Debunking ClimateGate (Pt. 3): Data & E-mail Deletion + FOIA Requests


Thumbnail photos: Photos: J.J. at the English language Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons; Robert A. Rohde/Wikimedia Commons


In my previous two posts on the ClimateGate scandal, I refuted the claims that the Climatic Research Unit scientists had falsified data, subverted the peer-review process, and suppressed research that did not support global warming. In this post, I'll examine the claims that the ClimateGate scientists have deleted or hidden key climate data, deleted incriminating e-mails, and refused to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests—perhaps even violating the law in the process.

We're going to start with the claims about data deletion. As we read on Conservapedia, the self-described "Trustworthy Encyclopedia," 


"Climate science was troubled after news reports of the Climategate scandal went public . . . The trustworthiness of the scientific community's global warming data pool was called into question. On November 29 . . . it was reported that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the United Kingdom confessed to throwing out most of the raw temperature data on which the theory of global warming is founded."


And the political analyst Brit Hume said the following on Fox News:


"'Now it has come out that the original raw data used to create these models has been destroyed or otherwise disposed of. The response of the alarmists to these revelations has been . . . that the destruction of all that raw data was done for space reasons. There's a one-word answer to all of that: Please.'"


Let's start out by investigating why these scientists got rid of the data in question instead of just assuming the worst as a default position—an approach which is the lifeblood of the ClimateGate scandal. As we read on the CRU's website,


"Data storage availability in the 1980s meant that we were not able to keep the multiple sources for some sites, only the station series after adjustment for homogeneity issues. We, therefore, do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (i.e. quality controlled and homogenized) data."


So notice what they appear to be saying here: It's only the raw data for some sites that they no longer possess. They weren't able to keep this data not because they had sinister intentions, but because they didn't have sufficient data-storage capabilities during the 1980s. This seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation to me; 1 terabyte hard-drives weren't exactly standard-issue three decades ago.

Contrast this mundane, yet sensible, explanation with what Brit Hume says on Fox News: she doesn't say why she thinks they deleted the data, but she implies some sort of heinous motive when she basically says: "I'm not buyin' your cover story." She also uses the phrase "destruction of . . . data," which allows for—and perhaps even encourages—the interpretation that this was done to hide something that they didn't want the public to see. 

Also notice that Conservapedia presents it as if the CRU deleted the data right around the start of the ClimateGate e-mail release. With this timeline of events in our head, we might imagine that they deleted the data because they were trying to hide something, with this deletion being pressured by the ClimateGate e-mail dump; but the CRU statement makes clear that the data deletion actually took place during the 1980s, so the only way that this could have been pressured by the ClimateGate e-mail dump would be if somebody on their staff had the capacity to travel back in time.

And the very source that Conservapedia uses to support their assertion about the throwing out of this temperature data contains a crucial caveat that Conservapedia curiously omitted from its article on the subject. As we read on,


"The discarded data isn’t lost permanently, since archives exist in other locations, notably servers at the Global Historical Climatology Network. Yet CRU's actions make it more challenging for other scientists to cross-check the facts."


Fox does argue that the "CRU's actions make it more challenging for other scientists to cross-check the facts", but they simply make this claim and don't explain how this is the case considering that the data is available elsewhere. But let's assume that this is true: Fine, it's now more difficult for scientists to cross-check the facts; unless these remaining servers are placed atop slippery, treacherous mountain peaks, or deep within booby-trapped lairs of doom, if scientists are interested enough in doing so, they can presumably still access this information, so I see no reason for outrage here, and I see no reason to suspect dastardly motives.

When Conservapedia says that the CRU "threw out this temperature data," the implication is that the data is lost forever. But as their own chosen source for this claim makes clear, this is plainly untrue, because this temperature data is still accessible at other locations. 

Conservapedia somehow manages to be misleading and inaccurate for additional reasons on this point. They write that the CRU threw out "most of the raw temperature data on which the theory of global warming is founded." The way they frame the issue here is just comical. Notice that they use the word "theory" here, similar to how a creationist will describe evolution as "just a theory", in an attempt to minimize and belittle what is, in reality, a scientific conclusion well-supported by mountains of evidence.

And the idea that the conclusions about global warming are predominantly or entirely dependent upon this one particular organization's data set is laughable. They seem not to understand that there are multiple, independent lines of evidence provided by multiple, independent organizations which make clear that global warming is occurring. These lines of evidence include sea level rise, the melting of glaciers and polar ice, altered migration patterns and geographical distributions of organisms, as well as land, sea-surface, and atmospheric temperature records. And there's also a straightforward causal explanation for why it is that temperatures would rise as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions—something else that we have abundant records of.

Plus it's not like the CRU has a monopoly on all worldwide temperature data. By my count, the World Meteorological Organization currently recognizes 60 centennial observing stations across the world, and they're also considering 26 candidate stations. And according to The National Center for Atmospheric Research


"The three most highly cited combined land temperature and SST data sets are NOAA's MLOST, NASA's GISTEMP, and  the UK's HadCRUT."


So Conservapedia's assertion that the "theory" of global warming is founded upon this one organization's data set is a silly joke. It is a statement of such colossal ignorance and inaccuracy that it deserves some kind of award.


Another set of related issues are Freedom of Information requests and data availability. This is an area where wrongdoing arguably did take place, but at the same time, it's an area where things are nowhere near as clear-cut as ClimateGaters make them out to be. Quotes from the relevant e-mails are provided to us in an article on where we read the following:


"In another exchange, Professor Jones tells Professor Mann: 'If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone' and 'We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind.' . . . In another e-mail, Professor Jones told Professor Mann and Professor Malcolm Hughes at the University of Arizona and Raymond S. 'Ray' Bradley at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: 'I'm getting hassled by a couple of people to release the CRU station temperature data. Don’t any of you three tell anybody that the UK has a Freedom of Information Act!'

Professor Jones complains to another academic: . . . 'IPCC is an international organization, so is above any national FOI. Even if UEA holds anything about IPCC, we are not obliged to pass it on.'" 


Let's begin by taking a step back and asking ourselves: Where were these FOIA requests originating from? As we read in a 2009 article


"Between 24 July and 29 July of this year, CRU received 58 freedom-of-information-act requests from [Steve] McIntyre and people affiliated with Climate Audit, requesting access to the data or information about their use. In the past month, the UK Met Office, which receives a cleaned-up version of the raw data from CRU, has received ten requests of its own."


And in case you're unaware of who he is, as we read on


"Stephen McIntyre is the primary author of the blog Climate Audit, noted for its many articles skeptical of climate change. He is a prominent critic of scientific studies of temperature records of the past 1000 years that show increasing global temperatures." 


So these were largely a bunch of climate-change deniers pestering them for their data. As the scientist Ben Santer put it


"Santer said in a telephone interview that he and others are inundated by frivolous requests from skeptics that are designed to 'tie-up government-funded scientists.'"


I think it's questionable that these are actually the intentions of the people making the requests; but these, in his view, are the results of so many requests. 

Phil Willis, the chair of a committee that investigated the ClimateGate scandal, said the following:


"'. . . we do believe that Prof Jones has in many ways been scapegoated as a result of what really was a frustration on his part that people were asking for information purely to undermine his research.'"


Lord Oxburgh, who led another investigation into the ClimateGate scandal, went so far as to say that:


"Oxburgh said sustained requests to CRU scientists for data and computer codes from McIntyre and others could have amounted to a campaign of harassment . . ."


Now to be fair, my response to Phil Willis's point would be the following: Why is it wrong to use the raw data to try to undermine their research and prove them wrong? Is this not the essence of independent verification? Maybe these researchers wouldn't like it if access to their data proved them wrong, but holding onto the data because they want to avoid this outcome is flagrantly anti-scientific behavior. The thing is, this is not exactly where Phil Jones was coming from. To be precise, as he wrote in an e-mail, he was concerned about the temperature data being distorted and misused—not merely used to investigate his findings.


"Many of us in the paleo field get requests from skeptics (mainly a guy called Steve McIntyre in Canada) asking us for series. Mike and I are not sending anything, partly because we don't have some of the series he wants, also partly as we've got the data through contacts like you, but mostly because he'll distort and misuse them. Despite this, Mike and I would like to make as many of the series we've used in the RoG plots available from the CRU web page."


Still, even in that case, my response is: So what? Give people the data, let them make their mistakes, and let these mistakes be exposed for the whole world to see. If there's nothing to hide, if there's nothing that can be used as fodder by these climate-change deniers, why not just release release the data and be done with it? 

The thing is, this is not the only reason why the scientists were not releasing the data. At the time that these FOIA  requests were made, these scientists did not believe that they were even at liberty to release this information to the public. As we read on the CRU website,


"Since the early 1980s, some [National Meteorological Services], other organizations and individual scientists have given or sold us . . . additional data for inclusion in the gridded datasets, often on the understanding that the data are only used for academic purposes with the full permission of the NMSs, organizations and scientists and the original station data are not passed onto third parties.

. . . The problem is a generic issue and arises from the need of many NMSs to be or aim to be cost neutral (i.e. sell the data to recoup the costs of making observations and preparing the data).

. . . We receive numerous requests for these station data . . . These data are not ours to provide without the full permission of the relevant NMSs, organizations and scientists. . . . We hope in the future that we may be able to provide these data, jointly with the UK Met Office Hadley Centre, subject to obtaining consent for making them available from the rights holders."


And it was only a small percentage of the CRU's raw data that was subject to these confidentiality agreements. As we read on Wikipedia


"Over 95% of the CRU climate data set had been available to the public for several years before July 2009, when the university received numerous FOI requests for raw data or details of the confidentiality agreements from Stephen McIntyre and readers of his Climate Audit blog."


So it's not like the totality of the CRU's raw data was hidden from the public eye or otherwise made inaccessible to curious individuals or fellow researchers; if I understand it correctly, less than 5% of their data fell into this category. 

I'm wondering what it is that climate change deniers expected to find here? Were they looking for shocking proof that global warming was a hoax or that its severity was exaggerated? Could less than 5% of the temperature data even skew our understanding of the warming trend so dramatically? And if we don't trust these scientists to begin with, why would we trust them to give us accurate data? Why wouldn't we just believe that all of the temperature data has been fabricated, out of whole cloth, to suit their devious inclinations? 

But understand what this means: they weren't providing people with this small portion of their data not because they were trying to hide evidence that global warming is a hoax or that it's being exaggerated; they weren't providing this data because it was subject to confidentiality agreements set up by the organizations that supplied them with it. So basically, the CRU's position was that these particular chunks of data were not theirs to release to the public; indeed, agreeing not to do so was a stipulation of them being provided with the data in the first place. As I noted earlier, this issue is not nearly as simple as climate change deniers make it out to be. 

I should also add that I see no reason why other researchers couldn't also pay for access to this data from the organizations that provide it. Saying that the CRU will not release it to the public is not the same thing as saying that the data is inaccessible. 

And despite the fact that people like Hans von Storch agonize about how


"East Anglia researchers 'violated a fundamental principle of science,' [Hans von Storch] said, by refusing to share data with other researchers." 


the CRU was actively attempting to make all of this data available—before the ClimateGate e-mails had even been released to the public, I might add. As CRU director Phil Jones put it


"'We're trying to make them all available,' says Jones. 'We're consulting with all the meteorological services — about 150 members [of the World Meteorological Organization] — and will ask them if they are happy to release the data.'"


And it doesn't just stop here; its gets even better: all of this data ended up getting released to the public anyway! As we read on Wikipedia


"In its decision released on 23 June 2011, the [Information Commissioner's Office] stated that the data was not easily available, and required the university to release the data covered by the FOIA request. On 27 July 2011 CRU announced that the raw instrumental data not already in the public domain had been released and was available for download, with the exception of Poland which was outside the area covered by the FOIA request. The university remained concerned 'that the forced release of material from a source which has explicitly refused to give permission for release could have some damaging consequences for the UK in international research collaborations.'"


which I think is a very valid concern.

So while we might object to the apparent stonewalling by the CRU scientists that was revealed in the ClimateGate e-mails, consider the following: they did not believe that they were at liberty to release the data that was being requested; presumably, the eventual forced release of this data means that the FOIA requests ultimately superseded and negated these confidentiality agreements, but it was nonetheless the belief of the CRU that these confidentiality agreements were binding and deserved to be honored. This is hardly the most scandalous behavior I've ever seen. 

Another thing to consider is that the data was ultimately released anyway, and nothing nefarious was revealed to have been hidden within this data. If you think about it, it's very ironic: In getting what they wanted, the climate change deniers did not get what they wanted—because presumably they hoped that this data contained some juicy revelations about temperature falsification or something along those lines. So their victory very quickly turned out to be a defeat. It would be like if a robber painstakingly broke into a bank vault only to discover that it contained a steaming pile of dog shit—and nothing else.

I think this also reveals to us that this particular facet of the ClimateGate scandal focuses our attention on the smoke—and not what was revealed once the smoke eventually cleared. Climate change deniers express indignation over the fact that this data was not promptly released in accordance with these FOIA requests; but the data eventually was released, and it revealed nothing incriminating. So insofar as the ClimateGate scandal is supposed to cast doubt upon climate science, this aspect of the scandal adds absolutely nothing to the campaign, because all it demonstrates is that data which was eventually revealed to the public wasn't revealed as promptly and enthusiastically as they would have liked it to have been. This isn't even a critique of climate science; at best, it's a criticism of particular climate scientists who were eventually forced to come around and do what it is that they wanted them to do. But it's a very effete criticism of these scientists, because in their view, they were operating out of a sense of honor towards the confidentiality agreements that they had entered into.

If you just read these cherrypicked quotes from the e-mails and understand absolutely nothing about the context, they might seem quite damning. But if you actually investigate the subject and understand the events that took place, it becomes clear that there is just nothing here. This is an empty sack, the contents of which we were led to believe were astonishing.

Now that I've dealt with the FOIA requests as they relate to the release of data, let's now conclude by examining the deletion of e-mails. This was discussed in a few different ClimateGate e-mails. As we read on


"Professor Jones further urges Professor Mann to join him in deleting e-mail exchanges about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s controversial assessment report: 'Can you delete any e-mails you may have had with Keith re: [the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report]?' 

Professor Jones complains to another academic: 'I did get an e-mail from the FOI person here early yesterday to tell me I shouldn’t be deleting e-mails' . . . We only have e-mails from Professor Jones' institution, and, with his obvious approach to delete files; we have no idea what damaging information has been lost."


A few points need to be made here. First, as far as I can tell from my research, nowhere in the e-mails does Phil Jones appear to specify why he wants people to delete these e-mails. This is important to point out, because if you're a ClimateGater who reads discussions about deleting e-mails, you very well might assume that they're doing so for sinister reasons, but this isn't necessarily the case. 

The deletion of these e-mails was almost certainly triggered by a Freedom of Information request for these e-mails. As we read on Wikipedia


"David Holland, an electrical engineer from Northampton, made a 2008 FOI request for all emails to and from Keith Briffa about the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report"


"Days after receiving the request, Jones . . . asked Mann: 'Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith [Briffa] re AR4?'"


So while we know what it is that triggered the deletions, we don't what, within the e-mails, they didn't want revealed to the public, or revealed to the people making the FOIA requests. It could have been any number of things. Perhaps the e-mails contained shocking evidence of data manipulation which exaggerated the severity of global warming? This is a possible explanation—but other explanations exist. 

For example, perhaps the e-mails simply contained embarrassing information? What if they made some obscene jokes among themselves that they didn't want the public to see? Or perhaps it was something more extreme: What if they were talking about cheating on their wives or soliciting prostitutes? Or what if they were planning on sucking each other's cocks after the next scientific conference? 

Or maybe, in a quixotic twist, they were talking about criminality—but it was completely unrelated to global warming or their work at the CRU, like if their e-mails discussed robbing a gas station or something? Or what if they were talking about hooking each other up with some recreational drugs? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that somebody got drugs through a coworker (not speaking from experience, of course...I've...I've just heard that this is how people get drugs sometimes. I saw it on, uh, television once. Nonetheless, like I was saying...) The point is that a number of explanations exist, and leaping to conclusions and assuming the worst when we simply do not know the explanation is not a reasonable thing to do.

These deletions also could have been related to the previously discussed confidentiality agreements; perhaps they talked about and cited this data at some point, and they were attempting to delete these e-mails so as to honor these confidentiality agreements? Or maybe there wasn't even anything to hide but they were just opposed, on principle, to the idea of people peeking into their private e-mail conversations?

Lots of options are on the table, but like I said, we just don't know why they deleted them—or at least I was unable to find a clear explanation during my research. In fact, Michael Mann denies that he even deleted any e-mails, but even if e-mails were deleted, there's little that we can conclude from this fact alone.

As John Lott wrote for Fox News,


". . . we have no idea what damaging information has been lost."


That's right: we have no idea—so let's not pretend like we do.

Now let me be absolutely clear about something at this point: the deletion of e-mails, if they actually followed through with, very well could have been illegal—regardless of why they deleted the e-mails and what the contents of these e-mails were, whether they simply contained a few obscene jokes or evidence of massive fraud. 

As we read on Wikipedia,


"In January 2010 news reports highlighted that FOI legislation made it an offence to intentionally act to prevent the disclosure of requested information, but the statute of limitations meant that any prosecution had to be raised within 6 months of the alleged offence."


So these e-mails that we've read from in this video could contain clear evidence of criminality by these scientists. But understand that even if we grant that laws were broken in deleting e-mails or otherwise not sufficiently complying with FOIA requests, this is a completely separate issue from the validity of the CRU's temperature data—and especially from the validity of climate science in general. In other words, criminally not complying with FOIA requests doesn't prove that the data provided by the CRU is somehow fraudulent or invalid, and it especially does not prove that climate science, in general, is untrustworthy. The most that we can say is that these particular scientists might be untrustworthy, and even that seems like a stretch, because, to reiterate, we have no idea why they deleted these e-mails.

So we can grant you, for the sake of argument, that these scientists did break the law in deleting these e-mails or otherwise not complying with FOIA requests, and this says absolutely nothing about whether global warming is occurring or not. 

Before I conclude this series on the ClimateGate e-mails, I should point out that I'm not alone in my viewpoint that the accusations of data falsification or scientific misconduct are not borne out by the facts; at least eight separate committees investigated the ClimateGate allegations and found that they were without merit. For example, as Wikipedia writes


"The report of the independent Science Assessment Panel was published on 14 April 2010 and concluded that the panel had seen 'no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit.'"


As another example, Wikipedia writes that:


"The [Pennsylvania State University] inquiry committee determined on 3 February 2010 that there was no credible evidence Mann suppressed or falsified data, destroyed emails, information and/or data related to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, or misused privileged or confidential information."


And as a final example, we read on Wikipedia that:


"The EPA examined every email and concluded that there was no merit to the claims in the petitions, which 'routinely misunderstood the scientific issues', reached 'faulty scientific conclusions', 'resorted to hyperbole', and 'often cherry-pick language that creates the suggestion or appearance of impropriety, without looking deeper into the issues.' In a statement issued on 29 July 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the petitions were based 'on selectively edited, out-of-context data and a manufactured controversy' and provided 'no evidence to undermine our determination. Excess greenhouse gases are a threat to our health and welfare.'"


I'd be curious to hear the response from the other side. Are all of these independent organizations also in on the conspiracy? Or are they just not as intelligent as the internet-forum conspiracy theorists who cherry-pick quotations and provide imaginative, fact-free interpretations?

As we reach the end of my series on the ClimateGate e-mails, it's important to stress that more is at stake here than just winning some arguments against climate-change deniers on the internet. In fact, the highest levels of the American government have been infected with these unjustified beliefs. For example, as we read in a Scientific American article


"Longstanding contrarians, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R–Okla.), who famously dubbed climate change a 'hoax' in a 2003 speech, has pointed to the stolen e-mails as information that overturns the scientific evidence for global warming and called on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to halt any development of regulation of greenhouse gases pending his investigation into the e-mails."


And as we read in an article on The Hindu:


"Republican congressmen and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have called for either independent investigations, a delay in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases or outright boycotts of the Copenhagen international climate talks. They cited a 'culture of corruption' that the e-mails appeared to show."


So what people believe on this particular subject has real consequences. Considering the current trends in greenhouse gas emissions and the impact this will on worldwide climate and biodiversity, taking immediate, substantial action is essential, and these unjustified beliefs regarding the ClimateGate e-mails are a roadblock to such action.