Bri­tish re­view panel clears ‘Cli­mate­gate’ sci­en­tists but crit­i­cizes their lack of open­ness

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Gillis

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.’

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