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The Real ClimateGate: Getting Over the Nonexistent “Email Scandal” (Part 1)

Over the last few weeks, in the run-up to the official UK release of my new book “A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization” on October 4, I’ve been inundated with angry and often exasperated claims that one of the key crises I address in the book – human-induced climate change – is merely a myth, lacks serious scientific evidence and/or is the sinister result of deliberate “scare-mongering.”

Over the last few weeks, in the run-up to the official UK release of my new book “A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization” on October 4, I’ve been inundated with angry and often exasperated claims that one of the key crises I address in the book – human-induced climate change – is merely a myth, lacks serious scientific evidence and/or is the sinister result of deliberate “scare-mongering.”

My experience is that public opinion is now seriously confused about the science of climate change and that increasingly people either feel they fall into an agnostic camp or categorize themselves as wholesale “skeptics.” Recent polls of American public opinion in August found that as much as 45 percent of people believe that global warming “is caused by long-term planetary trends,” while only 40 percent are convinced that “human activity is the main contributor.” In the UK, the number of people who believe climate change is “definitely” a reality dropped by a massive 30 percent over the preceding year, from 44 to 31 percent.

There’s no doubt that this has been a direct result of a series of scandalous stories which received worldwide press coverage, starting with the leaked emails from the climate science unit at the University of East Anglia and finishing with a whole range of claims attempting to discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark “Fourth Assessment Report” published in early 2007, which confirmed a 90 percent certainty that current global warming was due to human-induced fossil fuel emissions.

One of the purposes of writing my book was precisely to explore the so-called “skeptic-alarmist” debates – across a whole range of global crises, not just climate change – to get at the truth of the matter. The sheer repetitive nature of the misconceptions has led me to decide to deal with them systematically here.

One of the earliest and loudest self-styled skeptics of anthropogenic global warming is Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking minority member of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In late 2007, Inhofe released a list of over 400 “prominent scientists” who “disputed man-made global warming claims.” By 2009, Inhofe had expanded his list to just under 700 people. The Inhofe list has been regularly cited by climate skeptics as evidence that there is no scientific consensus on climate change and that most scientists actually challenge the idea that global warming is human induced.

I discuss Inhofe’s fraudulent list at some length in the book, but it suffices here to note that a thorough study of the curiously ever-expanding Inhofe list was completed in summer 2009 by the Center for Inquiry in the US. Among other things, the study found that fewer than 10 percent of the people on Inhofe’s list could be identified as climate scientists, that a further 4 percent actually favored the IPCC consensus on anthropogenic global warming and that 80 percent of the list had no peer-reviewed publications related to climate science.

The Inhofe list was widely publicized by the media – even though, as of the end of 2009, Senator Inhofe has received at least a million dollars in campaign contributions from individuals and companies linked to the US oil and gas industry. This should not come as a surprise.

In the period from January 2009 to June 2010, the world’s top 35 companies and trade associations linked to fossil fuels, mining and electric utility companies invested more than $500 million “in lobbying and campaign contributions … to defeat clean energy legislation,” successfully convincing enough US senators to oppose energy reforms. The lobbyists included the usual “special interest” players: ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, BP, Koch Industries and Shell. This is nothing new. Oil tycoons at Koch gave a total of $50 million to climate skeptic front groups from 1998 to 2007. ExxonMobil gave $16 million to similar groups in around the same period to support their activities and have been exposed again this July, giving $1 million this year to “organisations that campaign against controls on greenhouse gas emissions” – including several groups which led attacks on climate scientists at the University of East Anglia. These are all simply isolated cases that are part of a wider ongoing campaign by the fossil fuel industries to promulgate disinformation and confusion about climate change, so as to consolidate their own control over the global political economy.

It is not a surprise then that Inhofe himself was among the first to jump on the 2009 climate email “scandal” bandwagon when thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit from a period of more than ten years were obtained by hackers. One of the emails most cited by skeptics, by the head of the unit, Professor Phil Jones, reads: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

Inhofe’s press blog commented that the email “appears to show several scientists eager to present a particular viewpoint – that anthropogenic emissions are largely responsible for global warming – even when the data showed something different.”

But the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), analyzing this and other leaked emails, explained the language and scientific context in detail:

Jones is talking about how scientists compare temperature data from thermometers with temperature data derived from tree rings. Comparing that data allows scientists to derive past temperature data for several centuries before accurate thermometer measurements were available. The global average surface temperature since 1880 is based on thermometer and satellite temperature measurements …

In some parts of the world, tree rings are a good substitute for temperature record. Trees form a ring of new growth every growing season. Generally, warmer temperatures produce thicker tree rings, while colder temperatures produce thinner ones. Other factors, such as precipitation, soil properties and the tree’s age also can affect tree ring growth.

The “trick,” which was used in a paper published in 1998 in the science journal Nature, is to combine the older tree ring data with thermometer data. Combining the two data sets can be difficult and scientists are always interested in new ways to make temperature records more accurate.

Tree rings are a largely consistent source of data for the past 2,000 years. But since the 1960s, scientists have noticed there are a handful of tree species in certain areas that appear to indicate temperatures that are warmer or colder than we actually know they are from direct thermometer measurement at weather stations.

“Hiding the decline” in this email refers to omitting data from some Siberian trees after 1960. This omission was openly discussed in the latest climate science update in 2007 from the IPCC, so it is not “hidden” at all.

Why Siberian trees? In the Yamal region of Siberia, there is a small set of trees with rings that are thinner than expected after 1960 when compared with actual thermometer measurements there. Scientists are still trying to figure out why these trees are outliers. Some analyses have left out the data from these trees after 1960 and have used thermometer temperatures instead. Techniques like this help scientists reconstruct past climate temperature records based on the best available data.”

Another email from scientist Kevin Trenberth laments, “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment,” describing this as a “travesty” due to the fact that “Our observing system is inadequate.”

UCS points out that he is talking about short-term internal climate variability, in particular the year 2008 “which was cooler than scientists expected, but still among the 10 warmest years on record.”

Yet another email by Jones, construed by skeptics as evidence of scientists manipulating peer review to squeeze out legitimate climate dissenters, objects to a paper on solar variability in the climate published in Climate Research and calls for scientists to boycott the journal until it effects a change in editorship. Yet as UCS clarifies:

“Half of the editorial board of Climate Research resigned in protest against what they felt was a failure of the peer review process. The paper, which argued that current warming was unexceptional, was disputed by scientists whose work was cited in the paper. Many subsequent publications set the record straight, which demonstrates how the peer review process over time tends to correct such lapses. Scientists later discovered that the paper was funded by the American Petroleum Institute.”

Thus, UCS rightly concluded that whoever stole the emails “could only produce a handful of messages that, when taken out of context, might seem suspicious to people who are not familiar with the intimate details of climate science.”

The idea that these emails constitute evidence of a “scientific conspiracy” to engineer evidence to support a fraudulent theory of man-made global warming is, in this context, preposterous.

No wonder then that three separate independent inquiries into the whole University of East Anglia email fiasco have unequivocally and thoroughly cleared the climate scientists of any wrong doing or deception, vindicated the integrity of the scientific methods and evidence they used and reinstated them back into their jobs. The parliamentary science and technology select committee, a university-commissioned independent inquiry by Lord Oxburgh (a former chair of that committee) and finally a comprehensive six-month independent review chaired by Sir Muir Russell, all concluded that the so-called “scandal” was a nonentity and confirmed the “rigour and honesty” of the scientists involved. Pretty much the most they criticized the scientists for being “unhelpful and defensive” in communication with people requesting information.

About the only people who insisted on questioning these findings as part of a “whitewash” were Lord Nigel Lawson and friends from the fossil fuel industry-connected Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). Lawson himself chairs and holds shares in the Central European Trust, whose clients include oil and gas lobby giants like BP Amaco, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group and Texaco. Of course, the fact that the GWPF shares offices with the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, which in turn shares employees from BP, is nothing more than a coincidence.

So, please, dear skeptics, stop regurgitating dead “news,” which we now know to be false.