The ‘Climategate’ Nontroversy

I wrote a little bit about the so-called ‘climategate’ story earlier, but I figure I should tackle it head-on.

Background: several thousand emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. A number of right-wingers and global warming skeptics went through the emails and cherry-picked parts that made it seem like some climate scientists were manipulating data to make the case for global warming.

Was that the case? Well, not entirely:

The hackers have picked choice phrases out of context — and context is all: without it, these statements look awful. In the one most quoted, the director of the Climate Research Unit (CRU), Phil Jones, talks about using a “trick” to “hide the decline”. At first reading, this easily translates as “deceiving [politicians, other scientists, everyone] into believing the world is warming when it is actually cooling”.

But it doesn’t mean that at all. Jones is talking about a line on a graph for the cover of a World Meteorological Organisation report, published in 2000, which shows the results of different attempts to reconstruct temperature over the past 1,000 years. The line represents one particular attempt, using tree-ring data for temperature. The method agrees with actual measurements before about 1960, but diverges from them after that — for reasons only partly understood, discussed in the literature.

The tree-ring measure declines, but the actual temperatures after 1960 go up. They draw the line to follow the tree-ring reconstruction up to 1960 and the measured temperature after that. The notes explain that the data are “reconstructions, along with historical and long instrumental records”. Not very clear perhaps, but not much of a “trick”.

[Emphasis mine]

In other words, the scientist in question was trying to reconcile tree ring data with actual temperature measurements–the two aligned closely until about the 1960’s, when they started to diverge. It’s dry and wonky, but it’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

The larger question: has ‘climategate’ significantly damaged the case for anthropogenic global warming? In a word, no:

But the climate establishment — including the U.S. government’s top scientists on the subject — say that nothing in the e-mails disproves their bedrock ideas. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are still gathering in the atmosphere and trapping more of the sun’s heat, and the consequences of that will still be dire in the long run, they say.

Our collective understanding of how the Earth is warming . . . rests on a wealth of scientific information that is very diverse and comes from multiple sources and multiple groups,” said Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Regardless of what happened in one place, it doesn’t undermine the totality of what we know.”

[Emphasis mine]

And that’s what really matters. The data proving global warming is significant–it comes from thousands of scientists across a variety of separate, independent organizations.

Even if the scientists at the CRU were guilty of manipulating data, even if all of their data were to be discounted, there would still be a massive amount of proof that anthropogenic global warming exists.

For instance:

The black line is the data set used by the Climatic Research Unit, the blue line is the data set used by NASA and the red line is the data set used by the NOAA.

So even if you completely discount the CRU’s entire data set, you still have several different organizations whose research comes to the exact same conclusion.

And let’s be honest here, who’s flogging ‘climategate’ the hardest? Global warming skeptics. Of course they would misconstrue the emails and blow all of this wildly out of proportion–they’re desperate to find anything at all that they can use to undermine the climate change consensus.

But this isn’t the smoking gun conservatives want it to be and it doesn’t prove what they say it does, which shouldn’t be surprising–dishonesty is often the right’s stock in trade. It takes a special kind of person to ignore decades of solid scientific data just because they don’t like what it says and don’t want to believe it’s real.