Climate scientists exonerated in 'climategate' but public trust damaged

The leaked 'climategate' e-mails showed lack of transparency, plus some politicking. But while scientists have been largely cleared of wrongdoing, the impact has shaken climate science.

By , Staff writer

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    Sir Muir Russell talks to the media on the review group’s findings at the Royal Institution in London. The inquiry into the scandal at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit found there was no evidence of dishonesty or corruption contained in the more than 1,000 e-mails stolen and posted to the Internet late last year. But Russell did chide the scientists for failing to share their data with critics.
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Most climate scientists back the theory of man-made global warming. But somewhere along the line – as revealed by last year's "climategate" scandal – some key scientists became cocky and defensive.

A six-month investigation into the leaked e-mails that formed the "climategate" scandal has largely exonerated key scientists, including Phil Jones, the former – and now reinstated – director of the University of East Anglia's (UEA) Climate Research Unit (CRU). The CRU's key findings have a major impact on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in turn influences climate policy on a global scale, including pending cap-and-trade carbon offset legislation in the US. Critics charged that the "climategate" e-mails proved that researchers were gaming the science to win public support for the idea that countries need to act to correct global warming.

In his report, British civil servant Sir Muir Russell found that the climategate e-mails don't undermine the basic science behind man-made global warming. Nevertheless, the impact of the leaked e-mails has been to push scientists toward the realization that talking about punching climate skeptics and being coy about releasing data hardly build public trust in their work.

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"What is the future of climate science and climate policy after the final inquiry into the released e-mails from CRU?" wonders Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the UEA, in a statement. "I believe the CRU e-mails have been a game-changer for science – but has done little to alter the policy conundrums raised by climate change."

Insights into an insular world

The e-mails provided insights into what turned out to be an insular world, where one scientist threatened to beat up skeptical colleagues and others seemed to collude against skeptics in the peer review process.

The most damaging e-mail, perhaps, came from Mr. Jones, who wrote in reference to Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann's famous "hockey stick" graph showing increased global warming, " ...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 onward) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

In a report commissioned by UEA, Russell found no fault with the "rigor and honesty" of scientists. But he faulted CRU scientists for not using proper labels on the 1999 graph referenced by Jones. The report concluded the result was misleading, but found it was not deliberate since the research caveats were included in the text next to the graph.

Failure to release requested data was ultimately not an issue, Russell found, because qualified researchers could easily find global warming data in other places. And while several e-mails revealed at least an intent to subvert the peer review process in order to exclude skeptical research, the report found that CRU scientists did not ultimately undermine the IPCC's peer review process.

Scandal fueled public distrust

But the report found that the scientists' failure to address climate change uncertainties may have fueled public "distrust" of global warming, especially of the man-made kind.

"We do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA," the report said.

The report blames the informality of e-mail as well as the echo chamber of Internet blogs as driving forces of "climategate." While public opinion had steadily moved away from belief in man-made global warming before the leaked CRU emails, that trend has only accelerated. A Yale University survey earlier this year found that the percentage of Americans who say global warming is real declined 14 points, to 57 percent, since 2008.

"The damage done to the credibility of the anthropogenic climate change argument will remain, as much for the tone of those notorious e-mails as for their precise details," writes Janet Daley in the Daily Telegraph.

But others said Russell's findings vindicate climate scientists.

“We accept the report’s conclusion that we could and should have been more proactively open, not least because – as this exhaustive report makes abundantly clear – we have nothing to hide,” UAE's vice chancellor, Edward Acton, wrote on the university's website.

Related:

'Climategate': leaked emails push scientists toward transparency

Storm continues to swirl around Climategate, as multiple investigations get under way

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