British review panel clears ‘Climategate’ scientists but criticizes their lack of openness
An independent British panel on Wednesday exonerated the scientists caught up in the controversy known as “Climategate,” saying they acted honestly and that their research was reliable.
But the panel did rebuke the scientists for several aspects of their behavior, especially their reluctance to release computer files supporting their scientific work to critics. And it declared that a chart they produced in 1999 about past climate was misleading.
“We find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt,” said Muir Russell, a retired British civil servant and educator who led the panel. “But we do find that there has
been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness.”
The new report is the last in a series of investigations of leading British and U.S. climate researchers, prompted by the release of a cache of e-mail messages that cast doubt on their conduct and raised fresh public controversy over the science of global warming.
All five investigations into the case have come down largely on the side of the climate researchers, rejecting a slew of criticisms raised by global warming skeptics. Still, mainstream climate science has not emerged from the turmoil unscathed. Some polls suggest
that the recent controversy has eroded public support for action on climate change.
“The e-mails don’t at all change the fundamental tenets of the science,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “But they changed the notion that people could blindly trust one authoritative group, when it turns out they’re just like everybody else.”
The researcher at the center of the flap was Phil Jones, a leading climatologist who had headed the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England. He had stepped down temporarily pending results of the inquiry but was immediately reinstated Wednesday to a job resembling his old one.
The university solicited and paid for the new report, which climate skeptics assailed.
“This is another example of the establishment circling the wagons and defending their position,” said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Climatic Research Unit, often referred to as CRU, has played a leading role in efforts to understand the Earth’s past climate. Embarrassing e-mail messages sent by Jones and other scientists were stolen from a computer at the university in November and posted on the Internet, prompting a slew of accusations.
“On the specific allegations made against the behavior of CRU scientists, we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt,” the new report said.
“We have maintained all along that our science is honest and sound, and this has been vindicated now by three different independent external bodies” in Britain, Jones said.
Last week, the second of two reviews at Pennsylvania State University exonerated Michael Mann, a scientist there who was also a focus of the controversy.
The latest report was not a complete vindication. Echoing the findings of an earlier report by a parliamentary committee in London, the reviewers criticized the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit for not responding properly to demands for backup data and other information under Britain’s public-record laws.
On one of the most serious issues raised by the e-mail messages, the Russell panel did find some cause for com- plaint but did not issue the robust condemnation sought by climate skeptics.
The issue involved a graphic for a 1999 U.N. report, comparing recent temperatures with those of the past. Jones wrote in an e-mail that he had used a trick to hide a problem in the data.
The Russell panel concluded that the data procedure he used was acceptable in principle but should have been described more fully, and his failure to do so had produced a misleading graphic.
The issue involved an effort to reconstruct the climate history of the past several thousand years using indirect indicators, such as the size of tree rings and the growth rate of corals. The researchers — leaders in that type of work — were trying in 1999 to produce a long-term temperature chart that could be used in a U.N. publication.
But they were dogged by a problem: Since about 1960, for mysterious reasons, trees have stopped responding to temperature increases in the same way they apparently did in previous centuries. If plotted on a chart, tree rings from 1960 forward appear to show declining temperatures, which scientists know from thermometer readings isn’t accurate.
Most scientific papers have dealt with this problem by ending their charts in 1960 or by grafting modern thermometer measurements onto the historical reconstructions.
In the 1999 chart, the Climatic Research Unit researchers chose the latter course for one especially significant line on their graph. This technique was what Jones characterized as a trick.
The controversy has included close scrutiny of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body that produces a major review of climate science every few years.
The Russell panel found little reason to question the data that the British scientists had given to the climate panel, or the conclusions of that body. The panel declared in 2007 that the Earth was warming and that human activity was the major reason.
However, small errors in the 2007 report keep coming to light. A review issued this week by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found several — including a case in which the panel overstated the potential impact of global warming on fish catches — but found that none of the errors affected the panel’s fundamental conclusions.
“The idea that these things could be perfect is a fallacy,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at Columbia University.
Christopher Field, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a leader in the U.N. climate change panel, said he foresaw an opportunity “to really do a better job in characterizing what we know and what we don’t know” in the group’s next report, due in 2014.
Another evaluation of the panel’s work is under way, with results due in August.
The new report by an independent British review panel – led by Muir Russell – rebuked some actions by the climate researchers but says their ‘rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.’