As a result of the unauthorized publication of nearly 1100 private emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in November, 2009, five separate inquiries were empaneled to look into whether or not the CRU researchers had committed research misconduct, broke Freedom of Information laws, or inappropriately biased the results of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) published in 2007. All four of the other reviews, two by Pennsylvania State University, one by the UK Parliament House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, and one by Lord Oxburgh of the Royal Society, concluded that the CRU scientists had not engaged in either scientific misconduct or the manipulation of the peer review process, although one inquiry found that the scientists hadn’t been as open with their data and methodologies as they should have been.
The last of the five reviews, the Independent Climate Change Email Review (ICCER), published its findings on July 7, 2010. In general terms, the ICCER found that the CRU scientists’ “rigor and honesty” were not in doubt and that there was no “evidence of behavior that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.” However, the ICCER found that there was a “consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness” with respect to sharing data. These broad conclusions largely agree with the conclusions of all four of the other inquiries.
The ICCER was tasked with determining whether there was merit to the many allegations that had been leveled against the CRU scientists as a result of the published emails. To this end, the panelists endeavored to determine if the scientists behaved appropriately or not, focusing on actual behavior rather than on the email conversations. The panelists did not attempt to make any findings about the correctness of various scientific methods and conclusions, deciding that the scientific issues were beyond their purview.
S&R has examined the entire ICCER report as well as some of submissions that were most often mentioned in the ICCER report, and has found that the ICCER specifically addressed nearly all the points within their purview and overwhelming rejected the specific allegations made against the CRU scientists.
In order to test whether CRU withheld information from critics and whether such withholding data would have even mattered, the ICCER undertook a test project. The ICCER tracked down public climate data, wrote their own code to process the data, and then compared their results against the actual CRUTEM, NCDC, and NASA land temperature records. In the process, the ICCER found the following:
- Anyone working in this area would have knowledge of the availability of data from these sources.
- Any independent researcher may freely obtain the primary station data. It is impossible for a third party to withhold access to the data.
- It is impossible for a third party to tamper improperly with the data unless they have also been able to corrupt the GHCN and NCAR sources. We do not consider this to be a credible possibility, and in any case this would be easily detectable by comparison to the original NMO records or other sources such as the Hadley Centre. (emphasis added)
In essence, the test showed that the accusations of data tampering, of data withholding, and of cherry picking land temperature data were all false. The test also illustrated that the adjustments made by CRU with respect to non-climatic influences (such as the urban heat island effect, aka UHI) were neither unusual nor significant.
This test demonstrated to the ICCER that any “research unit which is competent to reproduce or test the CRUTEM analysis” could verify that CRU’s analysis was correct and that any researcher can do so “without requiring any information from CRU.” This finding didn’t excuse CRU entirely, however, as the ICCER felt that code written over the course of data analysis should be published along with the publication of any manuscript that uses the code.
The ICCER also investigated whether or not Phil Jones, co-author of a key paper on the effects of UHI on land temperatures with Prof. Wei-Chyung Wang, committed professional misconduct by “failing to respond appropriately to allegations of fraud” levied against Wang. Jones chose not to publicly respond to the accusations against Wang in until a fraud investigation at Prof. Wang’s university, the State University of New York – Albany, had completed. Contrary to an allegation made by Dr. Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the ICCER found that Jones did publicly respond after the allegations of fraud had been rejected by SUNY-Albany in both an interview published in the journal Nature and in a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
The ICCER found that, with respect to these six specific allegations, “nothing in the behaviour on the part of CRU scientists… undermine(s) the validity of their work.”
In addition to investigating allegations related to the CRU land temperature record, the ICCER also looked into allegations regarding the CRU tree-ring proxy records. Critics alleged that the CRU tree ring proxy temperature records used in Chapter 6 of the IPCC AR4 WG1 report, specifically Figure 6.10 (pictured at right) and its explanatory text, were misleading due to “improperly selected” (aka cherry-picked) data and/or incorrectly presented information on uncertainty.
What the ICCER found with respect to allegedly cherry picked data was that it was entirely reasonable that replacing dataset A with dataset B would have an effect on the outcome, but it was unreasonable to assume that the differences between the two automatically invalidated the results based on dataset A. They pointed out that the dataset A results would only be invalidated if all of the following conditions were met:
- That it has been proven that series B is more representative over the whole period than series A.
- That the difference between series A and B is important in a temperature reconstruction in which it is included.
- That if A were replaced with B in each of the reconstructions in which A is included then the conclusions drawn in respect of the likely ranking of the past to the present would change significantly when considering all reconstructions together (including those in which it does not appear) [emphasis added].
What the ICCER discovered in the process of their investigations was that no-one has yet made a “coherent, comprehensive and scrutinized case” that all three of these conditions have been met. Furthermore, the ICCER claimed that no submission had referenced any research that met all three conditions and therefore no valid justification yet existed to “sustain a charge of impropriety on the part of [Chapter 6’s] many authors.” Furthermore, the ICCER noted that Briffa, the author of a 2000 paper on tree ring proxies that has been repeatedly criticized by Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit, had published a response to McIntyre’s criticisms that demonstrated the results of original Yamal (dataset A above) publication were consistent with results “using an updated analysis incorporating a comprehensive set of contemporary data.” The ICCER could find no similar comprehensive analysis rebutting the one produced by Briffa.
In addition, the ICCER investigated a couple of other issues related to the CRU’s handling of the Yamal data and a related dataset, the Tornetrask tree ring data. It was alleged that CRU withheld the Yamal tree ring series data from a reasonable request for it by McIntyre, but the panel found that CRU didn’t have the right to archive the data as it belonged to someone else. The ICCER also found that the McIntyre’s one request for the Yamal data had been correctly referred to the Russian scientists who owned the data. In addition, the panel took exception to McIntyre’s claim that a “bodge” (an ad hoc “upward adjustment of the low-frequency behaviour of the density signal after 1750”) was underhanded in some way. According to the report, the “bodge” “was fully described in the paper” and “[t]he conjecture [that an upward adjustment to the data after 1750 was needed] was later validated when it was shown to be an effect due to the standardisation technique adopted in 1992.” In one of the most direct rejections of a complaint in the entire 160 page report, the ICCER says the following with respect to McIntyre’s allegation:
We find it unreasonable that this issue, pertaining to a publication in 1992, should continue to be misrepresented widely to imply some sort of wrongdoing or sloppy science. (emphasis added)
The allegations of cherry picking and misuse of data were thus rejected by the panel. With respect Figure 6.10, the ICCER found that it also was not misleading. Specifically, the panel found that
- The variation within and between lines, as well as the depiction of uncertainty is quite apparent to any reader.
- It presents all relevant published reconstructions we are aware of, i.e. there has been no exclusion of other published temperature reconstructions which would show a very different picture.
- The general discussion of sources of uncertainty in the text is extensive, including reference to divergence and it therefore cannot be said that anything has been suppressed.
While the ICCER specifically did not address the scientific merit of divergence in some tree ring proxy series since 1960, they did investigate deeply enough “to be satisfied that it is not hidden and that the subject is openly and extensively discussed in the literature.” Furthermore, as the divergence issue applied to a graph produced by Jones for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the ICCER also found that the use of splicing and truncation of data was itself not inherently misleading.
Ultimately, the ICCER rejected all five of the specific allegations relating to the CRU’s treatment of tree ring proxy datasets in the published literature and in Chapter 6 of the IPCC AR4 WG1 report. However, there were also allegations that CRU scientists had used their positions as IPCC authors to “prevent proper consideration of views which conflicted with their own.” These allegations specifically related to the same CRUTEM land temperature record and tree ring temperature proxy data mentioned above and discussed at length in Chapters 3 and 6 respectively of the WG1 report.
According to the ICCER report, there are two main allegations regarding the content of Chapter 3. The first is a result of Jones’ email to Kevin Trenberth that Jones would “redefine peer review” to keep a 2004 paper by Ross McKitrick and Patrick Michaels (MM2004) out of the IPCC. The second is that Jones supposedly wrote a passage in Chapter 3 specifically designed to blunt the MM2004 criticisms and that the contents of the passage were “contrived in the published draft for the specific purpose of rejecting [the MM2004] evidence.”
Jones was given the opportunity to respond to these charges and his responses were summarized by the ICCER. First, Jones said that the reason he’d responded so vehemently in the “redefine peer review” email and hadn’t included MM2004 in the early WG1 drafts was that MM2004 “can be readily shown to be scientifically flawed” for two reasons. Jones’ first reason is that “if the CRUTEM3 trend is reduced by the factor claimed by MM2004, the land-based record then becomes incompatible with the ocean and the satellite record.” Jones’ second reason is that the MM2004 failed to account for changes in atmospheric circulation, and that the statistical test demanded by MM2004 author McKitrick didn’t make sense until the circulation changes were included. Jones also described how the decision to include MM2004 and another critical paper had been made:
[T]he decision to include MM2004 (and de Laat and Maurellis, 2006) was made at the final plenary team meeting in Bergen, and as stated the text was seen by the whole writing team. It had not been possible to include de Laat and Maurellis (2006) until then, as it was not published until after the third Lead Author’s meeting. Discussion of MM2004 can be seen in comments numbered 3-283 to 3-289 of the Second Order Draft of Chapter 3. In two of these comments (3-284 and 3-285) it was stated that reference would be made to MM2004 in Section 18.104.22.168 with some text, which would point out that the papers by MM2004 and de Laat and Maurellis were biased. The fact that the Chapter author team had now read de Laat and Maurellis is referred to in response to comment 3-289. The comments were signed off by the two Review Editors for the Chapter. (emphasis added)
This description was confirmed by the ICCER.
One of the review editors for Chapter 3, Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, corroborated Jones’ explanation, saying that “it is the responsibility of the whole team to assess whether a paper‘s conclusions are robust and to justify whether its arguments should carry weight in the assessment.” Hoskins also said that “[t]he basis for rejecting one of the papers is included in IPCC records. Decisions about the inclusion of the MM2004 paper would have been taken by the whole team.” In other words, the entire team agreed with the decision to mention but reject the two papers’ conclusions.
As a result of Jones’ and Hoskins’ responses, as well as the evidence in the IPCC records, the ICCER rejected both allegations relating to Chapter 3, saying of the first that the Chapter 3 authors
had been entrusted with the responsibility of forming a view, and that is what they did. They initially rejected inclusion of reference to MM2004, and in the final draft included a commentary on it explaining why they disagreed with its conclusions. It may be that the conclusions of MM2004 conflicted so strongly with a generally held view among climate scientists that rejection was made too easily; but in the absence of better evidence, this is mere speculation. The mechanisms of the IPCC did however ensure that a reference to the article (and to de Laat and Maurellis, 2006) was contained in the final draft.
As a result, McKitrick’s specific allegation of “invented evidence” was also found to be without justification by the ICCER.
The allegations about the IPCC tree ring temperature proxy records in Chapter 6 relate to whether or not lead author Keith Briffa broke IPCC rules in order to blunt criticisms of the so-called “hockey-stick” made in a paper by McIntyre and McKitrick (M&M2003). According to the allegations, Briffa broke IPCC rules twice, once by ignoring a paper publication deadline past which new data was not supposed to be considered and again when he communicated IPCC drafts and comments outside the official IPCC authors and reviewers. Supposedly, these two instances illustrate Briffa’s willingness to “go to exceptional and improper lengths to bolster a case that he supported and to defend it against alternative views.”
Briffa’s response to the allegations indicated that the writing team took very seriously criticisms made in the M&M2003 paper but that the core claims made in the M&M2003 paper were expected to have minimal impact on the actual shape of Figure 6.10.
[The AR4 text] considered their possible impact on the final reconstruction, citing papers that had assessed this impact including, but not exclusively, WA2007 [Wahl & Ammann, 2007]. These results indicated that the impact on the final reconstruction might be relatively small, leading to the view, contained in the AR4 text, that the criticisms raised against the MBH98 reconstruction were not sufficient to discount the evidence that it represented.
Briffa countered the allegation that he had inappropriately sent reviewer comments and IPCC text to Eugene Wahl for review by pointing out that “there is no proscription in the IPCC rules to prevent the author team seeking expert advice when and where needed,” a point with which the IPCC Technical Support Unit and Coordinating Lead Authors for Chapter 6 agreed (and which is made clear in the IPCC Principles and Procedures documentation). The review editor for Chapter 6, Prof. John Mitchell, also agreed, saying that “‘[h]ockey-stick’ issues were regarded at the time as sufficiently important to justify using new data,” even if that data had not yet been published.
As a result, the ICCER found that:
these issues were dealt with in a careful and reasonable fashion that took into account the importance of the issues addressed in M&M2003. McIntyre or McKitrick may have wished to see them addressed in a different way, but they were addressed seriously and cogently.
The ICCER also found that the communications between Briffa and Wahl were neither exceptional nor unwarranted, but were instead reasonable attempts to use up-to-date information that “appear to be consistent with IPCC principles and to reflect a concern for objectivity.”
These four allegations were all rejected by the ICCER, but there were more claims of alleged manipulation of the published record, specifically three allegations that CRU scientists and their associates attempted to manipulate peer review to squelch critical papers. However, after soliciting an expert opinion from Richard Horton, editor of the premier UK medical journal The Lancet, and after receiving corroboration of Horton’s opinion from Elizabeth Wagner, Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the ICCER found that none of the three cases rose to the level of professional misconduct.
The ICCER examined the case of a widely criticized 2003 paper by Soon and Baliunas (SB2003). According to the ICCER, climate scientists objected to it “on scientific grounds, viz. that it conflated qualitative data on temperature and precipitation from many sources that could not be combined into a consistent proxy record. (emphasis added).” The quality of the paper was deemed so bad by other editors at the journal Climate Research that several of them resigned in protest. Furthermore,
The journal‘s publisher admitted that the journal should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication. The Editor in Chief resigned on being refused permission by the publisher to write an editorial about what he regarded as a failure of the peer review system.
While the mass resignation of editors in response to a manuscript’s publication might seem odd, Horton pointed out that peer review doesn’t insulate journals, editors, authors, or reviewers from controversy.
It is common for editors to have multiple, intense, and sometimes sharp interactions with authors and reviewers. Publication matters. Authors and reviewers are frequently passionate in their intellectual combat over a piece of research. The tone of their exchanges and communications with editors can be attacking, accusatory, aggressive, and even personal. If a research paper is especially controversial and word of it is circulating in a particular scientific community, third-party scientists or critics with an interest in the work may get to hear of it and decide to contact the journal. They might wish to warn or encourage editors. This kind of intervention is entirely normal.
As a result, the ICCER concluded that “this scale of reaction is not unusual in contested areas, and the peer review process does not provide insulation from it” and the resignations and calls by the CRU scientists to shun the journal “did not amount to undue pressure on Climate Research.”
Another example of supposed manipulation of peer review occurred when CRU’s Jones allegedly sought to force the University of Hull to disavow Dr. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, Reader Emeritus at the University of Hull and editor of the journal Energy & Environment. However, the ICCER clearly didn’t hold much stock in Boehmer-Christiansen’s allegations of impropriety. First, the report says that Boehmer-Christiansen provided no evidence to support of her claim that Jones attempted to manipulate peer review. Second, while Jones did contact the University of Hull, he did so in response to accusations of fraud initially made by Boehmer-Christiansen herself. In addition, Jones was quoted as saying in one of the CRU emails “I have vented my frustration and have had a considered reply from you. (emphasis added)” As a result, the ICCER not only rejected the claims made by Boehmer-Christiansen, but also considered that “Jones’ response to her accusation of scientific fraud was appropriate, measured and restrained” given Boehmer-Christiansen’s own statements.
The third specific allegation that addressed by the ICCER was that Keith Briffa had asked an anonymous reviewer to justify Briffa’s rejection of a manuscript that Briffa ostensibly disagreed with. However, the ICCER found that the published CRU email record lacked sufficient context to justify the allegation. Briffa provided copies of the complete email chain from his personal records to the panel and the result was a very different picture. The complete email chain showed that Briffa had apologized for the delay in sending the reviewers’ comments to the manuscript’s authors and offered to “fast-track publication” of the manuscript if the authors revised it as recommended by the the reviewers. The ICCER said “we see nothing in these exchanges that supports the interpretations of subverting the peer review process that have been placed upon [the original published CRU email]” and that the complete email chain provided by Briffa doesn’t “provide evidence of subversion of process in rejecting contradictory ideas as has been alleged.”
While the ICCER rejected these three allegations along with the overwhelming majority of allegations, the panel did concur with a few of the allegations.
A number of allegations were made against CRU about their unwillingness to share their data and code. While the ICCER found that the data in question had not been withheld and that any competent researcher could reproduce the CRU code, the panel also found that CRU wasn’t open enough with the specific list of weather stations they’d used to calculate the CRUTEM land temperature datasets. As a result, the ICCER said “CRU should have made available an unambiguous list of the stations used in each of the versions of CRUTEM at the time of publication” instead of becoming defensive and delaying responses to reasonable requests for information. In upholding a similar allegation, the panel said that CRU should have ensured that the Yamal data was archived at the time of use instead of nine years later.
The ICCER also found that, while there was no misconduct per se in the splicing and truncation of data used to create Jones’ “hide the decline” WMO graph, the lack of explanation was itself misleading. Jones should have explained that he’d truncated one of the data series and that he’d spliced the instrument record on to other series but had failed to do so.
The ICCER, like the House of Commons before it, also found that CRU and the UEA had both failed to be open and helpful with climate data and that, as a result, their actions ran against the spirit and intent of the UK FoIA and the European Community Environmental Information Reporting (EIR) rules. The ICCER talked with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is doing its own investigation into whether CRU actually broke the law, and was told that requested information had to be provided unless it met one of the refusal provisions in the FoIA. While the FoIA regulations apply to both primary and secondary sources of information, the ICCER found that the FoIA needs to be clarified with regard to what types of information need to be provided in response to an FOI request.
Other FoIA/EIR findings by the ICCER include
- clear incitement to delete emails, although we have seen no evidence of any attempt to delete information in respect of a request already made.
- insufficient priority given from the UEA centre to motivating staff and to prompting continuing education.
- a lack of recognition by both CRU, and the University‘s senior management of the extent to which earlier action to release information or give full guidance to locate primary sources and to provide station identifiers might have minimized the problems.
Even with these problems, however, the ICCER also recommended that the ICO develop rules on how to handle orchestrated campaigns like the one organized by Steve McIntyre in late July, 2009.
The Review team can however conceive of situations where such orchestrated campaigns might recur, with literally overwhelming impacts on small research units. We urge the ICO to give guidance on how best to respond to such organised campaigns, consistent with the underlying principles of openness.”
It’s clear that the ICCER doesn’t want the FoIA to be used again as a means of harassment of public employees as it was in late July, 2009.
In addition to the many rejected and the few accepted allegations, the ICCER also made a few findings that didn’t go either for or against CRU.
First, the ICCER found that the UEA should train their computer code-writing scientists on formal coding standards, the utility of code reviews, software testing, etc. The ICCER recommended the same to other universities, especially those universities that house widely-known organizations like CRU. The panel felt that these changes would improve the quality and usability of code in the future and would also help insulate universities against criticism.
Second, the ICCER also looked into allegations of possible illegal behavior by CRU with respect to sending research money to Russian scientists by way of Switzerland in order to avoid paying extra taxes. While the ICCER agreed that the published emails raised questions, the panel couldn’t investigate this issue as much as they’d have liked to because the UEA had, as required by longstanding university policy, destroyed the financial records from the period in question. The panel did indicate that the CRU would have needed the help of the university’s Director of Finance to send money abroad because CRU did not have an independent bank account at the time. Presumably the Director of Finance would have known enough to not do anything that was illegal, but there wasn’t any way that the panel could determine this for certain.
Finally, the ICCER came to the same conclusion that S&R came to independently back in June, namely that the CRU emails alone did not lack sufficient context to function as proof of professional misconduct.
The ICCER remarked that intemperate language in personal emails is not reason enough to assume that the writer is being defamatory. The ICCER said
Since the communication was assumed to be private, it was generally informal, using slang, jargon and acronyms. Now that the e-mails have become public, some are doubtless regretted by their authors. Indeed, some submissions have characterised them as ‘unprofessional’, or as evidence of CRU’s contribution to a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ in climate science. The question is whether this was unusual, or simply characteristic of the normal mode of expression in e-mail communication.
This is a well known issue in social psychology and communication. Early authoritative works, reinforced by later authors, explore normative language in electronic communication in comparison with other written and oral forms. They demonstrate that e-mail communication is less inhibited than other written and spoken forms, and suggest reasons why. Extreme forms of language are frequently applied to quite normal situations by people who would never use it in other communication channels.
The extreme modes of expression used in many e-mails are characteristic of the medium. Crucially, the e-mails cannot always be relied upon as evidence of what actually occurred, nor indicative of actual behaviour that is extreme, exceptional or unprofessional. (emphasis added)
Due to the ongoing police investigation into the unauthorized publication of the emails, the complete context of the CRU emails could not be deduced by the ICCER. However, the panel acknowledged that no emails could provide the complete context because emails indicate what is said, rather than what actually happened:
E-mails are rarely definitive evidence of what actually occurred. They are open to interpretation, but they are also indicative.
And in one particular case, the complete email chain that Briffa provided in response to allegations of his manipulation of peer review, the report demonstrated how a published CRU email lacked sufficient context. In addition, the ICCER repeatedly mentioned that the improperly published CRU emails represented less than 0.3% of the data on the CRU backup server and mentioned four times that the published CRU emails had been cherry-picked:
The ‘story’ which underlies the selected e-mails, and hence is reflected in them, is summarised in the table and text which follow. [Chapter 4, ppg5, pg27]
An e-mail by Osborn circulating S&B’s 2003 paper28 is one of the most duplicated in the released e-mails triggering nine of the subsequently selected e-mail chains. [Chapter 4, ppg 5, pg29]
The presumption is that e-mails were selected to support a particular viewpoint. Recognising that they were a tiny fraction of those archived, the Review Team sought to learn more about the full contents of the back-up server. [Chapter 4, ppg 10, p33]
The selected e-mails relate largely to controversial issues, although they do not appear to have been selected on the basis of a simple word search, as indicated in the table below which shows the number of e-mails in which interesting words (or a component thereof) occur. [Appendix 6, ppg 5, p147] (emphasis added)
It is difficult if not impossible to draw accurate conclusions based exclusively on cherry-picked data, so it’s not surprising that the ICCER rejected so many of the allegations against the CRU scientists. But all these specific examples of insufficient context and information pale in comparison to the ultimate proof: at least 18 allegations of scientific misconduct, manipulation of peer review, and breaking IPCC rules were rejected while only four allegations were upheld.
With the completion of the Independent Climate Change Email Review, the fifth of five major reviews of the “Climategate” affair has come to an end. And at this point, the CRU scientists and some of their more controversial associates have been cleared of the overwhelming majority of the allegations. All the alleged manipulations of peer review, misuses of authority in writing the IPCC AR4 WG1 report, and misleading uses of tree ring proxy data have been investigated and found to be nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. Only one serious issue was found, and the UEA has already restructured itself and CRU to ensure that FoIA/EIR regulations and data sharing best practices are in followed in the future.
While the reviews were ongoing, however, the global temperature in 2009 tied for the second hottest year and 2000-2009 was the hottest decade on record, March through May set the record for the hottest 12-month periods on record, and polar sea ice continues to decline. The accusations and reviews didn’t change any of the science, which continues to strengthen even as the world warms and the oceans acidify.
Independent Climate Change Email Review
IPCC AR4 WG1
Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute, Columbia University