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Climategate: anatomy of a public relations disaster

By Fred Pearce - posted Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Lots of people believe in UFOs. It doesn’t make them right. Lots of people don’t believe in man-made climate change. It doesn’t make them right either.

The media blizzard that has descended on climate science since the hacking of hundreds of emails held on the webmail server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, is set to become a case study - in public relations disasters, in the folly of incontinent electronic communication, in the shortcomings of peer review, and, very probably, in “how not to save the world”.

The emails, dating from the mid-1990s to early November this year, first surfaced online on November 20. Within hours they were being described by a columnist in one national British newspaper, the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming,” adding for good measure that “this scandal could well be the greatest in modern science”.


Follow that. Well, the world’s media did.

First let me declare a small interest. Thirteen years ago, I was completing a feature for New Scientist magazine in London about what tree rings were revealing about past climate change. I emailed a draft to Keith Briffa at the CRU, a principal source, to check some facts.

That email turned up last month among the “Climategate” emails. A couple of weeks later a blogspot called Baseball Media Watch splashed it under a headline: “‘Biblical intensity’ in search for sign of man-made global warming - and getting money to prove it - ClimateGate email.” It included a couple of sentences from my draft: “For climatologists, the search for an irrefutable ‘sign’ of anthropogenic warming has assumed an almost Biblical intensity ... The case remains ‘not proven.’” - 1996, from Fred Pearce.

So what? Neither sentence made it into the published version of my feature - an edit that had nothing to do with Briffa, incidentally, nor any form of censorship other than economy with words. But in the fevered imaginings of the editors of Baseball Media Watch, my draft became part of the “smoking gun,” revealing a vast conspiracy involving hundreds, maybe thousands, of scientists trying to persuade us about man-made climate change.

I have read many of the thousands of emails. Not all, but many. So far I have seen precious little evidence in any of them that data has been manipulated in any way contrary to normal scientific procedures. Let’s take the best publicised cases - the jewel in the crown for conspiracy theorists. One email from CRU director Phil Jones refers to “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline”. This has been widely represented to reveal efforts to secretly hide a real decline in temperatures to promote a falsehood about global warming.

Even a cursory reading of the email shows that is not the case. In fact the “trick” - more sensibly described as a graphic device - was used by Michael Mann in a 1998 paper in Nature in which he added aggregated temperature records from instruments to complete a set of temperature data derived from tree rings. The “trick” got around a widely discussed problem that tree ring data after about 1960 do not show warming - probably because of intervening factors like nitrogen pollution or changes in atmospheric humidity. So he extrapolated the record, describing what he was doing in the paper itself. The “hidden” data was the discredited tree ring proxy data.


Now clearly this problem with tree ring data does not give us great grounds for believing older tree ring data (although other proxy data from lake sediments, coral and much else suggest it may be valid). And to the great majority of people not familiar with the problems of reconstructing past temperatures from proxy data, the “trick” may come as a surprise. But it is manifestly not clandestine data manipulation.

Likewise an apparent recent confession by Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., that “we cannot account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can’t” could have been read about in the published literature by Trenberth months before. It is only a scandal if yanked wildly out of context. And there are many more such cases.

But it is also true that there is plenty of evidence of a bunker mentality among many of the scientists, grousing and plotting against the handful of climate sceptics who, as they saw it, were trying to grab “their” data and then trash it on web sites and in op-ed articles that had far greater influence than the journals in which the scientists usually reported their work. Some of the language is ugly, especially discussion of trying to keep sceptics’ material out of scientific journals. That is not healthy, and it is not good for science. But it is rather understandable.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on December 10, 2009.

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About the Author

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also written for Yale e360 on world population trends and green innovation in China.

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