The Reality Behind the Stolen “Climategate” Emails
Even though it continues to be blown out of proportion, “climategate”—the saga of the stolen emails—just keeps coming up, primarily by folks who are pushing for us to ignore the issue of climate change. Recall that a large number of stored emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit and released to the public just prior to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen last fall. The “climategate” label attached to the ensuing controversy insinuated some crime lurked in the smoke of accusations (and deflected attention from the crime of emails being stolen in the first place!).
Although the significance of the emails for climate science has been sorted out, there are still plenty of misinformed folks out there touting the emails as evidence that the science of climate change is somehow under fire. The reality is the opposite. The smokescreen being used to confuse policy-makers and the public alike is fiction, pure and simple.
As a scientist whose emails were among those stolen, I know firsthand how they were spun in ways that were either dishonest, a product of scientific ignorance, or both. It was discouraging for me to have my emails taken out of context, and even worse to see colleagues attacked—scientists whom I know have worked long, hard hours over years to help figure out the truth about climate change.
But more objectively, what have the scientific community—and multiple official investigations—said about the emails? Shortly after the story broke, the scientific community was quick to highlight that the contents of the emails did little to challenge the reality of climate change or the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For example:
“The content of the stolen emails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming” Union of Concerned Scientists Open Letter to Congress, Dec. 4, 2009
“no individual scientist in the IPCC assessment process is in a position to change the conclusions, or to exclude relevant peer-reviewed papers and scientific work from an IPCC Assessment Report.” IPCC Working Group 1, Dec. 4., 2009
“Stolen e-mails have revealed no scientific conspiracy, but do highlight ways in which climate researchers could be better supported in the face of public scrutiny.” Nature Editorial, Dec. 3, 2009
“Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true—which is not yet clearly the case—the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.” Statement by the American Meteorological Society, Nov. 25, 2009; note that none of the charges of improper behavior did turn out to be true – see below.
Not surprisingly, these early assessments turned out to be accurate; furthermore it became clear—after several official investigations—that there had been no improper behavior on the part of the scientists whose emails had been stolen. Official investigations of the stolen emails were carried out both in the U.K. and the U.S. (see Mann, Science Assessment Panel, House of Commons), culminating with the “Muir Russell Report” in July, 2010 which stated that (emphasis theirs):
Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.
In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.
To be fair, the investigations did highlight ways the scientific community could do their job better, but the BIG point is that the emails evidenced no wrongdoing and or misconduct on the part of the scientists. Furthermore, the investigations made it clear that the soundness of climate change science was not diminished. The evidence is still clear that the globe is warming, and that humans are causing the bulk of that warming.
The results are conclusive: the science is good. Yet skeptics continue trying to milk the emails for evidence of controversy that simply isn’t there. At least it makes it easy to identify the biased and/or uninformed.