far too focused on the sense of conflict, which is not surprising given that — as my screenwriter friends always say — conflict is story.

But what such critics forget is that many of the e-mail messages enabled the allegations that were then propounded by folks like Anthony Watts and amplified by professional anti-climate-policy campaigners like Marc Morano.

In other words, because a few scientists used strong language in emails they fully expected to remain private, they somehow enabled the attacks! Astonishing. What enabled the attacks was the theft of the emails, not what they contained — as the subsequent investigations have shown. Revkin does go on to provide some context, but relegates it to a few links and platitudes. The reality confronting climate scientists was much more brutal, as one submission (pdf) to the Muir Russell investigation (by Ray Bradley, Malcolm Hughes, Michael Mann, Michael Oppenheimer, Ben Santer, Gavin Schmidt, Stephen Schneider, Kevin Trenberth and Tom Wigley) demonstrates:

…if one’s research findings tend to support human-caused climate change – means to live and work in an environment of constant accusations of fraud, calls for investigations (or for criminal prosecutions), demands for access to every draft, every intermediate calculation, and every email exchanged with colleagues, daily hate mail and threats, and attempts to pressure the institutions that employ us and fund our research. Through experience, we have learned that there is no review of climate scientists’ work that isn’t deemed a “whitewash” by climate change contrarians; there is no casual remark that can’t be seized upon, blown out of proportion and distorted; and there is no person whose character can’t be assassinated, no matter how careful and honest their research.

Last week the Guardian looked at some of that hate mail. Leo Hickman quotes Stephen Schneider, one of the signatories to that submission:

Schneider said the FBI had taken an interest earlier this year when his name appeared on a “death list” on a neo-Nazi website alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry. But, to date, no action has been taken.

“The effect on me has been tremendous,” said Schneider. “Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting rightwingers. What do I do? Learn to shoot a Magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket? I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”

Did Schneider enable those attacks, simply by being a working climate scientist? Try applying that logic in a different context. Do women enable rapists just by being women? That idea is offensive in the extreme, as is the failure of the media in general to report this context to “climategate”. Even worse is the complacency of the people who promote the framing. Here’s McIntyre fanboy Andrew “Bishop Hill” Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion, drawing attention to the Schneider (et al) submission:

They need Sir Muir to protect them from harassment, they need Sir Muir to defend the “consensus” and they want Sir Muir to write off some of the evidence completely as not being in good faith. Oh yes, and does Sir Muir know they were harassed?

Give me strength.

If Montford were receiving emails that suggested he gargle with razor blades, he might need that strength. Instead he implies the scientists are crying wolf. Forgive me for being unimpressed. And I’m putting that mildly…

The Muir Russell report explores none of this context, beyond a few anodyne statements about debate becoming “highly polarised”:

As a result, the work conducted by CRU became the focus of intense scrutiny and challenge with multiple demands from both fellow scientists and laymen for background information and data. (Introduction, 2.1.5, p19)

That’s more than bending over backwards to avoid judgement, it amounts to a travesty of reality. The people who ran the climategate campaign — the US think tanks, right-wing talking heads and the sceptic echo chamber on the internet — were not trying to further any scientific debate, they were intent on flinging as much mud as possible, to make the loudest possible noise before Copenhagen. They revelled in their success. Morgan Goodwin at DeSmogBlog provides what even one of the key climategate propagators, Steven Mosher, considers an accurate timeline of events, well worth reading in full. But there’s one key coincidence to consider.

The hackers obtained access to a server that hosted a backup copy of the CRU’s entire email database. When Muir Russell’s computer forensic specialist attempted to check the files (under strict police rules), he found that there was 7.95 GB of data and that it would take too long to do the sort of analysis originally envisaged — specifically, to examine the totality of the unit’s email correspondence to see if there were any other examples of “bad behaviour” to be uncovered. Here’s what Professor Peter Sommer had to say (pdf):

I strongly suspect that any high level analysis I can conduct within a reasonable time would produce an unmanageable quantity of material. Any further analysis would have to be conducted by those familiar with the material and they would have to learn how to use the analysis programme. There is the further practical problem, familiar to me from various legal instructions, that email traffic is often highly informal and allusive, with the consequence that any investigator has to relate large numbers of emails to other types of evidence of particular events.

The hackers however were familiar enough with the material to be able to trawl through the whole database (apparently on a computer with its clock set to east coast US time) and extract a sequence of mails (0.3% of the total) that fitted well with the narrative long established at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog. Declines being hidden, tree rings counted upside down, tricks being deployed. And when the mails were released, the hackers made sure that they were seen first by the people best able to appreciate them — all of them, especially Mosher, intimately familiar with the species of nits being picked at McIntyre’s blog. As Goodwin’s article establishes, the main attack lines were established within days of that first release, and then played for all they were worth by the loudest voices in the inactivist choir — Morano, Beck, Watts and the rest.

In all this — and in the Muir Russell report’s generous interpretation of those harassing the CRU for information — McIntyre is often portrayed as a “citizen scientist” auditing the contentious work of climate scientists. But McIntyre is far from being an objective and disinterested seeker after truth. Canadian blogger Deep Climate has shown just how far back McIntyre’s links to the PR campaign to derail action on climate change go, and just how deeply involved he has been with the key players in Canada and the US. It’s fair to say that McIntyre’s obsession with hockey sticks enabled the attack on Phil Jones and the CRU, and that people intimately familiar with the arguments he’s been making were clearly involved at every step.

The rest of the development of the campaign to derail action in Copenhagen and the USA is familiar enough territory — the finding of a few errors in IPCC reports, most blown up out of all proportion by the world’s media following the maxim Andy Revkin outlined: the story is the conflict, not the facts. With the jury now very much in on climategate, Amazongate and all the others, will there be a wave of retractions and apologies in newspapers and on TV, or — preferably — some in-depth reporting of the background to the affair? Last week, Media Matters for America and 12 “clean energy and progressive organizations” wrote to the editorial boards of top US newspapers:

Every newspaper, magazine, and television show that reported on these bogus scandals owes it to its audience to set the record straight with the same forcefulness and frequency that it reported the original, disproven charges. Failure to publicly correct the record undermines the very heart of journalism — to report the truth.

That’s all very true, and perhaps some newspapers and journalists will respond in an appropriate manner, but what’s really needed is some genuine investigative journalism, a commitment by a major media organisation with the resources required to dig up the real climategate story and tell it to the world.

Someone hacked the CRU server. Someone selected the emails for release. Somebody probably paid for that expertise, and the public needs to know who they were. Who has decided that their personal or business interests override the rest of the world’s? We know who delivered the noise-making that followed — the usual Scaife and Koch-funded suspects — and they too deserve their day in the harsh light of public opprobrium. After all, if they want to sling mud, they should be prepared for some of it to bounce back. Who will enable that, I wonder?

26 thoughts on “Climategate: the missing context”

  1. There is more in the Peter Sommer report that attracts attention: specifically the very high level of security this material (i.e., the non-stolen CRU emails) is under. This meshes well with the Norfolk Constabulary’s bringing in Britain’s top terrorist hunters.

    What I suspect has happened and is the leading theory in the investigation, is that this was an ordered and paid-for job executed by international organized crime, quite possibly the Russian mafia, which are known to be specialized in this kind of thing and operate it like a cottage industry. Corporations get hacked, their sensitive information taken, and sold back to them — or to their competitors — for good money. Most companies targeted this way are very quiet about it, typically paying up without even bringing in the police.

    The CRU hack is just a variant on that business model, where the paying party may have been some think tank, apparently well resourced.

    The UK has a not unimportant defence and nuclear industry with significant industrial secrets, which may be the reason for the security upgrade.

    There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that the operatives are unlikely to be apprehended, being safely in Russia where government and Mafia are cozy together. The good news is that there must be a money and paper trail, as always with a bespoke job… and with the new anti-terrorist legislation, investigating those is a lot easier than it has been. That must be our hope that the truth will come out.

    I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.

  2. You keep using the term “exonerated” in relation to the outcome of the investigation when it did no such thing. Exonerated implies that the people involved were completely without fault in their behaviour.

    While the underlying Science has been found to be sound, (I had no real doubt that it would be), the members of the CRU were told that their behaviour in dealing with criticism and requests for information was not what should have been expected of them and they need to change this in the future. This is far from being exonerated.

    I don’t think it is helpful for the debate for you to spin this the way you are doing. It justs looks like you support arrogant know all scientists rather than accepting that mistakes were made and need to be rectified if the Climate Scientists want to successfully deal with the PR battle.

  3. *Very* good post, thanks.

    I do think “Do women enable rapists just by being women?” is unfair to Revkin. “Do women enable rapists by provocatively sashaying about in public?” is more apt. 🙁

  4. mustakissa: Thanks for the input. Yes, the paper trail’s the thing. As might be loose tongues amongst those who take credit for a successful operation.

    Gosman: You’re playing in a different frame — the one set for you by Morano et al. Step outside that zone, and things look very different. By calling scientists “arrogant know alls” you’re stepping off down a very slippery slope…

    Steve: Revkin deserves what he gets. I think my formulation is better. The image of Schneider sashaying anywhere is not one I want to ponder over breakfast… 😉

  5. By continuing to perpetuate the idea that the Scientists involved have been ‘exonerated’ I’d suggest it is you who are stepping off down a very slippery slope.

    The report might not have used the term “arrogant know alls” in relation to their behaviour but that was the underlying point conveyed over how they handled requests for information and general criticism of their studies.

    They have been told to smarten up their approaches. You seems to be suggesting that there is nothing wrong and it was all a beat up by ‘hostile’ forces. This is not going to win much friends among the wider population.

  6. #5 Gosman, are you straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel? There is very little wrong with what the scientists did compared with the very great wrongs that the forces of organised denial are perpetrating with no commissioned enquiries into their practices.

  7. So Gosman what do you think is an appropriate punishment for the CRU team?

    Also how do you think this punishment will improve the study of the climate?

    P.S. I prefer arrogant know it alls (i.e. know what they are talking about) to arrogant know nothings (i.e. those that seem to make up a large part of the denialosphere).

  8. Really Brian??? If that is the case then I am in good company as the following article from The Economist shows

    This article pretty much restates what my position on this topic has been throughout this messy business. If you disagree with it then make your counter argument but don’t dismiss it out of hand just because you feel it is invalid. It is that sort of attitude from the Climate scientists that I, (and also The Economist), have issue with.

    As for an appropriate punishment, I leave that up to the individual institutions although I would like to see a cast iron guarrantee that such behaviour will not occur again or if it did then the guilty parties would be asked to resign. What I would also like to see is a little more humilty from people who should know better.

  9. This from Gosman’s link was particularly appropriate:

    “It showed that the data needed to reconstruct CRU’s temperature records were widely available.”

    Yeah, the deniers were just too dumb to know how. NASA GISS’s data has been freely available for some time now, and they haven’t managed a reconstruction of that either.

  10. #8 Gosman, I don’t find the Economist article objectionable. My point, which you have evaded, is that the failings at CRU are relatively minor and to my mind not unjustified by the pressure the scientists were put under in relation to freedom of information. Obviously there are lessons to be learned. But your indignation is out of proportion – unless I hear from you a round condemnation of the persistent, groundless and reckless attacks on the science and the scientists by the forces of denialism.

  11. Gosman #5 & #8: Reflect on the outrageous allegations that were made on the basis of the stolen emails, and which a compliant press were happy to report. Then consider that the worst any of the reports has found is that the CRU could have handled a blatant harrassment by multiple FOIA requests rather better. Nothing hidden. Read p154 of Muir Russell… In other words, the whole thing was a beat-up, something that one notable NZ journalist got completely wrong… Being an honourable sort of chap, I’m sure he’ll be rushing to publish an apology…

  12. Bryan # 10. As we both agree that the level of Science performed by many members of the anti-AGW crowd leaves a lot to be desired I prefer to focus my attention on the Science that most agree should be the benchmark in this area. I will leave you and Gareth, amongst others, to shoot down and find holes in those arguments.

    Gareth # 11 You can bang on all you want about the stolen e-mails, that is a matter for the Police investigation, but that doesn’t mean the issues raised by an analysis of the content of the e-mails shouldn’t be acknowledged. The release of the e-mails prompted the various reports that have been made on the topic which wouldn’t have happened if your views were commonplace.

    Why can’t you face the fact that the members of the CRU have not been exonerated for their behaviour as you state? Yes their underlying Science has been held to be valid but they have been told to shape up and change the way they approach this topic in terms of openess and dealing with critics.

    If it was much ado about nothing as many are claiming why did a respected journal like The Economist choose the subject as one of their main stories this week and raised the various criticism that I am also making?

  13. This is interesting from the NYT – as an Editorial

    Perhaps now we can put the manufactured controversy known as Climategate behind us and turn to the task of actually doing something about global warming…

    Climate skeptics pounced on [the e-mails] as evidence of a conspiracy to manipulate research to support predetermined ideas about global warming.

    The panel found no such conspiracy. It complained mildly about one poorly explained temperature chart discussed in the e-mail, but otherwise found no reason to dispute the scientists’ “rigor and honesty.” …

    Another (no less overblown) climate change controversy may also be receding from view. This one involves an incorrect assertion in the United Nations’ 3,000-page report on climate change in 2007 that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. The U.N. acknowledged the error and promised to tighten its review procedures. Even so, this and one or two other trivial mistakes were presented by some as further proof that scientists cannot be trusted and that warming is a hoax. …

    Given the trajectory the scientists say we are on, one must hope that the academy’s report, and Wednesday’s debunking of Climategate, will receive as much circulation as the original, diversionary controversies. [emphases all mine]

    I wholeheartedly agree!

  14. bill # 13

    That is a fair comment in relation to the attacks on the underlying science, (although as The Economist pointed out none of the reviews really delved into this in any great detail).

    It would be good to see the people acknowledge that the Science is not suspect purely on the basis of the bad behaviour of a few climate scientists in relation to openess and how they dealt with criticism.

    It would also be good to see people acknowledge that Climate Change Scientists have to improve their performance and not try and keep a closed shop mentality that they know best.

  15. Gosman #12: Re the Economist, I agree with Stoat.

    This section, in particular, is badly wrong:

    Yet the science of climate change has seemed to be derailed by climategate and the discovery of some errors in IPCC reports, even the gravest of which come far short of undermining its conclusions. Part of the explanation is no doubt a noxious campaign against the credibility of environmental science in general, and climate science in particular; the internet has allowed the doubt thus manufactured to go viral. But the problem also stems from the failings of climate scientists themselves, and the institutions they work in.

    They have too often mistaken real doubts for scurrilous attacks, and relied on mutual reinforcement rather than open debate, on authority rather than argument.

    The “science of climate change” has not been derailed, that chugs along quite nicely, thank you very much. Public perceptions may have changed as a result of the media beat-up bought and paid for by the usual suspects. The “noxious campaign” comment is on the money, but the stuff about open debate is way off the mark. Any “failings” in this area have in the main been manufactured. Read p154 yet?

  16. If you wish to continue to put your head in the sand over this issue Gareth that is your right however you cannot claim that the criticism of the members of the CRU and Climate scientists in general is the sole preserve of a shadowy cabal of cranks and charletans with any justification.

    The Economist is not know for hold a denialist position on the topic and they can pick up that there have been flaws identified with Climate Science. I don’t believe they ever stated that climate science has been derailed. They do mention that it seemed to have been. It is all about perception here not reality, something you fail to understand is important when it comes to winning the public policy debate.

    Climate Science has been found wanting in a key area of the PR war and people involved need to change their mindset if it is to recover the wider publics confidence.

  17. I read Stoats critique of The Economist article and found it wanting to say the least. The fact that he felt the need to raise an attack of The Economist’s credibility around an issue with how they put together their cover picture was especially poor form. It made no difference to their position on climate change story. Like Gareth he seems to have missed the point that the issue is wider than the science behind AGW and involves the battle to win the public policy debate and engage with the wider public.

  18. Gosman, re The Economist: I don’t believe they ever stated that climate science has been derailed.

    The Economist: Yet the science of climate change has seemed to be derailed by climategate…

    I suppose you’ll claim “seemed” as a get out of jail free card. But it won’t work.

    You are of course correct that the issue is “wider than the science” and “involves the battle to win the public policy debate”. What climategate demonstrates, and you seem keen to ignore, is that the side that wants to do nothing or as little as possible has chosen to fight that battle by means illegal, dishonest and distasteful. Accept that simple fact, and I’ll debate scientific “openness” with you.

  19. James Annan’s empty blog’s ‘Monbiot Exonerated‘ is priceless!

    I’m an admirer of Monbiot’s, but he really did rush to judgement, and seem to be attempting to buy credibility by eagerly denouncing the UEA here, in a ‘look how “balanced” I am’ manner.

    Now, one of my golden rules in politics is ‘don’t try to buy credibility at the expense of your allies’. Doing so backfired on him badly, I’d say.

    And this passage is very telling in determining why he may have done it –

    Despite my iconoclastic, anti-corporate instincts, I now spend much of my time defending the scientific establishment from attacks by the kind of rabble-rousers with whom I usually associate. My heart rebels against this project: I would rather be pelting scientists with eggs than trying to understand their datasets. But my beliefs oblige me to try to make sense of the science and to explain its implications. [Emphasis mine]

    And so he reverted to pelting ‘The Establishment’ with eggs. This despite the inherent absurdity of it; how could Jones, Mann and the UAE ever be seen as any kind of sinister Establishment when compared to the real money, power and influence of Exxon and Heartland?

    One might theorise, perhaps, about being in a kind of eternal rebellion against his aristocratic Tory upbringing… Psychobabble speculation aside, I really don’t think this was his finest moment, and I wonder how he’d react to ‘only 105’ FoI claims lodged against him by, say, Christopher Booker?…

  20. Hi Gosman

    I think you erred when you said “there have been flaws identified with Climate Science”. Having read the reports into CRU, I think it is very clear that there was nothing wrong with their science. Which, considering the issue of AGW, is by far the most important point.

    As for the climate science losing the “PR war”, I think this is putting unnecessary blame on the scientists. Being a successful scientist depends almost solely on one thing: publishing high quality papers. Funding bodies have little regard for outreach or time spent on PR so little time can be spent on it. Contrast that to the skeptic campaign, which is almost all PR.

    Should CRU have shared better? I reports think so and I agree and hope lessons have been learned. But even the skeptics’ claim that essentially: “they won’t give me their data, so I can’t check their results” wasn’t correct. True, they weren’t great at sharing but, as the Muir Russell team found out, replicating their results (far more important scientifically) was dead easy:

    “The computer code required to read and analyse the instrumental temperature data is straightforward to write based upon the published literature.… For the trial analysis of the ReviewTeam, the code was written in less than two days and produced results similar to other independent analyses. No information was required from CRU to do this.”

  21. The larger issue has of course become Freedom of Information (FOI). It is actually sad to see how many people especially in the news business do not appreciate the importance of FOI (the different takes in the BBC’s own FOI and climate blogs are very telling).

  22. Maurizio Morabito:

    Why is it so important to you that climate scientists to obey the technical letter of a law, when you have no problem with climate ‘skeptics’ who go around breaking laws — by hacking into servers, for example?

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