A second strategically-timed unauthorized release of climate scientists’ e-mails dating from 2009 apparently seeks to disrupt international climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. But the newly released materials, while not always flattering to authors or participants, shed little light on the underlying science. 

A new selection of University of East Anglia climate science e-mails, again released on a Russian file server by unknown individuals, has set the blogosphere abuzz while prompting little interest from most mainstream news organizations.

While reinforcing troubling themes that emerged in the original tranche of e-mails, there is little that has direct bearing on the validity of the science involved. Rather, the e-mails paint a picture of the often frank and sharp exchanges and disagreements among academics deeply involved in their work.

In the latest instance, hackers put out some 5,000 e-mails on the Web shortly before the start of the Durbin international climate policy conference. The previous release, not coincidentally, had come just before the 2009 Copenhagen meeting.

All e-mails released date from before 2009, indicating that they are simply a subset of those previously released. The hackers included a password-protected file that contains 220,000 additional e-mails, but did not include a password to unlock it. The vast majority of the e-mails simply reflect the mundane processes of academic research, but the hackers released a specifically selected set of about 80 one-line quotes apparently intended to cast the scientists in the worst possible light. This approach notably differs from the first e-mail release, where no specific quotes were highlighted, suggesting a more active effort on the part of those releasing the e-mails to shape the ensuing discourse.

News Analysis

Reading single cherry-picked lines out of context can be dangerous of course, especially when ellipsis are used to string together disparate parts of different e-mails. A more thorough reading of the e-mails in question reveals that many troubling quotes are much more benign when placed into context. The Guardian took an insightful look at some of the context behind the highlighted quotes.

For example, one of the quotes highlighted by those who released the e-mails was this sentence from Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona:

The trick may be to decide on the main message and use that to guid[e] what’s included and what is left out.

Sound like an effort to tilt the report in question, a section of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report? The sentence in context paints a different picture:

Regarding 6.5.4 — I hope Dick and Keith will have jump [sic.] in to help you lead, and I can too. I think the hardest, yet most important part, is to boil the section down to 0.5 pages. In looking over your good outline, sent back on Oct. 17 (my delay is due to fatherdom just after this time), you cover ALOT. The trick may be to decide on the main message and use that to guid[e] what’s included and what is left out. For the IPCC, we need to know what is relevant and useful for assessing recent and future climate change. Moreover, we have to have solid data — not inconclusive information.

The full context makes it clear Overpeck was talking about simply boiling down a large body of data into a sort of half-page summary, certainly nothing nefarious.

Similarly, a quote from Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia that:

I too don’t see why the schemes should be symmetrical. The temperature ones certainly will not as we’re choosing the periods to show warming.

makes it appear that proverbial books are being cooked to show warming, when it is actually just pulled out of a discussion on color schemes for a chart:

The color schemes that look good in its Fig 2 are D for temperature and C for precip (if the blue gets changed to a green). The blue would be better for color-blind people. I too don’t see why the schemes should be symmetrical. The temperature ones certainly will not as we’re choosing the periods to show warming. We seem to be agreeing on having two other colors (one for nearish to zero anomalies and for missing). If we go with your globally complete dataset, then this only means missing is over the oceans for precip — except for the confidence in the trends in data sparse regions. So I’d go for white (no colour) for missing as this will mean the oceans are blank for precip. Nearish to zero trends then have to be grey.

When examining the e-mails in detail, a number of themes emerge that are worth exploring in depth. They reveal things that cast the authors in poor light at times, but also tend to show the scientific process working for all its warts and blemishes. The ivory tower may have seemed solid and shiny on the outside a few years ago, but this e-mail release (and the one before) should put to rest the idea of scientists as completely dispassionate observers beyond the fray of personal politics, group identities, and sometimes bitter rivalries.

Criticism and Skepticism

Many of the e-mails are notable for a tone and sharpness of criticism of fellow scientists not often seen in the public arena. In a sense this is a good sign: scientists should be skeptical, and should criticize incomplete or insufficient work even if done by a friend or colleague. It is also no surprise that few of these critiques were made publicly, but rather to colleagues or directly to the person in question.

One example of this useful criticism in practice can be seen from a quote by Raymond Bradley, of the University of Massachusetts, to Keith Briffa, University of East Anglia, back in 2003:

… the Mann/Jones GRL paper was truly pathetic and should never have been published. I don’t want to be associated with that 2000 year “reconstruction”.

Its useful to note here that Bradley is a frequent co-author with Michael Mann on paleoclimate reconstructions, but was dissatisfied with the 2003 paper published by Mann and Jones purporting to show a full 2000-year Northern Hemisphere reconstruction for the first time. He subsequently resolved his disagreements and worked with Mann on a 2000-year reconstruction in 2008 that found notably different results during some periods than had the Mann and Jones 2003 reconstruction.

Figure from Mann et al 2008, on which Bradley was a coauthor. Note the differences between the EIV and CPS reconstructions from that paper with the earlier Mann and Jones 2003 reconstruction.

There is also some evidence that critiques by some skeptics are being seriously considered and debated, particularly those by Steve McIntyre against the Mann, Bradley and Hughes 1998 paper. For example, an e-mail by Rob Wilson at Edinburgh University succeeds in replicating one of McIntyre’s criticisms against the 1998 paper, though the issue has been addressed extensively since then and new techniques avoid some of the pitfalls of the original decentered Principal Component Analysis approach.

Another e-mail reflects a real disagreement over the best way to do comparisons of models and recent temperatures, with scientist Tom Wigley arguing that a figure produced by NASA/GISS scientist Gavin Schmidt was “very deceptive” and a “dishonest presentation.” Schmidt has responded that he disagreed with Wigley’s assertion at the time, and chalks it up to a reasonable difference of opinion on methodology.

Dangers of a Noble Cause

Many of the e-mails reveal an acute awareness of the spotlight on climate science, and the aggressive pushback from some climate science “skeptics” in the political realm and the court of public opinion. While the traditional notion of the scientist as a dispassionate observer has always been something of an oversimplification, there has always been a danger of straying between science and activism without at least slightly compromising the presentation of the science.

There are a number of examples in the e-mails where scientists are reluctant to publicly air criticism that emerged as part of the scientific process. This includes scientist Heinz Wanner’s statement when discussing a critique he submitted to the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report criticizing the choice to display the “hockeystick” from the 1998 Mann et al paper without more caveats:

I just refused to give an exclusive interview to SPIEGEL because I will not cause damage for climate science. I just told a woman from SPIEGEL that I do carefully follow the activities and the forthcoming of the next IPCC report and I will then take position concerning the paleoclimate chapter there. I thought it is meaningful to infomr [sic.] you about this fact.

Similarly, in discussing his communication about the reliability of some early paleoclimate proxy reconstructions, UAE’s Briffa wrote (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that:

Really happy to get critical comment here. There is no doubt that this section will attract all the venom from the skeptics. I find myself in the strange position of being very skeptical of the quality of all present reconstructions, yet sounding like a pro greenhouse zealot here!

An e-mail from attorney Kathryn Humphrey, of the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, to Phil Jones about a project she was working on gives a clear example of pressures scientists sometimes face in telling a simple story and not dwelling excessively on uncertainties:

This is a political reaction, not one based on any scientific analysis of the weather generator. We did the peer review to take care of that. I can’t overstate the HUGE amount of political interest in the project as a message that the Government can give on climate change to help them tell their story. They want the story to be a very strong one and don’t want to be made to look foolish. Therefore, every time they hear about any criticisms from anyone, they jump.

This is not to suggest that uncertainties are hidden per se; indeed, it is difficult to get an article published in the peer-reviewed literature without including error bars and a robust discussion of uncertainties. Rather, in public presentments of the science to policymakers or the media (and to some extent in assessment reports like the IPCC), scientists have to craft a clearer message, which often leads to emphasizing the communication of the result more than the underlying uncertainties.

Implications for the Future

The original 2009 release of e-mails spawned five different investigations, none of which found significant fault by the scientists involved and, more importantly, no corruption of the science itself.

As a reaction to that experience, climate scientists have become much more open in making raw data and code available to everyone, even their most persistent critics, and few papers have emerged to fundamentally challenge past work done by the scientists involved.

While not all of the newly released e-mails reflect positively on their authors, they reveal little new beyond what was released two years ago. In this context, it makes sense, when analyzing the e-mails, to keep in mind that the choice of e-mails released and the quotes highlighted are specifically chosen to cast the scientists involved in a conspiratorial light.

Zeke is an energy systems analyst and environmental economist with a strong interest in conservation and efficiency. He was previously the chief scientist at C3, an energy management and efficiency company,...