Debunking ClimateGate (Pt. 1): "Global Warming Scientists Falsified Data!"

 

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

 

If you've had the misfortune of interacting with climate change deniers, you've probably heard of the ClimateGate scandal, where we're told that hacked e-mails uncovered the falsification of data by some of the world's leading climatologists. This was allegedly done to exaggerate the severity of global warming. In this video, we're going to examine whether or not these e-mails do, in fact, reveal the falsification of climate data.

I'll begin by providing some background information about the scandal. As we read on Wikipedia,

 

"The Climatic Research Unit email controversy (also known as 'Climategate') began in November 2009 with the hacking of a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) by an external attacker, copying thousands of emails and computer files . . . to various internet locations several weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change."

 

The key question here is: What did these e-mails reveal? According to a variety of conspiracy theorists and predominantly right-wing publications, among other things, they revealed a systematic and deliberate campaign of fraudulence, where data was falsified and published with the intent of overstating the severity of global warming. 

Aaron Bandler of The Daily Wire, for example, writes the following in an article entitled "7 Things You Need To Know About Global Warming":

 

"Some global warming alarmist scientists weren't able to get the results they wanted, so they tampered with the data. For instance, there was the infamous scandal known as 'Climate-Gate' where leaked emails showed that a cabal of world-renowned scientists discussed hiding the lack of warming because it wasn't the outcome they wanted . . ."

 

John Lott wrote the following in a Fox News opinion piece entitled "Why You Should Be Hot and Bothered About 'Climate-gate.'" That's a clever title, by the way: "hot and bothered," because it's related to global warming, right? Fucking brilliant. As he writes, 

 

"[The CRU scientists] were brazenly discussing the destruction and hiding of data that did not support global warming claims. The academics here also worked closely with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. . . . Time after time the discussions refer to hiding or destroying data."

 

And, lastly, the accusations reach a crescendo on Conservapedia, a website which lauds itself as "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia"—despite the fact that it regularly espouses such obvious falsehoods as "The fossil record does not support the theory of evolution." If you've never had the pleasure, reading an article on Conservapedia is a lot like scooping out portions of your brain and replacing them with dog shit. 

Conservapedia writes the following:

 

"The Climategate scandal . . . [revealed] scientific fraud and data manipulation by scientists concerning the Global Warming Theory. . . . The released information is evidence of deceit by climate scientists, which was kept a secret or hidden from the public until the data was leaked from the CRU. . . . Climategate is said to have revealed the biggest scientific hoax in world history as the worst scandal of this generation. [I'm not so sure that's a grammatically correct sentence, but whatever: who am I to doubt The Trustworthy Encyclopedia? As they continue:]

The Climategate emails and climate data became the subject of intense debate, calling to question assumptions on anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. The legitimacy of climate science, and the charges leveled by the CRU and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which claim humans cause climate change, was severely shaken by Climategate. Evidence revealed told the truth about man-made global warming: it's a fraud."

 

So as we can see, this is a pretty standard viewpoint held by climate change deniers. Based upon these descriptions, we should believe that these e-mails revealed an outrageous scandal which dealt a devastating blow against the accuracy of climate science and the trustworthiness of its top scientists. 

Why do these people reach such dramatic conclusions? Well, these assertions hinge upon a few key phrases within the e-mails. As John Lott writes,

 

"Other global warming advocates also privately acknowledge what they won’t concede publicly, that temperature changes haven’t been consistent with their models. Dr. Kevin Trenberth, the head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and prominent man-made global warming advocate, wrote in an e-mail: 'The fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.'"

 

The Washington Post provides us with another quotation which is commonly seized upon by climate change deniers:

 

"In one e-mail from 1999, the center's director, Phil Jones, alludes to one of [Michael] Mann's articles in the journal Nature and writes, 'I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.'"

 

Conservapedia made some very large claims about the implications of this particular e-mail. As they write,

 

". . . it became publicly known that man-made global warming is a hoax, as a direct result of the e-mail discussing a 'trick' for adding data to each temperature series for the last 20 years . . ."

 

What an audacious and sweeping conclusion this is to reach based upon one quote from one e-mail from one climate scientist. I think the most reasonable thing to do here is take these claims at face value and move forward with our lives believing that these things are true, making sure to regurgitate these talking points whenever global warming comes up in a conversation. Iiii'm joking, of course: obviously what we should do is carefully investigate whether these are accurate portrayals of the ClimateGate e-mails. 

But before we do that, let's begin by assuming that these people are correct. Let's assume the absolute worst-case scenario: that these particular scientists were not just discussing, but were actively engaging in the outright falsification of data in order to make it misleadingly appear that global warming is occurring to a much more severe extent than it actually is.

The first thing to point out is that the scientists involved in the ClimateGate e-mails do not represent the totality of the climate-science community. As The Guardian reports,

 

"[Our] analysis shows that a small group of just four of the scientists from among the dozens employed at the CRU were targeted in the sifting of email. They are: Phil Jones, the head of the CRU; Professor Keith Briffa, who studied tree rings; Tim Osborn, who worked on climate modelling for modern and archaeological data; and Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. [These four] are either recipients or senders of all but 66 of the 1,073 emails . . ."

 

So these are basically four scientists we're talking about here. It is a gigantic leap to argue that a few cherry-picked quotations from the e-mails of four scientists call into question the entirety of global warming science. 

Even if these scientists are incredibly influential, even if they're giants in their field who the other scientists bow down before, science is not a tyranny where the decrees of those at the top go utterly unchallenged as unquestionable dogma. And in this particular case, this isn't even a matter of competing hypotheses battling it out in the arena of scientific debate; this is simply data that we're talking about here. Unless you're the only four people in the world recording and providing this temperature data—which these four certainly are not—you simply will not be able to falsify the entire, recent temperature record.

If is true that these scientists were engaged in falsification, wouldn't other scientists in the field be able to look at their data and be like "Hey, this is clearly at odds with our and everybody else's data"? How do climate change deniers account for this discrepancy? It seems that the only way for the data falsification hypothesis to be remotely tenable is if this was a field-wide conspiracy that involved not just this small handful of scientists, but every single person who is involved in recording and publishing temperature data. And this strikes me as so unlikely that calling it delusional would be an understatement.

Even if just we restrict ourselves to this one particular organization, the Climate Research Unit, think about what such a conspiracy would entail. Presumably a significant portion of the organization would have to get involved in such a campaign of deception, because it's unlikely that only these four scientists are responsible for all stages of the collection and publication of this temperature data. So how does this process even work? Did Phil Jones and Kevin Trenberth just invite the rest of the staff out to Denny's one night and say "Hey, wanna systematically deceive the public about our chosen field of research?" And they all just decided to go along with it? Nobody said "Fuck this, and if you move forward with this, I'll blow the whistle"? Amplify this scenario across not just this one organization, but across all organizations involved in recording and publishing worldwide temperature data, and you see a conspiracy so vast that there's just no plausible way it could happen.

Keep in mind that this is a field that these people have decided to dedicate their life to, presumably because they're passionate about it. So why would they just one day decide to deliberately lie to the public about their findings? What would be the incentive to mislead the public in this way? Did Al Gore promise them a cut of the carbon taxes that he so desperately yearns to see? Are there a bunch of big-breasted, global-warming groupies who shower these scientists with sex after their presentations on the subject? Perhaps my tinfoil hat needs a readjustment, but as far as I can tell, there is no rational or plausible motive that would inspire such falsification, even if we assumed that a deception on such a grand scale was even conceivable.

And even if we can think of a plausible motive, this tells us virtually nothing about the truth or falsity of the core claims at hand. By analogy, you could say that any person has a plausible motive for robbing a bank: namely, making off with hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. But the fact that a motive exists proves nothing about whether one particular person actually stole the money. In order to demonstrate that they did, you need to provide convincing evidence.

So let's return now to these ClimateGate e-mails to see if the evidence of data manipulation is convincing or not. Recall that the first key phrase used to support this claim is the following:

 

"'The fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.'"

 

Kevin Trenberth provided the following explanation for that quote of his, presumably while twirling his moustache in his evil lair and laughing maniacally:

 

"In my case, one cherry-picked email quote has gone viral and at last check it was featured in over 107,000 items (in Google). Here is the quote: 'The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.' It is amazing to see this particular quote lambasted so often. It stems from a paper I published this year bemoaning our inability to effectively monitor the energy flows associated with short-term climate variability. It is quite clear from the paper that I was not questioning the link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and warming, or even suggesting that recent temperatures are unusual in the context of short-term natural variability."

 

And just to make clear what exactly he's talking about, here's an excerpt from the publication that he's referring to:

 

"The global mean temperature in 2008 was the lowest since about 2000 . . . Given that there is continual heating of the planet, referred to as radiative forcing, by accelerating increases of carbon dioxide . . . and other greenhouses due to human activities, why is the temperature not continuing to go up? The stock answer is that natural variability plays a key role and there was a major La Niña event early in 2008 that led to the month of January having the lowest anomaly in global temperature since 2000. While this is true, it is an incomplete explanation. In particular, what are the physical processes? From an energy standpoint, there should be an explanation that accounts for where the radiative forcing has gone."

 

So basically, what he's saying in this paper is: One particular year, 2008, was cooler than the previous years, as we see in this graph included in the paper.

The question that he's seeking to answer is: What are the precise mechanisms that account for this year-to-year variability that we see within the broader climatic trends, with certain years being cooler or hotter than the surrounding years, even while the long-term trend is for the temperature to increase? It's not enough to just lazily say "La Nina" or "natural variability" and call it a day; he's asking for us to quantify the precise degree to which different factors account for this short-term variability—factors which could include heat transfers among various bodies of land and water and ice, changes in cloud cover and the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, and so forth.

This is the frustration that he's expressing when he said, in his e-mail, "the fact is we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." He's not saying: "there's no global warming, in general, and it's a mystery to scientists;" he's saying: "during this one particular year, it was slightly cooler than the preceding years, and it's frustrating that we currently can't precisely quantify how different factors are responsible for this."

What about the other quote, in which Phil Jones writes:

 

"'I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.'"

 

Does this indicate that there has actually been a decline in the rate of global warming, or even a decline in temperatures, which these scientists are attempting to cover up through trickery? The answer is an obvious no if you actually research what they were talking about instead of just assuming the worst-case scenario. As we read in a New York Times article,

 

"Dr. Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, confirmed in an interview that the e-mail message was real. He said the choice of words by his colleague was poor but noted that scientists often used the word 'trick' to refer to a good way to solve a problem, 'and not something secret.'

At issue were sets of data, both employed in two studies. One data set showed long-term temperature effects on tree rings; the other, thermometer readings for the past 100 years.

Through the last century, tree rings and thermometers show a consistent rise in temperature until 1960, when some tree rings, for unknown reasons, no longer show that rise, while the thermometers continue to do so until the present.

Dr. Mann explained that the reliability of the tree-ring data was called into question, so they were no longer used to track temperature fluctuations. But he said dropping the use of the tree rings was never something that was hidden, and had been in the scientific literature for more than a decade. 'It sounds incriminating, but when you look at what you’re talking about, there’s nothing there,' Dr. Mann said."

 

Let's dive in deeper here and separate out a few different components so that we really understand what's being talked about. The first component is the tree-ring divergence. As SkepticalScience.com writes

 

"Tree-ring growth has been found to match well with temperature and hence tree-rings are used to plot temperature going back hundreds of years. However, tree-rings in some high-latitude locations diverge from modern instrumental temperature records after 1960. This is known as the 'divergence problem'. Consequently, tree-ring data in these high-latitude locations are not considered reliable after 1960 and should not be used to represent temperature in recent decades."

 

And here in this graph, we see the direct temperature measurements diverging from the proxy measurements around 1960.

The next component to this e-mail is "Mike's Nature trick." What, exactly, is this? He's referring here to climatologist Michael Mann, one of the recipients of the e-mail, and he's obviously talking about something Michael Mann did in a publication in the scientific journal Nature. As we read on SkepticalScience.com,

 

"So what is 'Mike's Nature trick'? This refers to a technique (in other words, 'trick of the trade') used in a paper published in Nature by lead author Michael Mann (Mann et al 1998). The 'trick' is the technique of plotting recent instrumental data along with the reconstructed data. This places recent global warming trends in the context of temperature changes over longer time scales."

 

And here we see a graph from that Nature paper where Michael Mann does exactly this. It's a very cluttered illustration, but if you look closely, you'll see that it features the reconstructed temperatures trends going all the way back to 1400, which are based upon a variety of proxy indicators of temperature, including tree rings. Tacked onto the end of this reconstructed temperature data are actual temperature measurements. 

Source: "Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries," by Michael Mann et al. Nature, volume 392, pages 779–787, April 1998.

We see an easier-to-read version of this graph in Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. It's doing the same thing: pasting actual temperature measurements onto the end of reconstructed temperature data for time periods where we weren't yet taking direct, long-term measurements. 

Source: Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. J.T. Houghton et al. 2001.

So how does all of this this relate to what Phil Jones was talking about doing in his e-mail? SkepticalScience.com does a great job of tying it all together. As they write,

 

"In Phil Jones' original email, he refers to a graph produced for the cover of a 2000 [World Meteorological Organization] report. 

 

Source: https://skepticalscience.com/print.php?n=653

 

To construct the green line, Jones took tree-ring density data from 'Annual climate variability in the Holocene: interpreting the message of ancient trees' (Briffa 2000). Note - the reason the paper was eventually published in 2000, not 1999, was due to a publication delay. We can see the original tree-ring density data in the figure below, taken from Briffa 2000. The green line represents Low Frequency Density (LFD) and diverges from the instrumental temperature record (the thick black line), as noted by Briffa in the caption.

 

Source: https://skepticalscience.com/print.php?n=653

 

In creating the WMO graph, Jones cut off the tree-ring density curve around 1960 when it diverged from instrumental temperature and grafted the instrumental temperature onto the green line. This technique has been rightly criticised for failing to distinguish between reconstructed temperature and the instrumental temperature in a graph. However, the decline in tree-ring density is not a hidden phenomena - it's been openly discussed in the peer-reviewed literature since 1995 (Jacoby 1995) and was also discussed in the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) and Fourth Assessment Report (AR4)."

 

So when Phil Jones, in his e-mail, talks about hiding the decline, he's talking about the decline that the proxy, tree-ring data indicates after 1960—a decline that didn't actually take place, as direct measurements make clear. The trick that he uses to hide this inaccurate, apparent decline is swapping out the reconstructed, proxy data for direct temperature measurements at the point at which the proxy measurements diverge from the actual measurements—thus making the trend that we see in the graph more accurate than it would have been if he depended entirely or partially upon the tree-ring data during this particular time period.

So as we can see, the interpretation of this quote provided by climate change deniers is just not at all accurate.

And even without doing any research whatsoever, you can find within the quote itself reason to reject the climate change deniers' conspiratorial viewpoint. When Jones writes about "Mike's Nature trick", he's obviously referring to the scientific journal Nature. If this were some kind of deceptive tactic done behind closed doors by nefarious scientists, why would it be published within an easily accessible, widely-read, scientific journal? Would the open publication of this trick not entirely undermine the goal of secret deception? This would be like two jewel thieves holding a press conference detailing their exact plan to steal The Hope Diamond next week. 

And take another look at the language of the quotation:

 

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.'"

 

How would adding in the real temperature data hide a decline in temperatures? This is a nonsensical interpretation of this quotation. Think about it: the interpretation of this quote provided by climate change deniers is that there has actually been a decline, either in temperatures or in the rate of temperature increase, and they maintain that Phil Jones has attempted to hide this decline, presumably by substituting this accurate data with inaccurate data which falsely indicates a temperature increase. But if the data that he's using to hide the decline is not accurate, as climate change deniers maintain, it would make absolutely no sense for him to say that he's hidden the decline by adding in the real temperatures. If he was engaged in fakery, he would have said "I've just completed the trick of adding in the fake temperatures to hide the decline"—not the real temperatures. So the refutation of this position is built into the very quote that they're using to support their position.

Conservapedia presents us with further evidence that these scientists manipulated their data. As they write, 

 

". . . within the collection of data and data processing programs revealed from Climategate, code from the CRU shows proof that valid temperature station readings were taken and skewed to fabricate the results the 'scientists' wanted to believe, not what actually occurred."

 

Now when I first heard this claim, I was naturally skeptical. I thought that clearly some kind of mistake was made, they're misintepreting something here, but I clicked on their source and read through it, and I have to say, it's actually kind of convincing. It made me rethink my position on this subject. So what did the source say that's so convincing?

 

"Perfect Lattice Wine Rack,"

". . . we also have been realized that lattice wine rack is being one of the most popular topic at this moment."

[pictures of wine racks]

 

That is some convincing shit right there. QED, ladies and gentlemen. That's it. It's over. I'm convinced.

But not so fast: Another website, WattsUpWithThat.com, purportedly features some of the CRU code which contains clear indications of fakery. As they write, 

 

"There’s a file of code also in the collection of emails and documents from CRU. . . . Here’s the code with the comments left by the programmer:

'; Plots 24 yearly maps of calibrated (PCR-infilled or not) MXD reconstructions
; of growing season temperatures.
Uses 'corrected' MXD – but shouldn’t usually
; plot past 1960 because these will be artificially adjusted to look closer to
; the real temperatures.'

and later the same programming comment again in another routine:

'; Plots (1 at a time) yearly maps of calibrated (PCR-infilled or not) MXD
; reconstructions
; of growing season temperatures.
Uses 'corrected' MXD – but shouldn’t usually
; plot past 1960 because these will be artificially adjusted to look closer to
; the real temperatures.'

. . . In this case, it is not allowing all of the temperature data to be plotted. Growing season data (summer months when the new tree rings are formed) past 1960 is thrown out because 'these will be artificially adjusted to look closer to the real temperatures', which implies some post processing routine.

. . . Either the data tells the story of nature or it does not. Data that has been 'artificially adjusted to look closer to the real temperatures' is false data, yielding a false result."

 

Once again, we see that a climate change denier is assuming the worst as a default position. So what do these lines of code actually reveal? A quick Google search reveals that MXD is dendroclimatology language. It's short for maximum latewood density.

And if that's not a dead giveaway, recall that it's right around 1960 when tree-ring temperature reconstructions diverge from direct measurements.

It's very obvious that these lines of code are discussing the exact same thing that was discussed in the Phil Jones e-mail: temperature reconstructions based upon tree-ring data being replaced with actual temperature data at the time of the tree-ring divergence, which is about 1960. And again, we see that telling phrase "the real temperatures." If this was overt fakery, they would be replacing undesirable data with "the fake temperatures," "the false temperatures,"—not the real temperatures.

Yet again, we see that a climate change denier is making very large and inaccurate assertions from a position of extreme ignorance and paranoia.

The climate change deniers who desperately seize upon these e-mail excerpts and morsels of computer code clearly have not taken the time to think about, research, and understand what is actually being discussed. Contrary to what they claim, these e-mails actually do not contain discussions about the destruction or hiding of data not supportive of global warming, and they certainly don't call into question or prove as a hoax global warming in general.

Cherrypicking tantalizing quotes from a trove of e-mails and assuming the very worst is not a pathway towards reasonable beliefs about the validity of climate science. Kevin Trenberth hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following:

 

"The selective publication of some stolen emails taken out of context and distorted is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with the climate change issue in a responsible way."