Filth and Fury

Was I right, when the hacked climate emails were released, to call for Phil Jones to resign?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 8th July 2010

“You are a fucking douchebag. You pathetic fucking Phony. I hope there is an earthquake right under your fucking house and swallows you into hell.”

Does this offend you? If so, you haven’t been involved in the climate wars. This message, one of many sent recently to climate scientists and now published by the Guardian(1), is almost sweet by comparison to the gallant emails some of us receive every week.

Many of these missives, perhaps revealing more about the senders than they intend, involve promises to insert implausibly large items of military hardware into the recipient’s anus. At first, years ago, they alarmed me. After a while, realising that most of the silver-tongued chevaliers who send them live on the other side of the Atlantic, don’t possess passports and would struggle to place the United Kingdom on a map, I stopped worrying. But to stay in this game you need, among other anatomical impossibilities, a tungsten skin.

By reacting like this, those who deny manmade climate change pay the issue a backhanded compliment. The viciousness of their invective, often directed at the authors of obscure studies of Siberian tree rings or oceanic chemistry, bears witness to the importance of climate science and the political weight its findings must carry.

The latest and thankfully last review of the emails hacked from the climatic research unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia will do nothing to dam the tide of filth and fury(2). The two previous reviews, both of which mostly exonerated the unit, were immediately identified as part of the ever-widening conspiracy (it now involves a fair proportion of the world’s population). The vituperation climate scientists must bear helps to explain, if not excuse, the intemperate comments the emails contain.

Almost all the claims made about these messages are false. Their contents have been wildly and wilfully misinterpreted, their authors demonised, their implications inflated. But a handful of allegations do appear to carry weight. Yesterday, before the Russell review was published, I wrote down what I believed were the four key charges that needed to be answered. Here they are, in ascending order of importance.

1. The loss of Chinese weather station documents. A paper written in 1990 by Phil Jones, who later became head of CRU, claimed that almost all the Chinese stations whose data he was using had stayed put(3). This claim was used to argue that the rising temperatures in those places could not have been caused by creeping urbanisation. It later emerged that most of them had in fact moved, that many of the records of their locations had been lost and that Jones and his co-author appear to have been reluctant to admit it(4).

2. The failure to release data and analytical tools. CRU scientists kept blocking requests from their critics for the data and computer codes that they used to create their temperature records.

3. Using improper methods to exclude papers from journals or from reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Some of the emails show scientists at CRU reviewing papers that clash with their own findings and apparently rejecting them out of hand. At one point Phil Jones announced that he would keep two papers out of an IPCC report “somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer review literature is!”(5)

4. Frustrating freedom of information (FoI) requests. CRU repeatedly sought to fend off legitimate requests. In one case Phil Jones asked another scientist to delete some emails, apparently in breach of the law(6). In another message, Jones recommended that a colleague at CRU should make a false claim that he had not received certain documents relating to a review for the IPCC(7).

How did the Russell report handle these issues? Its treatment of the first one is unsatisfactory. It lays out the allegations, notes that Jones admitted in an interview this year that the loss of the weather station records was “not acceptable”(8), then leaves the issue hanging. It offers no findings and no specific conclusions. Not a good start.

The second issue, by contrast, it handles cleverly and conclusively. Instead of relying on other people’s testimony, the review team carried out its own test: did publicly-available data exist that would allow people to replicate CRU’s temperature results? It found that the raw data were freely available on three US academic sites. It also found that competent researchers could write the computer code required to analyse them in less than two days, without asking CRU. It carried out its own analysis and produced a graph almost identical to CRU’s(9).

Four obvious conclusions follow. First, that all the information required to test CRU’s results was already freely available. Second, that the stonking fuss its critics made about alleged manipulation of its data was groundless. Third, that there was nothing special about the unit’s computer codes: the corresponding fuss that climate scientists made about CRU’s intellectual property was also bogus. And fourth that, by reacting so defensively, the scientists at the unit kept this fake scandal alive.

On the issue of excluding inconvenient papers, the review is also – mostly – convincing. It demonstrates the importance of context. A single email suggests that a journal editor is trying to shut out a paper whose conclusions he rejects(10). But read the whole series and it emerges as the final step in a painfully fair process(11). The review also shows that the IPCC’s selection process was rigorous, that papers weren’t improperly excluded and that Jones didn’t act alone to shut them out, and couldn’t have. But the case that might have provided the clearest evidence of unfair exclusion – Jones’s apparent flat rejection of a paper challenging his findings by the Swedish scientist Lars Kamel(12) – was not investigated.

The Russell review’s harshest results concern the FoI issue. Again the scientists were their own worst enemies: their “unhelpful” and “overly defensive” response triggered the avalanche of FoI requests that eventually threatened to smother them. But the report shared the blame for this “consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness” between the research unit and the university(13). It doesn’t comment on the possible illegality of Phil Jones’s requests.

Overall it shows, in most cases persuasively, that there is no evidence of fraud, manipulation or a lack of rigour and honesty on the part of the CRU scientists. The science is sound; the IPCC has not been compromised.

So was I wrong to have called, soon after this story broke, for Jones’s resignation?(14) I think, on balance, that I was. He said some very stupid things. At times he squelched the scientific principles of transparency and openness. He might have broken the law. But he was also provoked beyond endurance. I think, in the light of everything I’ve now seen and read, that if I were to write that article again I would conclude that Phil Jones should hang on – but only just. I hope the last review gives him some peace.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/06/hacked-climate-science-emails-sceptics-abuse

2. Muir Russell et al, July 2010. The Independent Climate Change E-mails Review. http://www.cce-review.org/pdf/FINAL%20REPORT.pdf

3. PD Jones et al, 1990. Assessment of Urbanisation effects in Time Series of Surface Air Temperature Over Land. Nature, Vol. 347, pp.169-172.

4. See Fred Pearce, 2010. The Climate Files. Guardian Books.

5. http://eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=419

6. http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=891

7. http://eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=888

8. http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100215/full/news.2010.71.html

9. Figure 6.1, page 47, Muir Russell et al, ibid.

10. http://eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=320

11. Page 67, Muir Russell et al, ibid.

12. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/09/peer-review-block-scientific-papers

13. Page 11, Muir Russell et al, ibid.

14. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/nov/23/global-warming-leaked-email-climate-scientists

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