Climategate Part 1 – 2,000-page epic of science and scepticism

This summary from the National Post of the Climategate emails and what has been discovered in them is the best I have seen. It is especially pleasing to hear Terence Corcoran’s moderate tone. The contents of the released emails and computer code throw strong doubt on the conclusions of the science of global warming. Everything needs further examination and there are signs this re-examination is happening, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, Britain and Russia. — Richard Treadgold

First published at the National Post: December 18, 2009, 8:13 PM

The scientists seem to have become captive to the IPCC’s objectives

Now that the Copenhagen political games are out of the way, marked as a failure by any realistic standard, it may be time to move on to the science games. To get the post-Copenhagen science review under way, the world has a fine document at hand: The Climategate Papers.

On Nov. 17, three weeks before the Copenhagen talks began, a massive cache of climate science emails landed on a Russian server, reportedly after having been laundered through Saudi Arabia. Where they came from, nobody yet knows. Described as having been hacked or leaked from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, the emails have been the focus of thousands of media and blog reports. Since their release, most attention has been focussed on a few choice bits of what seem like incriminating evidence of trickery and scientific repression. Some call it fraud.

Email fragments instantly began flying through the blogosphere. Perhaps the most sensational came from a Nov. 16, 1999, email from Phil Jones, head of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), in which he referred to having “completed Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline” in temperature.

Direct evidence of scientific skulduggery

These words, now famous around the world as the core of Climategate, are in fact the grossest possible over-simplification of what the emails contain. The Phil Jones email and other choice email fragments are really just microscopic particles taken from a massive collection of material that will, in time, come to be seen as the greatest and most dramatic science policy epic in history.

Whether the emails, containing more than 2,000 pages and links to thousands more, are smoking guns and direct evidence of scientific skulduggery is in many ways a secondary issue. The Climategate emails are an unprecedented and unparalleled record of attempts by scientists to crack the mysteries of the world’s climate. They are at the heart of a massive effort to understand the world’s climate history and create models and systems to predict climate hundreds of years into the future.

The emails are not a random grab of email records from one scientist’s computer or extracted in a coarse raid on the central computer facilities of one climate institute. Only by reading the emails in chronological order, from the first email sent March 7, 1996, by Russian scientist Stephan Shiyatov, from the Laboratory of Dendrochronology, Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, in Ekaterinburg, Russia — complaining to British scientist Keith Briffa about funding problems for his tree-ring research — does it become clear that the emails are part of a conscious and systematic assemblage of 13 years’ worth of vital communications among some of the world’s leading climate scientists.

Vast record of drama, intrigue and history

The last emails were sent between November 10 and 12 this year, five days before the whole cache was stolen. One of those last emails outlines an attempt to orchestrate a media blitz by scientists at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting. The strategy was aimed at shaping public opinion going into the Copenhagen talks that ended yesterday.

In between these two emails from 1996 and 2009 is a vast documentary record of more than a decade of drama, intrigue and history.

Throughout the Climategate emails, in addition to a few possible smoking guns, we get smoking tempers, scientific and political disagreements and arguments, larger-than-life personality clashes, intercontinental rivalries, global politics and personal drama, not to mention individual notes that seem to have been taken from an old John le Carré novel. The Russian role in the emails, and that of Mr. Shiyatov, becomes crucial later in the story. But in that first email, Mr. Shiyatov writes: “Of course, we are in need of additional money” to carry out their vital collection of remote Siberian tree-ring samples. “It is important for us if you can transfer the ADVANCE money on the personal accounts… Not more than 10,000 USD [in any one day]. Only in this case can we avoid big taxes and use the money for our work.”

The context for all this, much of it conducted over the Internet between sometimes warring camps in Britain and the United States, is the greatest scientific research story ever told, an attempt to accomplish two main objectives under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN agency set up in 1988 to orchestrate global reaction to the perceived threat of man-made global warming.

Whoever was collecting them ran out of time

The 13-year email exchange, while often chaotic and disjointed, follows two main tracks that, in the end, must somehow converge. The first is to develop a convincing history of global temperature going back over thousands of years. The second is to develop models and scenarios that allow the scientists and the IPCC to forecast climate change to 2100 and beyond.

I have not read all the emails. But I have read hundreds of them, including every word of the first five years. Only by plodding through them in chronological order, I believe, is it possible to get a sense of them as a vast and genuine documentary record. One immediate observation is that the early years — from 1996 to maybe 2000 — seem to have been organised and whittled down to eliminate the long trails of redundancy that pile up in email communication. The emails in the later years remain cluttered and at times impossible to follow — as if whoever was collecting them ran out of time or had not finished the assembly work before they hit the Internet, whether by chance or by choice. It also seems possible that the emails were culled from more than one source, not just the CRU at the University of East Anglia.

By my reading, the emails contain many disquieting revelations about the state of climate science and the process. Other readers, investigators, scientists and activists on all sides of the climate issue will of course make up their own minds on this. But as the email story unfolds over the years, it is clear that the history of climate and temperature change over the past 10,000 years remains mostly speculative and largely unknown. The emails also imply that, in part because the past is so unknown, any attempt at long-range forecasts is, at best, uncertain.

Also clear is that the official science on climate change as we know it today, looking backward and forward, has been developed and controlled by the relatively small collection of scientists who wrote most of the emails. Working directly or indirectly for the IPCC, the scientists seem to have become captive to that organisation’s objectives, which was to find “the hand of man” in climate records to justify plans to change the climate in future. The scientists, in other words, became engaged in the all-too-familiar business of decision-based evidence making.

Ice cores unreliable and correlate poorly with temperature

Whatever the source of the emails, they are a dynamic record of how scientists sought to plot the past and predict the future of climate. In 1996, the first year of the emails, there is clear internal skepticism among these official IPCC-linked scientists over what would turn out to be one of the greatest sources of conflict, the role of paleoclimatology — the science of reconstructing world climate history over tens of thousands of years. More specifically, doubts existed especially over dendrochronology, the use of tree rings as a way to measure and document climate history. “I support the continued collection of such data, but I am disturbed by how some people in the paleo community try to oversell their products,” Tom Wigley, previous director of CRU and now at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), in Boulder, Colorado, wrote in August of 1996.

In Mr. Wigley’s view at the time, ice cores were unreliable and “correlate very poorly with temperature”. He said the link between ice core and temperature variation was “close to zero” and tree rings were less than 50% reliable. “The main external candidate is solar, and more work is required to improve the ‘paleo’ solar forcing record.” Another U.S. scientist, Gary Funkhauser of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, was also cool to the idea of tree rings as indicators of past temperatures. He wrote in September, 1996, that he tried “every trick out of my sleeve” to get meaningful climate records out of certain tree ring records collected by Russian scientist Stephan Shiyatov.

Over in Britain, however, scientists had other ideas. Tree rings could be the answer to the paleoclimate problem. Keith Briffa at CRU, among others, believed that tree-ring science could be the magic bullet that would prove what the IPCC wanted — evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” of a “discernible human influence on global climate”.

A major warming, not seen for a thousand years

In October, 1996, Mr. Briffa told a journalist that there were signs that recent warming in Siberian Russia was setting records. “The trend seems to be accelerating. We are getting reports back from Stephan (Shiyatov), our man in the Urals, that it is warmer this spring on the Yamal peninsula there than ever before… It is a major warming, like nothing seen there for a thousand years.”

Soon, however, problems emerged over Russian data. What with sampling issues, missing data and other problems, by November of 1997 Mr. Briffa is struggling with results. While the Russian tree rings produce seemingly good results for past climate, results for the 20th century are a problem. On November 3, he writes to Tom Wigley: “Equally important though is the levelling off of carbon uptake in the later 20th century.” The density of the tree rings also declines, a finding inconsistent with carbon-induced warming. “I have been agonising for months that these results are not some statistical artifact of the analysis method, but I cannot see how.”

Another U.S. scientist, Gordon Jacoby, a tree-ring specialist at Columbia University, writes about another tree-ring scientist, Fritz Schweingruber, and his work in Russia. “He should not represent his data as definitive… His opinions are influential, but there is an accumulating body of ring-width data that clearly shows him to be missing important information with his style of sampling.” This kind of skepticism runs through the emails.

Your approach to scientific credibility is reprehensible

Meantime, as the email saga unfolds, scientists are occasionally distracted by political matters. Leading up to the 1997 Kyoto climate conference, a German scientist, Joseph Alcamo, presses Mike Hulme, then with CRU and now a professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, to drum up names for a list of scientists for an official statement on the dangers of climate change. “I think the only thing that counts is numbers. The media is going to say ‘1,000 scientists signed’ or ‘1,500 signed’. No one is going to check if it is 600 with PhDs versus 2,000 without. They will mention the prominent ones, but that is a different story.”

Mike Hulme, one of the more moderate scientists in the climate change field, appears to have declined to participate. Tom Wigley was even more adamant in arguing against a scientists’ statement. “Your approach to trying to gain scientific credibility for your personal views by asking people to endorse your letter is reprehensible,” Mr. Wigley wrote on November 25, 1997.

At the time, as a top official at CRU, Mike Hulme was also a key player in moving the second track of the Climategate emails, the strange business of constructing economic, scientific and climate forecasting models for the next 100 years and beyond. The scientists appear to have been dragged into the economic prediction game by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, in turn assigned by the IPCC to construct economic outlooks for growth and carbon emissions. The exercise ultimately led to the production of one of the IPCC’s long-term climate gimmicks, a range of scenarios or story-lines that produced different levels of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2100.

The A1 scenario is called the Golden Economic Age

The scientists, who wrangle with this project for a couple of years, were lured into participating in what from the start was a loaded ideological exercise. In March 1998, Mike Hulme at CRU received a draft version of these 100-year forecast scenarios. Four scenarios were developed: A1, B1, A2, and B2. The exercise turns out to be a set-up for a campaign to undermine free markets, globalisation and free trade.

In the 1998 draft, the A1 scenario is called the Golden Economic Age. It describes a period of “rapid and successful economic development,” brought on by the economic structures that have been successful in the past: free markets, global free trade, innovation. “Free trade enables each region to access knowledge, technology and capital to best deploy its respective comparative economic and human advantages.” By 2100, it said, the developed world under free global trade would have annual per capita income approaching $100,000 and the developing world $70,000.

The trouble with this Golden Economic Age, a name that was dropped in the final IPCC report on scenarios in 2001, is that it produced a lot of carbon emissions — thus making free trade, open markets and globalisation a non-starter. The alternatives were variations on slower growth. Scenario B1, called Sustainable Development, involved “high levels of environmental and social consciousness” along with reductions in income and social inequality. Average per capita income would rise only to $40,000 by 2100. But the good news, from the IPCC perspective, is that carbon emissions were a lot lower.

The upshot of these scenarios, based on IPCC objectives of reducing carbon emission, is a deck stacked against free markets and globalisation. In the emails, the scenarios make their way through a barrage of comment from scientists who, for the most part, balk at the process. In one small sample, Tom Wigley wrote to Mike Hulme telling him that “energy-economics models need to be revised” because they fail to take into account actual emissions between 1990 and 1999. In July, 1998, David Schimel, a climate scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, wrote to Wigley: “I raised this issue at the scoping meeting… where it was greeted with general agreement, but it appeared to come as a complete surprise to many that scenarios should have a relationship to reality.”

Capitalism clearly ruins everything

Emails cataloguing the weaknesses in the scenarios project are numerous. Still, the project moved forward as part of the email exchanges off and on for a couple of years. While the scientists balked at simple numbers and sought qualification, the IPCC wanted precision. Geoff Jenkins, a former head of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction, where CRU is housed, wrote to Mike Hulme: “Getting away from single number answers is very laudable scientifically, but it presents policymakers (for whom the whole IPCC exercise is undertaken) with a problem.”

In the end, Mike Hulme appeared as one of the contributing authors for the IPCC’s 2001 Synthesis Report, including various 100-year scenarios. It concluded that carbon concentration in the atmosphere could rise to 1,250% above the pre-industrial year of 1750 under the free market A1 scenario, with temperatures rising as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius. Capitalism clearly ruins everything.

The 2001 Synthesis Report looked authoritative in its carbon and temperature outlooks. But one of the “lead authors” was Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. Eight years later, Mr. Trenberth shows up in the emails. On Oct. 14, 2009, he wrote to Tom Wigley: “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. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.” In other words, one of the lead authors of the 100-year climate forecasting exercise says there’s something wrong with the models — or the data.

Much hope surrounded the paleo effort

If the emails show anything on the climate scenarios, it is that the 100-year science projections never really got settled. They were a product of climate and economic models that remained problematic all through the 13-year email record. Equally uncertain were the attempts to reconstruct paleoclimate records going back 1,000 years.

Despite various technical problems gathering tree-ring data and fitting them to actual climate history, much hope surrounded the paleo effort. Keith Briffa, the British tree-ring expert overseeing the Russian Siberian work and other projects, wrote in early 1998 that Rashit Hantemirov, another Russian tree-ring researcher, “has done outstanding work putting together… what will no doubt become a world-famous sub-fossil chronology in the Yamal area of northern Siberia.”

The email that rocked climate science

Yamal would indeed become famous, but for other reasons. What really rocked the paleoclimate work at CRU, and ultimately shook the IPCC, was a seemingly out-of-the-blue email on June 17, 1998, from Michael Mann to Phil Jones, then head of East Anglia’s CRU centre. Before then, no mention had been made in the email cache of Michael Mann, then adjunct assistant professor, department of geosciences, Morrill Science Center, University of Massachusetts. It is, in many ways, the email that rocked climate science.

Dear Phil,

Of course I’ll be happy to be on board. I think the opportunity for some direct collaboration between us (me, and you/tim/keith) is ripe, and the plan to compare and contrast different approaches and data and synthesise the different results is a good one. Though sidetracked by other projects recently, I remain committed to doing this with you guys, and to explore applications to synthetic datasets with manufactured biases/etc remains high priority. It sounds like it would all fit into the proposal you mention. There may be some overlap w/proposals we will eventually submit to NSF (renewal of our present funding), etc. by I don’t see a problem with that in the least.

Once the collaboration is officially in place, I think that sharing of codes, data, etc. should not be a problem. I would be happy to make mine available, though can’t promise its the most user friendly thing in the world.

In short, I like the idea. Include me in, and let me know what you eed from me (cv, etc.).

cheers,
mike

Exactly what those words mean is hard to know. It must be science talk. What is certain from the Climategate emails is that world climate science, and the Climategate emails, would never be the same thereafter. Mr. Mann quickly rose to be the dominant figure in the paleoclimate effort. He and associates, Ray Bradley at the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm Hughes, a meso-climatologist and Professor of Dendrochronology in the Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, had just finished a paper titled “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcings over the past six centuries”. The core of that paper was a graphic that would come to be known as the “hockey stick” presentation of the temperature over the past centuries.

With Mr. Mann on board, everybody else seemed to go overboard. In the emails, he soon elbowed out Keith Briffa as the prime tree-ring guru. The Mann hockey stick, and the science work behind it, would end up consuming thousands of email hours over the next decade and, as we shall see in Part II on Monday, now threatens to consume one of the scientific pillars of climate science.

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