The Truth Behind the Emails of ClimateGate Parts 1 and 2.

The source of one of the ClimateGate contentious issues: the Northern Hemisphere temperature variation since 1000. (Click for closer view) Image Credit IPCC, 3rd Assessment Report, 2001, Figure 2.20.

What is Climate Gate 2.0? In November 2009, the original Climate Gate, email messages from the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, UK, were illegally obtained and released. The messages contained personal comments which were made public, apparently in an attempt to question the scientific validity of the global warming theory. In November 2011, a further batch of emails were made public, ahead of another important United Nations Climate Summit. Although the scientists involved have not been blameless, far from exposing the science of climate change itself, these public releases have helped to expose the real culprits of the “Climate Gate” affair.

Climate Gate Emails

In the first set of email messages there were many exchanges between scientists which were, let us say, heated. Scientists, like other people, are liable to get deeply involved in their work. During informal email communication, prior to work being submitted for publication, some offensive remarks were propagated between some scientists who accepted the global warming theory, and those who did not. Ordinarily, these issues would not have come to light if it were not for the theft of the email messages from what was meant to be a secure site.

Significant contentious debate in the email messages were attempts to account for uncertainties in the gathered data. The scientists were fully aware that uncertainties of this sort generate doubt, so they discussed smoothing them over so that the discrepancies were less obvious (“hidden”).

As well as the aforementioned personal attacks on climate deniers, the pro-climate-change scientists threatened to delete raw data rather than allow full access to it. This reflected the distrust between the two groups and led the Director of the CRU to resign his position while investigations proceeded.

The material requires careful picking over to find any sort of serious wrongdoing, such as the propagation of a deliberate scientific error. A lot of the correspondence deals with the nuances in the data record. This is what you might call the “bread and butter” of scientific research: exchanging of correspondence to clarify,  for example, the extent to which warming has occurred over the United States as opposed to the globe, and whether the change has occurred in particular months, or just for the year, or a season as a whole.

The Global Surface Temperature Database

Updated Northern Hemisphere temperature anomaly for the last 1800 years: Image from Mann et al. (2008).

There is a wealth of information in the global temperature database, which requires careful scrutiny to tease out the very subtle changes that are occurring in the climate. It was clear from some of the exchanges that some people were being denied access to the raw data, but an institution such as the University of East Anglia (UEA) typically doesn’t have the resources to spend supplying everyone with data on demand.

In some cases, the data suppliers did not want their data to be released. This is not unusual in the scientific community: research grants are dependent on publications and if you have worked towards making a set of observations, you want the right of first publication of those results. Releasing data to anyone who asks may mean that you don’t get to be the first publisher of your own data, which can endanger the financial support of your future research.

Furthermore, in its original form, data may need corrections to allow for instrument error. On the one hand, data should only be released to the public once all errors are identified, on the other hand, there are advantages in releasing data early to responsible archives such as the Climate Research Unit (CRU). This enables scientists to work on preliminary versions of the data, setting up complex analysis procedures and so on. Then, the analysis can be repeated with final versions of databases. With heated debates (no pun intended) concerning climate change, it is unfortunate that climate change sceptics have not always been efficient in revising their ideas in the light of new information, and this likely contributed to the distrust between the two sides.

The IPCC Investigation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) itself followed up the criticisms of scientific wrongdoing, but found none. In its report in August 2010,  it did, however, recommend the strengthening of its procedures.

The main recommendation was that the management structure of the IPCC should be strengthened to be able to cope with the increasing challenges associated with more complex climate change assessments. Also, more effort should be expended to ensure that materials included in its reports have been properly published in the scientific literature. A third recommendation was that the full range of scientific opinion should be reflected in the reports.

Some Scientific Wrongdoing?

One debate after the 2009 release of the emails centered on how to interpret the temperature changes since the year 1000. In the early parts of the record, from 1000 to 1850, only tree ring data and other “proxies” are available. If anything, temperatures derived this way showed a slight drop. But there was much uncertainty in the data obtained.

Once thermometers became available, from 1850 onwards, a more reliable measuring system was available. The tree ring data, however, were included in the analysis, and show a reduction in temperature from the early 1960s. The infamous “hide the decline” email from Phil Jones, the Director of the CRU, referred to the use of real observations on the same graphs as the tree ring data so that the tree ring data are hidden. Further details have clarified that no scientific wrongdoing occurred because of this.

By March 2010, The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee (UK), reported on its investigation into the alleged scientific wrongdoing at CRU. Their conclusion was that the focus on Prof. Jones and CRU was largely misplaced. However, although the committee accepted that the refusal to share raw data and computer codes was common practice, this needs to be changed in view of the massive potential expenditure by governments in combating climate change.

The Damage to Climate Change Theory

Climate change caused by human-released greenhouse gases is an established theory (e.g. IPCC, 2007). The word theory is here used to mean that in this instance, global warming was a hypothesis which has been tested by observations and model simulations. Once a hypothesis is suitably tested, in scientific parlance, it becomes a theory. Subsequent data could, in principle, undermine the theory. In this case, there is no indication that the theory is in need of modification, although it did not help that the IPCC 2007 report contained a few scientific errors. These were promptly corrected and do not affect the overall conclusions of the report.

Nonetheless, the public appear sufficiently disturbed by the trivia of Climate Gate to such an extent that its impacts on public opinion have been significant. One report (Leiserowitz et al., 2011b) indicates that Climate Gate in particular has had an effect on the public by increasing their distrust in the scientific consensus on climate change, although that distrust now appears to be waning (Leiserowitz et al., 2011a). In the USA, less than 50% of the public now believe that humans are responsible for a significant amount of climate change, which contrasts with expert opinion. About 97% of experts believe that humans have significantly affected climate in a survey conducted in 2010 (Sommerville and Hassol, 2011).

Significant climate anomalies in October 2011. Image Credit NOAA

The 2011 Version of Climate Gate

The UN has convened a Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, 28 November through 9 December, 2011, to establish a global legally-binding treaty by 2015. On cue, more “Climate Gate” style emails have been leaked. These seem to have even less substance than the original ones, and indeed, if genuine, may be part of the original emails stolen in 2009, that have been released for maximum effect. Meanwhile, the Berkeley Earth Project has demonstrated, if proof were needed, that the observed increase in global temperature is on an even firmer foooting, 2 years after ClimateGate Part 1. As beautifully communicated to BBC News by Francesca Grifo, Director of the Scientific Integrity Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “These leftover emails should be met with a collective yawn“.


IPCC (2007). Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007). Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Leiserowitz et al. Climate change in the american Mind: Americans’ global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in May 2011. (2011a). Yale Project on climate change communication. New Haven, CT. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Leiserowitz et al. Climategate, public opinion, and the loss of trust. (2011b). American Behavioral Scientist, In press. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Mann, M.E. et al. Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. (2008). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 13252-13257.  doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Sommerville, R.C.J. and S.J. Hassol. Communicating the Science of climate changePhysics Today. October 2011. 48-53. Accessed 25 November, 2011.

See also:

Climate Communication

© Copyright 2011 John Austin, Ph.D., All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. Russell Steven says

    You mentioned

    “(3) As explained in my article, problems arose from including tree ring data, which are not temperatures. It is therefore legitimate to adjust tree ring derived temperatures to match the instrumented temperature records. Recent work from the Berkeley Earth Group using temperatures using thermometers, rather than trees, confirms that the land surface has warmed significantly since 1850.”

    This still means that 1000 year data prior to 1850 is completely unreliable (the data from 1850 to 1950 is not extremely accurate either). So to say that what has been measured with a variety of inaccurate instruments in various changing locations in the past 150 years is an indication of what will happen in the next 1000 years is hogwash. It is a blip on the screen and we don’t know how many blips there were in the previous 20,000 years since the last ice age.

    To believe that in our short lifetimes we can even begin to see a warming trend that we can use to predict beyond our children’s lifetime is absurd and we are arrogant to think the warming we currently see wouldn’t happen without us or that we can do anything to stop it. I do believe that we do need to reduce CO2 and other pollution in our environment because I think there are other health issues we should be concerned with. We can reduce our CO2 output but there is no evidence that it will reverse the current short-termed warming trend that we have seen in the past 100-150 years.

  2. John Austin, Ph.D. says

    (1) You are right. I am not a lawyer, and I cannot be certain that illegal activity has taken place until somebody has been found guilty of an offence. Emails were made public without the consent of the owner (be it the employer of the scientist in question, or the scientist him or herself) and that is serious enough for me.
    (2) The context of deleting data on the UEA site is unclear. They would in any case always be held by the observer producing the data themselves. So this would not be permanent. The emails I saw referred only to deleting emails not deleting the data itself. There was never any risk of deleting actual temperature data.
    (3) As explained in my article, problems arose from including tree ring data, which are not temperatures. It is therefore legitimate to adjust tree ring derived temperatures to match the instrumented temperature records. Recent work from the Berkeley Earth Group using temperatures using thermometers, rather than trees, confirms that the land surface has warmed significantly since 1850.
    (4) The IPCC summarises research from scientists. The scientists are not part of IPCC itself. UK Government investigated its own scientists and found no scientific malpractice. That’s not to say that the UK government were entirely uncritical, as pointed out in my article. The IPCC did come out and criticise itself. This is also explained in my article. Namely, it needs to tighten up some procedures and allow alternative views to be recorded in its reports. To date its reports have sought consensus of the scientific ideas to avoid confusion.
    Why would it criticise itself, yet support the scientists, unless the evidence pointed that way?
    (5) I have indeed read some of the emails in question, but I am uncomfortable about accessing material without the permission of the owner. Correspondence between individuals can easily be taken out of context and misrepresent the views of the individuals.
    (6) I have been researching climate change related issues for about 30 years. I have my area of expertise, but I have also read scientific papers from the other areas of climate change research, and this understanding forms the basis of my articles on and I am sorry if my research experience is not good enough for you.

  3. kevinsmith5 says

    Having followed global warming science closely since it first became an issue in the late 80’s and having followed the release of data from 2009 and 2011 I find your summary and conclusions questionable at best. Even your reference to the original emails having been illegally obtained is not an accurate statement. Investigation by East Anglia itself determined the files were stored on a publicly accessible server for some time and had not been accessed by an breach of computer security other than sloppiness on their part. As for what was shown in the correspondence, both releases show frequent references to suppression of dissent, deliberate deletion of data, and “tweaking” of models to fit a predetermined conclusion. As for you reference to the IPCC’s “investigation”, you find it credible that they investigated themselves for wrong doing and came back with “nope, nothing to see here, move along”? Have you actually read any of the emails in question? The research?


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