Climategate: Scientists Innocent - Again

Michael D. Lemonick

by Michael D. Lemonick

One of the earliest recurring jokes on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) was a line delivered on the “Weekend Update” segment during the show’s first season. “Generalissimo Francisco Franco,” actor Chevy Chase would intone every week, “is still dead”. (Different versions of that bit continued to be used after Chase left the show in 1976).

With all due homage to SNL, the authors of the infamous “Climategate” emails are still innocent of scientific wrongdoing. That’s the verdict of the latest investigation into the matter—the fifth and most comprehensive so far. This one was led by Sir Muir Russell, a British civil servant commissioned by the University of East Anglia (UEA) to take an independent look at the behavior of researchers at its Climatic Research Unit (CRU), whose emails were posted on the Internet on the eve of the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen last fall.

The skeptics claimed that these private emails between climate scientists revealed all sorts of horrors, including efforts to prevent colleagues who didn’t toe the party line on climate change from having their work published; attempts to destroy emails in order to evade freedom-of-information requests; and admissions that data had been deliberately manipulated to exaggerate the increase in global temperatures.

Like the other inquiries preceding it, this one — formally known as The Independent Climate Change E-mails Review — found those allegations to be baseless.

Here are a few salient quotes from the new report (using the original British spelling):

“On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt…”

“…. we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.”

“… we conclude that it is not uncommon for strongly opposed and robustly expressed positions to be taken up in heavily contested areas of science. We take the view that such behaviour does not in general threaten the integrity of peer review or publication.”

The commission didn’t let the CRU and its scientists off the hook entirely. It found that:

 “there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.”

“…there was unhelpfulness in responding to requests and evidence that e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them. University senior management should have accepted more responsibility for implementing the required processes for FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]… compliance”

But overall the simple verdict can be summarized thusly: the science remains sound, the scientists’ integrity remains unquestioned, but they should have been more rigorous about following procedure. Which Phil Jones, who was temporarily suspended from his job as the head of CRU when the scandal broke, will undoubtedly do now that he’s been reinstated.

Need I bother to say that the skeptics are not satisfied? You can see a few of the disgruntled responses at ClimateAudit, where the emails were first published, at Roger Pielke, Jr.’s blog, and at Watts Up With That?

RealClimate, equally predictably, is pleased — although it does acknowledge (backhandedly) that the CRU folks could have handled things better, particularly regarding climate skeptics’ requests for original data underlying CRU’s climate studies:

“While it is not relevant to the legislation, nor to what can be released, the obvious bad faith of many of the requesters indicates that actual information about the functioning of public bodies is not the primary goal in making these requests. However, it would be a terrible mistake for scientists to retreat from the public discussion on climate science because of these attempts at intimidation.”

It would take forever to aggregate all the commentary, but the Knight Science Journalism Tracker does a nice job of putting the reactions into perspective.

One of my favorite takes on the whole thing comes from Bryan Walsh on Time’s Ecocentric blog, who points out that facts alone won’t settle this matter (FYI, I also blog on Ecocentric):

We like to think we're perfectly rational beings, capable of weighing the evidence dispassionately and coming to the correct conclusion. We're not.

Which is a key reason why Climategate isn’t going away, and won’t go away even if five more commissions weigh in, or 50 more. For those with a deep suspicion of mainstream climate science, there will always be something rotten going on. But it may at least recede into the background for now.