Climategate’s final fizzle

By Gareth Renowden 08/07/2010

Phil Jones and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit have been exonerated (again). The final instalment in the trilogy of reports into the stolen emails affair, the Independent Climate Change Email Review chaired by Sir Muir Russell (pdf), finds that “their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt” and could find no “evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments“. The report does suggest that “there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA“, which is pretty much in line with earlier findings.

As usual, the Guardian is providing exemplary coverage, and their live blog of the day includes reactions from some of the key players. Here’s Phil Jones, who has just been given his job back:

I am, of course, extremely relieved that this review has now been completed. We have maintained all along that our science is honest and sound and this has been vindicated now by three different independent external bodies.

Mike Mann:

It is my hope that we can now put this bogus, manufactured scandal behind us, and move on to a more constructive conversation about climate change. It seems particularly ironic that climate change deniers continue to harp over their now discredited claims regarding decade-old emails while we’re experiencing almost daily reminders of the reality of global warming and climate change.

Slim chance of that, it would seem. Mark Morano’s Climate Depot has dubbed it the “Shameful Sham Climategate report”, Steve McIntyre is flooding his blog with attempts to paint the report as fatally flawed, and Benny Peiser, director of Lord Lawson’s secretly-funded Global Warming Policy Foundation is promising to set up an enquiry into the enquiries. No prizes for guessing the conclusion of that Climategate blackwash…

Oxford physicist Myles Allen’s comment is worth highlighting:

What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these “revelations” might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate. Yet the only error in the actual data used for climate change detection to have emerged from this whole affair amounted to a few hundredths of a degree in the estimated global temperature of a couple of years in the late 1870s.

Amen to that. Plenty more to read at the Guardian page and much more reaction to come, no doubt, but it’s worth noting George Monbiot apologising for calling for Jones’ resignation, and RealClimate welcoming the report’s findings.

Below the fold: the report’s key findings and recommendations:

From the executive summary:

1.3 Findings

13. Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

14. In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.

15. But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.

1.3.1 Land Station Temperatures

16. On the allegation of withholding temperature data, we find that CRU was not in a position to withhold access to such data or tamper with it. We demonstrated that any independent researcher can download station data directly from primary sources and undertake their own temperature trend analysis.

17. On the allegation of biased station selection and analysis, we find no evidence of bias. Our work indicates that analysis of global land temperature trends is robust to a range of station selections and to the use of adjusted or unadjusted data. The level of agreement between independent analyses is such that it is highly unlikely that CRU could have acted improperly to reach a predetermined outcome. Such action would have required collusion with multiple scientists in various independent organisations which we consider highly improbable.

18. On the allegation of withholding station identifiers we find that CRU should have made available an unambiguous list of the stations used in each of the versions of the Climatic Research Unit Land Temperature Record (CRUTEM) at the time of publication. We find that CRU‟s responses to reasonable requests for information were unhelpful and defensive.

19. The overall implication of the allegations was to cast doubt on the extent to which CRU‟s work in this area could be trusted and should be relied upon and we find no evidence to support that implication.

1.3.2 Temperature Reconstructions from Tree Ring Analysis

20. The central implication of the allegations here is that in carrying out their work, both in the choices they made of data and the way in which it was handled, CRU scientists intended to bias the scientific conclusions towards a specific result and to set aside inconvenient evidence. More specifically, it was implied in the allegations that this should reduce the confidence ascribed to the conclusions in Chapter 6 of the IPCC 4th Report, Working Group 1 (WG1).

21. We do not find that the way that data derived from tree rings is described and presented in IPCC AR4 and shown in its Figure 6.10 is misleading. In particular, on the question of the composition of temperature reconstructions, we found no evidence of exclusion of other published temperature reconstructions that would show a very different picture. The general discussion of sources of uncertainty in the text is extensive, including reference to divergence. In this respect it represented a significant advance on the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR).

22. On the allegation that the phenomenon of ’divergence’ may not have been properly taken into account when expressing the uncertainty associated with reconstructions, we are satisfied that it is not hidden and that the subject is openly and extensively discussed in the literature, including CRU papers.

23. On the allegation that the references in a specific e-mail to a „trick‟ and to „hide the decline‟ in respect of a 1999 WMO report figure show evidence of intent to paint a misleading picture, we find that, given its subsequent iconic significance (not least the use of a similar figure in the IPCC Third Assessment Report), the figure supplied for the WMO Report was misleading. We do not find that it is misleading to curtail reconstructions at some point per se, or to splice data, but we believe that both of these procedures should have been made plain — ideally in the figure but certainly clearly described in either the caption or the text.

24. On the allegations in relation to withholding data, in particular concerning the small sample size of the tree ring data from the Yamal peninsula, CRU did not withhold the underlying raw data (having correctly directed the single request to the owners). But it is evidently true that access to the raw data was not simple until it was archived in 2009 and that this delay can rightly be criticized on general principles. In the interests of transparency, we believe that CRU should have ensured that the data they did not own, but on which their publications relied, was archived in a more timely way.

1.3.3 Peer Review and Editorial Policy

25. On the allegations that there was subversion of the peer review or editorial process we find no evidence to substantiate this in the three instances examined in detail. On the basis of the independent work we commissioned (see Appendix 5) on the nature of peer review, we conclude that it is not uncommon for strongly opposed and robustly expressed positions to be taken up in heavily contested areas of science. We take the view that such behaviour does not in general threaten the integrity of peer review or publication.

1.3.4 Misuse of IPCC Process

26. On the allegations that in two specific cases there had been a misuse by CRU scientists of the IPCC process, in presenting AR4 to the public and policy makers, we find that the allegations cannot be upheld. In addition to taking evidence from them and checking the relevant records of the IPCC process, we have consulted the relevant IPCC review Editors. Both the CRU scientists were part of large groups of scientists taking joint responsibility for the relevant IPCC Working Group texts, and were not in a position to determine individually the final wording and content.

1.3.5 Compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR)

27. On the allegation that CRU does not appear to have acted in a way consistent with the spirit and intent of the FoIA or EIR, we find that there was unhelpfulness in responding to requests and evidence that e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them. University senior management should have accepted more responsibility for implementing the required processes for FoIA and EIR compliance.

1.3.6 Other Findings on Governance

28. Given the significance of the work of CRU, UEA management failed to recognise in their risk management the potential for damage to the University‟s reputation fuelled by the controversy over data access.

1.4 Recommendations

29. Our main recommendations for UEA are as follows:
Risk management processes should be directed to ensuring top management engagement in areas which have the potential to impact the reputation of the university. Compliance with FoIA/EIR is the responsibility of UEA faculty leadership and ultimately the Vice-Chancellor. Where there is an organisation and documented system in place to handle information requests, this needs to be owned, supported and reinforced by University leadership.

CRU should make available sufficient information, concurrent with any publications, to enable others to replicate their results.

1.5 Broader Issues

30. Our work in conducting the Review has led us to identify a number of issues relevant not only to the climate science debate but also possibly more widely, on which we wish to comment briefly.

31. The nature of scientific challenge. We note that much of the challenge to CRU‘s work has not always followed the conventional scientific method of checking and seeking to falsify conclusions or offering alternative hypotheses for peer review and publication. We believe this is necessary if science is to move on, and we hope that all those involved on all sides of the climate science debate will adopt this approach.

32. Handling Uncertainty — where policy meets science. Climate science is an area that exemplifies the importance of ensuring that policy makers —
particularly Governments and their advisers, Non-Governmental Organisations and other lobbyists — understand the limits on what scientists can say and with what degree of confidence. Statistical and other techniques for explaining uncertainty have developed greatly in recent years, and it is essential that they are properly deployed. But equally important is the need for alternative viewpoints to be recognized in policy presentations, with a robust assessment of their validity, and for the challenges to be rooted in science rather than rhetoric.

33. Peer review – what it can/cannot deliver. We believe that peer review is an essential part of the process of judging scientific work, but it should not be over- rated as a guarantee of the validity of individual pieces of research, and the significance of challenge to individual publication decisions should be not exaggerated.

34. Openness and FoIA. We support the spirit of openness enshrined in the FoIA and the EIR. It is unfortunate that this was not embraced by UEA, and we make recommendations about that. A well thought through publication scheme would remove much potential for disruption by the submission of multiple requests for information. But at the level of public policy there is need for further thinking about the competing arguments for the timing of full disclosure of research data and associated computer codes etc, as against considerations of confidentiality during the conduct of research. There is much scope for unintended consequences that could hamper research: US experience is instructive. We recommend that the ICO should initiate a debate on these wider issues.

35. Handling the blogosphere and non traditional scientific dialogue. One of the most obvious features of the climate change debate is the influence of the blogosphere. This provides an opportunity for unmoderated comment to stand alongside peer reviewed publications; for presentations or lectures at learned conferences to be challenged without inhibition; and for highly personalized critiques of individuals and their work to be promulgated without hindrance. This is a fact of life, and it would be foolish to challenge its existence. The Review team would simply urge all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand. That said, a key issue is how scientists should be supported to explain their position, and how a public space can be created where these debates can be conducted on appropriate terms, where what is and is not uncertain can be recognised.

36. Openness and Reputation. An important feature of the blogosphere is the extent to which it demands openness and access to data. A failure to recognise this and to act appropriately, can lead to immense reputational damage by feeding allegations of cover up. Being part of a like minded group may provide no defence. Like it or not, this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.

37. Role of Research Sponsors. One of the issues facing the Review was the release of data. At various points in the report we have commented on the formal requirements for this. We consider that it would make for clarity for researchers if funders were to be completely clear upfront in their requirements for the release of data (as well as its archiving, curation etc).

38. The IPCC. We welcome the IPCC‘s decision to review its processes, and can only stress the importance of capturing the range of viewpoints and reflecting appropriately the statistical uncertainties surrounding the data it assesses. Our conclusions do not make a judgement on the work of IPCC, though we acknowledge the importance of its advice to policy makers.

There’s much to work through in the detail of the report, but I think the points of real interest, well worthy of further consideration, are the “broader issues” the report raises. As far as Climategate itself is concerned, the only real point of interest left is discovering who was behind the theft of the emails, and that investigation seems to be grinding along very slowly indeed.