About Those Climate Emails

On a recent edition of the Brass Spittoon podcast, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe and I went back and forth a bit on the impact of the 2009 email disclosures from the East Anglia University Climate Research Unit (CRU) in the United Kingdom.  The two of us are in general agreement that our current climate change is largely anthropogenic and is indeed a big deal for humanity.  Nevertheless, we parted ways on the level of responsibility that some climate scientists bear for decreasing confidence in those conclusions.  Much blame is rightly aimed at the industry-affiliated voices who distorted the matter.  Nevertheless, I fear that the circle-the-wagons attitude shown by many in the scientific community following headlines about the “trick” and “hide the decline” email was a setback for our common cause of getting the planet to take global warming seriously.  Continuing to take a nothing to see here approach over a decade later only compounds the error.

Skeptical Science on “hide the decline”     

During the podcast, I described the notorious email around the 28:45 point saying, “I recall that the ‘trick’ that was at issue was merging two datasets and not clearly saying when one dataset stopped—a tree ring dataset that was pushing in the opposite direction from their overall thesis.”  Hayhoe cut me off to say, “No, that’s incorrect, and at this point I would direct you and I would direct any listeners to skepticalscience.com.”  She then described the tree ring record as “plateauing” while thermometer-measured temperatures went up.  After I followed up near the 33:30 mark and asserted that “they did smash those datasets together in a way that was confusing,” Hayhoe said that I was “nit-pick[ing] these tiny little things without actually looking at the original data.”  So, let us look at the data.

Hayhoe directed me to Skeptical Science, a website I had visited on occasion before.  I did not know, however, that the creator of the site, John Cook, was a fellow Christian believer and a friend of Katharine.  Having not specifically prepped on the CRU issues prior to the podcast I followed Katharine’s advice to see if my fuzzy memories were off on any fundamental points.  After my review, I end up quite comfortable with my original description and sadly more skeptical of Skeptical Science.

First, let me note that the extended version of the Skeptical Science article on the “trick” and “hide the decline” controversies makes the important point that the “decline” at issue is not global temperatures.  (This distinction is one I understood previously and was not at the center of my disagreement with Hayhoe, but the confusion over the phrase was certainly relevant to the coverage in 2009.)  The decline is actually within the modern proxy temperature estimates associated with a tree ring data set.  While the thermometer-measured temperatures were going up after 1960, the proxy-estimated temperatures were going down.  At first blush, this divergence calls into question the reliability of the other proxy-estimated temperatures.  That is potentially important because the tree-ring proxy is used to estimate temperatures for eras that pre-date thermometers. 

The leaked emails include extensive back-and-forth among key scientists regarding this situation.  I will reference an annotated guide to the emails produced by a group clearly antagonistic towards mainstream climate science.  I do not agree with all the opinions expressed in this guide.  The Titanic cover art is clearly over-the-top, and I would advise the commentary be taken with that in mind.  Nevertheless, the effort highlights the emails of greatest concern to the critics; includes some helpful explanations about scientific abbreviations and jargon; and provides links to the raw emails.  Below, I make my references to the printed pagination for the main document followed by the PDF pagination, which is ten greater.  Thus, the first page of the main document would be shown as “[Email Guide, p. 1/11]” below.     

The late Keith Briffa was a British climate scientist at CRU and the primary author of a study that showed a downturn in the tree ring proxy temperature estimates that did not match the more accurate thermometer records.  As part of a collaborative effort to estimate the world’s temperature fluctuations over the past millennium, he emailed his fellow scientists saying, “I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple.” [Emails, p. 15/25] The prominent American climate scientist Michael Mann, however, did not want to give critics “fodder” lest they have a “field day casting doubt on our ability to understand the factors that influence these estimates.” [Email Guide, p. 16/26] 

In the end, rather than clearly explaining the divergence, they kept it simple by not showing the divergence graphically at all.  The Director of the CRU described it this way:  “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”  [See Email Guide p. 17/27, but I am here directly quoting the unannotated email.]  The resulting image was published on the cover of a 1999 report published by the World Meteorological Organization (an arm of the United Nations).

Below is an image taken from a CRU press release issued in 2009 near the height of the controversy.  It is surprising (and disappointing) that Skeptical Science ignores the press release in its own lengthy piece.  Below, the top graph is what was published after the discussions quoted above.  The green line is for the Briffa study.  In the published version the green line stays green and rockets up in recent years.   The bottom is the previously unpublished “alternative” version that does not involve the mixing of datasets into a single colored line.  The unmolested green tree ring proxy data line dives dramatically. 

The two images come at the end of the lengthy and somewhat defensive press release which includes no direct apology.  It reminds me of a child who makes a long-winded explanation about why it was not really his fault before finally handing over the broken vase and hanging his head in silence.  A broken vase is not reason to disown the child, but neither should such be laughed off by the parents. 

I agree with Dr. Hayhoe that there are likely reasonable explanations for the divergence.  She mentioned pollution as the reason, and Skeptical Science adds drought and other possibilities as well.  Providing the reasonable explanations for the divergence seems quite fair to me, but obfuscating the existence of the divergence under a daisy-chain of references while graphically presenting a tidy line does not. 

My conclusion seems consistent with what an independent inquiry concluded.   John Cook, founder of Skeptical Science, briefly notes this in the Skeptical Science piece: 

In Phil Jones’ email, he was discussing a graph for the cover of an obscure 1999 World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) report, which depicted both instrumental temperature data and reconstructed temperatures based on tree rings.  The Independent Climate Change Email Review examined the email and the WMO report and made the following criticism of the resulting graph (its emphasis): “[T]he 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. ”

(Sidenote: the link Skeptical Science provides for the “Independent Climate Change Email Review” is no longer valid but likely was at the time of publication.  The full report is now available here.)

After acknowledging the review panel’s conclusion that the 1999 graph was “misleading” Cook (writing in 2010) quickly retorts, “But this was one isolated instance that occurred more than a decade ago.”  As seen above, Cook also calls the report “obscure” though the World Meteorological Organization would seem to be of at least some importance.  As Cook notes, the bolded emphasis was from the independent review board, not him.  Indeed, Cook discusses the review board’s conclusion of a “misleading” graphic only on the fourth of eight pages and under the heading “The ‘decline’ has been openly and publicly discussed since 1995.” 

In an effort to show the scientific community’s openness on the issue, Cook highlights that the lack of post-1960 data was noted on pages 472-73 of the very technical 2007 IPCC Fourth Working Group document.  There, the IPCC states that Briffa and his colleagues “specifically excluded the post-1960 data in their calibration against instrumental records, to avoid biasing the estimation of the earlier reconstructions.”  (This seems to raise the question of just how avoiding “bias” is different than removing relevant information.) The discussion is several hundred words away from the relevant graphic, and a graph of the excluded data is not included.  Of course, all of this is far removed from the IPCC executive summaries designed for policy makers.

Color me unimpressed by the level of transparency.  Again, this is consistent with the review panel’s findings.  Another post at Skeptical Science (entitled “The Fake Scandal of Climategate”) does include, under the odd heading “The CRU scientists have been cleared” (emphasis in the original), the following quote:

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 recognize 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.

As above, the bolding was from the review panel.  To me, such is quite worthy of bolding.  As an attorney, I was especially aghast that the scientists (several of whom, including Mann of Penn State, were employed at publicly-funded institutions) made repeated attempts to thwart freedom of information statutes.  The review panel notes this and multiple instances are documented in the emails.  [Emails, pp. 102/112 to 104/114, 123/133 to 144/154].  Some particularly troubling examples involve Jones lobbying those responsible for the initial freedom of information decisions to flip their positions and the deletion of “loads of emails.”  [Emails, pp. 132/142]  The review panel issued the following conclusion on this topic:

On the allegation that CRU does not appear to have acted in a way consistent with the spirit and intent of the [Freedom of Information Act] FoIA or [Environmental Information Regulations] 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.

[Review Panel Final Report, p. 14 (emphasis in the original)]  The review panel also states, “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.”  [Review Panel Final Report, p. 15]  Frankly, the review panel’s language is milder than what I would have used.  While the review panel did not reveal the den of corruption that some critics asserted existed, its work did not “clear” the scientists completely.

 I do not believe that one misleading graph brings all of climate science down like a house of cards.  Yet, it certainly did not help the cause.  The review panel rightly called the graphic one of “iconic significance.” [Review Panel Final Report, p. 13].  In contrast, Skeptical Science described the original report which featured the graphic on its cover as “obscure” and, in my opinion, consistently downplays the legitimate aspects of the “hide the decline” controversy. 

The scientists overplayed a strong hand and got caught.  The critics want to delegitimize the independently strong hand because some rules were broken by the players.  The scientists want to simply ignore their own errors and focus on the still strong cards that they hold while pointing to the excessiveness of the accusations. Other options exist.  We can both affirm that there is much evidence to support the theory of anthropogenic climate change while acknowledging that scientists who produce misleading graphs and seek to avoid relevant laws are not living up to our highest ideals.

Skeptical Grammar  

In addition to my primary concerns noted above, my review of the relevant Skeptical Science piece also revealed another surprising choice by Cook, this one a questionable interpretation of the English language.  Skeptical Science takes pointed aim at UC Berkeley Professor Richard Muller, a hard-to-peg figure who was somehow able to use funding from the fossil fuel fortune of the Koch brothers to conduct an independent inquiry that ended up largely agreeing with the conclusions of mainstream climate science.  Cook dings Muller for making the following statement: 

A quote came out of the emails, these leaked emails, that said “let’s use Mike’s trick to hide the decline.” That’s the words, “let’s use Mike’s trick to hide the decline.” Mike is Michael Mann, [who] said “hey, trick just means mathematical trick. That’s all.” My response is I’m not worried about the word trick. I’m worried about the decline.  

Cook writes, “Muller quotes ‘Mike’s nature trick to hide the decline’ as if its Phil Jones’s actual words. However, the original text indicates otherwise. . . . It’s clear that ‘Mike’s Nature trick’ is quite separate to Keith Briffa’s ‘hide the decline.’”  This is under a heading titled “The ‘decline’ has nothing to do with ‘Mike’s trick.’”  The point was so important to Cook that it also makes the opening summary box which contains only the top three points.

The original text of the email is as follows:  “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”  Muller’s summation of the sentence makes more sense to me than Cook’s assertion that two distinct processes are clearly in play.  The words “and from 1961 for Keith’s” make grammatical sense if they refer back to the “trick of adding in the real temps to each series.”  The closing prepositional phrase “to hide the decline” certainly appears to modify “trick.”

Don’t just take my word for it, though.  The CRU press release says, “This email referred to a ‘trick’ of adding recent instrumental data to the end of temperature reconstructions that were based on proxy data.”  This “trick” was clearly applied to the green Briffa dataset, with the added kicker of the addition beginning at a point (1960) well before the proxy dataset actually stopped.  The CRU press release does not assert that “Mike’s Nature trick” has nothing to do with “hide the decline.”  Instead, it relies on the defense that “[t]he use of the term ‘hiding the decline’ was in an email written in haste.”  This reminds me of the old D.C. saying that “a gaffe is when someone accidentally says the truth out loud.”

Additionally, if one watches Muller’s lecture to which Cook (to his credit) links, then one sees that Muller visually did not represent that the words in the email were “Mike’s nature trick to hide the decline” as Cook asserts.  See below:

Muller’s graphic shows these as two separated quotes which he, as I’ve argued above, correctly connects.  (If Cook wants a nit to pick, he could highlight that the graphic leaves out the word “Nature,” but that is of no real consequence.)  Watch the full five minute clip, including Muller’s damning closing with a back-and-forth between the two versions of the graphs.

I independently ended up in essentially the same place as Muller.  We both get that “hide the decline” was not as bad as Sean Hannity and many others made it out to be.  Yet, we both think that what it did mean was still rather problematic.  Nevertheless, we have ultimately been convinced by the data itself, despite the efforts of some very flawed data-handlers. 

Grappling with Group-Think

So, why was Cook going out of his way to awkwardly (and ineffectively) discredit Muller?  My theory is that in 2010, when Cook was writing, Muller was very much seen as a threat to the small world of climate scientists.  It would be over a year before Muller would publicize the results of his independent probe and essentially agree that most of the previous science reached the correct conclusions (even if through sometimes questionable methods).  Before that (and even after), Muller was not seen as part of the club.  Indeed, he was likely grouped initially with those dastardly scientific amateurs that had filed Freedom of Information Act requests and made life difficult for climate scientists.  A read through their emails shows plenty of evidence for a diagnosis of group-think.

During my years in legal academia, I personally saw group-think at work over the politically charged topic of national monuments (such as Bears Ears in Utah).  The question of whether President Trump could dramatically shrink the size of monuments declared by President Obama pit the liberal mainstream of law professors against a few prominent conservatives.  I wrote a lengthy law review article that criticized (and, in places, lauded) both groups.  That put me outside of both tribes, a bit like Professor Muller.  Yet, living outside of group-think, while isolating, can be liberating in the quest for truth.  The American Bar Association’s Keeping Current looked at several articles on the topic and declared that mine was an “exhaustive historical examination [that] takes a decidedly more objective view” than the others.  The straight-shooting Congressional Research Service cited to it extensively.  I can live with that, and I expect that Muller can live with not being in either of the climate cliques.

Thankfully, the emails also reveal others taking a stand against group-think.  The emails show a 1997 attempt to buttress conclusions through signature gathering.  A prominent scientist, a one-time director of CRU named Tom Wigley, balks and writes,

Your approach of trying to gain scientific credibility for your personal views by asking people to endorse your letter is reprehensible. No scientist who wishes to maintain respect in the community should ever endorse any statement unless they have examined the issue fully themselves. . . . When scientists color the science with their own personal views or make categorical statements without presenting the evidence for such statements, they have a clear responsibility to state that that is what they are doing. You have failed to do so. Indeed, what you are doing is, in my view, a form of dishonesty more subtle but no less egregious than the statements made by the greenhouse skeptics.

[Email Guide, pp. 8-9/18-19].  This sort of “sign here” activism cloaked as quasi-scholarship is a tactic to which I have objected as well.

There were others who come across in the emails as having a clear-eyed perspective.  Columbia’s Ed Cook writes the following in the back and forth regarding the reliability of the proxy data:

Unfortunately, this global change stuff is so politicized by both sides of the issue that it is difficult to do the science in a dispassionate environment. I ran into the same problem in the acid rain/forest decline debate that raged in the 1980s. At one point, I was simultaneous accused of being a raving tree hugger and in the pocket of the coal industry. I have always said that I don’t care what answer is found as long as it is the truth or at least bloody close to it. 

[Email Guide, p. 25/35]  That is the attitude that I would like to see climate scientists and all academics take.  The work, however, is always done by humans subject to the full panoply of human foibles.  As Ed Cook also observes, “[C]onsensus science can impede progress as much as promote understanding.”  [Email Guide, p. 25/35] 

Our messengers will always be flawed.  The goal, though, should be reaching higher levels of integrity rather than increasing the tribalism.  Despite our disagreement on the CRU emails scandal, I still see Katharine Hayhoe as one of the better messengers out there.  I appreciate her taking the time to talk with me.  She is correct that the emails did not show a grand conspiracy to deceive the world about the facts of climate change and that the damage to public perceptions caused by those who trafficked in unnecessary doubt is far greater.  Still, there were corners that were cut in the name of advancing what was seen as their noble cause, and those poor decisions ultimately hurt the cause itself.

John Murdock

For more from Murdock on related topics see the following:

2 responses to “About Those Climate Emails

  1. Pingback: Katharine Hayhoe Talks Climate Change - Front Porch Republic·

  2. The problem I have with the entire climate debate is that it is not a level playing field. Some countries are increasing emmissions while others are runing headlong into net zero at any cost. It is the double standards and hypocrisy that has so many people unsupportive simply because it is a “Do as I say, not as I do.” mentality.

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