Climategate: the missing context

By Gareth Renowden 11/07/2010

The Muir Russell report into the “climategate” email affair has its good parts (the seven points on page 154 make certain prominent CRU critics and their “free the data” campaign look — how shall I put it — less than competent, more than disingenuous), but it also exemplifies a key failing of all the investigations that have exonerated Phil Jones and his team. It makes no attempt to examine the real context for the theft of the emails and their use as a pre-Copenhagen propaganda tool. All three UK investigations have looked at the accusations being levelled at Phil Jones et al (where al is climate science in general), but have done so within the framing of the issue established in the days following the publication of the stolen mails.

Here’s an egregious example of how that framing operates.

Andy Revkin, writing on his Dot Earth blog:

The press, including me, was excoriated for devoting too much ink (and electrons) to the disclosed files in the first place. Some coverage was indeed far too focused on the sense of conflict, which is not surprising given that – as my screenwriter friends always say – conflict is story.

But what such critics forget is that many of the e-mail messages enabled the allegations that were then propounded by folks like Anthony Watts and amplified by professional anti-climate-policy campaigners like Marc Morano.

In other words, because a few scientists used strong language in emails they fully expected to remain private, they somehow enabled the attacks! Astonishing. What enabled the attacks was the theft of the emails, not what they contained — as the subsequent investigations have shown. Revkin does go on to provide some context, but relegates it to a few links and platitudes. The reality confronting climate scientists was much more brutal, as one submission (pdf) to the Muir Russell investigation (by Ray Bradley, Malcolm Hughes, Michael Mann, Michael Oppenheimer, Ben Santer, Gavin Schmidt, Stephen Schneider, Kevin Trenberth and Tom Wigley) demonstrates:

…if one’s research findings tend to support human-caused climate change — means to live and work in an environment of constant accusations of fraud, calls for investigations (or for criminal prosecutions), demands for access to every draft, every intermediate calculation, and every email exchanged with colleagues, daily hate mail and threats, and attempts to pressure the institutions that employ us and fund our research. Through experience, we have learned that there is no review of climate scientists’ work that isn’t deemed a ’whitewash’ by climate change contrarians; there is no casual remark that can’t be seized upon, blown out of proportion and distorted; and there is no person whose character can’t be assassinated, no matter how careful and honest their research.

Last week the Guardian looked at some of that hate mail. Leo Hickman quotes Stephen Schneider, one of the signatories to that submission:

Schneider said the FBI had taken an interest earlier this year when his name appeared on a “death list” on a neo-Nazi website alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry. But, to date, no action has been taken.

“The effect on me has been tremendous,” said Schneider. “Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting rightwingers. What do I do? Learn to shoot a Magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket? I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”

Did Schneider enable those attacks, simply by being a working climate scientist? Try applying that logic in a different context. Do women enable rapists just by being women? That idea is offensive in the extreme, as is the failure of the media in general to report this context to “climategate”. Even worse is the complacency of the people who promote the framing. Here’s McIntyre fanboy Andrew “Bishop Hill” Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion, drawing attention to the Schneider (et al) submission:

They need Sir Muir to protect them from harassment, they need Sir Muir to defend the “consensus” and they want Sir Muir to write off some of the evidence completely as not being in good faith. Oh yes, and does Sir Muir know they were harassed?

Give me strength.

If Montford were receiving emails that suggested he gargle with razor blades, he might need that strength. Instead he implies the scientists are crying wolf. Forgive me for being unimpressed. And I’m putting that mildly…

The Muir Russell report explores none of this context, beyond a few anodyne statements about debate becoming “highly polarised”:

As a result, the work conducted by CRU became the focus of intense scrutiny and challenge with multiple demands from both fellow scientists and laymen for background information and data. (Introduction, 2.1.5, p19)

That’s more than bending over backwards to avoid judgement, it amounts to a travesty of reality. The people who ran the climategate campaign — the US think tanks, right-wing talking heads and the sceptic echo chamber on the internet — were not trying to further any scientific debate, they were intent on flinging as much mud as possible, to make the loudest possible noise before Copenhagen. They revelled in their success. Morgan Goodwin at DeSmogBlog provides what even one of the key climategate propagators, Steven Mosher, considers an accurate timeline of events, well worth reading in full. But there’s one key coincidence to consider.

The hackers obtained access to a server that hosted a backup copy of the CRU’s entire email database. When Muir Russell’s computer forensic specialist attempted to check the files (under strict police rules), he found that there was 7.95 GB of data and that it would take too long to do the sort of analysis originally envisaged — specifically, to examine the totality of the unit’s email correspondence to see if there were any other examples of “bad behaviour” to be uncovered. Here’s what Professor Peter Sommer had to say (pdf):

I strongly suspect that any high level analysis I can conduct within a reasonable time would produce an unmanageable quantity of material. Any further analysis would have to be conducted by those familiar with the material and they would have to learn how to use the analysis programme. There is the further practical problem, familiar to me from various legal instructions, that email traffic is often highly informal and allusive, with the consequence that any investigator has to relate large numbers of emails to other types of evidence of particular events.

The hackers however were familiar enough with the material to be able to trawl through the whole database (apparently on a computer with its clock set to east coast US time) and extract a sequence of mails (0.3% of the total) that fitted well with the narrative long established at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog. Declines being hidden, tree rings counted upside down, tricks being deployed. And when the mails were released, the hackers made sure that they were seen first by the people best able to appreciate them — all of them, especially Mosher, intimately familiar with the species of nits being picked at McIntyre’s blog. As Goodwin’s article establishes, the main attack lines were established within days of that first release, and then played for all they were worth by the loudest voices in the inactivist choir — Morano, Beck, Watts and the rest.

In all this — and in the Muir Russell report’s generous interpretation of those harassing the CRU for information — McIntyre is often portrayed as a “citizen scientist” auditing the contentious work of climate scientists. But McIntyre is far from being an objective and disinterested seeker after truth. Canadian blogger Deep Climate has shown just how far back McIntyre’s links to the PR campaign to derail action on climate change go, and just how deeply involved he has been with the key players in Canada and the US. It’s fair to say that McIntyre’s obsession with hockey sticks enabled the attack on Phil Jones and the CRU, and that people intimately familiar with the arguments he’s been making were clearly involved at every step.

The rest of the development of the campaign to derail action in Copenhagen and the USA is familiar enough territory — the finding of a few errors in IPCC reports, most blown up out of all proportion by the world’s media following the maxim Andy Revkin outlined: the story is the conflict, not the facts. With the jury now very much in on climategate, Amazongate and all the others, will there be a wave of retractions and apologies in newspapers and on TV, or — preferably — some in-depth reporting of the background to the affair? Last week, Media Matters for America and 12 “clean energy and progressive organizations” wrote to the editorial boards of top US newspapers:

Every newspaper, magazine, and television show that reported on these bogus scandals owes it to its audience to set the record straight with the same forcefulness and frequency that it reported the original, disproven charges. Failure to publicly correct the record undermines the very heart of journalism — to report the truth.

That’s all very true, and perhaps some newspapers and journalists will respond in an appropriate manner, but what’s really needed is some genuine investigative journalism, a commitment by a major media organisation with the resources required to dig up the real climategate story and tell it to the world.

Someone hacked the CRU server. Someone selected the emails for release. Somebody probably paid for that expertise, and the public needs to know who they were. Who has decided that their personal or business interests override the rest of the world’s? We know who delivered the noise-making that followed — the usual Scaife and Koch-funded suspects — and they too deserve their day in the harsh light of public opprobrium. After all, if they want to sling mud, they should be prepared for some of it to bounce back. Who will enable that, I wonder?