Climategate Continues to Crumble

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Score a win for climate science: Penn State University announced today that climate scientist Michael Mann had been cleared of all scientific misconduct charges stemming from the “climategate” emails that had been hacked from Britain’s East Anglia University last fall. Here’s the release from the folks at State College: (More on See photos of the summer solstice at Stonehenge)

Penn State Professor Michael Mann has been cleared of any wrongdoing, according to a report of the investigation that was released today (July 1). Mann was under investigation for allegations of research impropriety that surfaced last year after thousands of stolen e-mails were published online. The e-mails were obtained from computer servers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in England, one of the main repositories of information about climate change.

They’re referring to “climategate,” the controversy that exploded last November when an unknown hacker published thousands of emails by climate scientists pilfered from the archives of East Anglia. Mann—a prominent climate scientist who authored the famous “hockey stick” graph showing temperatures skyrocketing in the Northern Hemisphere over the past century—had been a central figure in the emails. In one email from the stolen archive, Mann suggests to Phil Jones, the head of CRU, that they discourage colleagues from submitting to an academic journal they believed was too friendly to climate skeptics. In another, Jones referred to using a statistical “trick” that Mann had used before in a study on reconstructing temperature data from tree-density. (More on See a gallery of who to point the blame at for the oil spill)

In the immediate aftermath of the emails’ publication, Penn State had opened an investigation into Mann’s work, looking at four charges: that Mann had supressed or falsified data, that he had deleted emails, that he had misused confidential information and that he had somehow deviated from standard academic practices. The first three charges were quickly dismissed by the university in January—the last charge was dismissed today as well by a team of five faculty members. As Mann told Daily Climate in an interview today, he never doubted that he’d be exonerated:

“I don’t doubt for a minute that the climate-change deniers will continue their campaign of disinformation and smear. That’s all they’ve got left,” he said.

Mann’s acquittal is just the most recent bit of news showing that climategate—and the wave of climate skepticism that seemed to arise at the beginning of the year—had little basis. A parliamentary inquiry in Britain acquitted East Anglia’s Jones of any scientific impropriety back in April. And last week the Sunday Times of London, a right-leaning British paper that covered the climategate emails obsessively, printed a lengthy retraction of a story earlier this year claiming that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had no basis for stating that up to 40% of the Amazonian rainforest could be vulnerable to climate change. Here’s what they wrote: (More on See a gallery on Sarah Palin’s year of living large)

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure . . . was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that . . . Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

(I’d link to the original Sunday Times retraction on their website, but can’t seem to get the link to work. Very odd.)

It’s not that climate scientists and the IPCC—the UN body that puts out assessments on the state of climate science—are completely blameless. Mistakes were made. In its 2007 assessment, the IPCC mistakenly reported that the glaciers of the Himalayas could melt by 2035 thanks to global warming, a statement that had no basis in fact—the glaciers are indeed melting, but it would take far longer than three decades for them to vanish—and was actually taken from a report by an activist group, not a peer-reviewed study. And the climategate emails from East Anglia showed that climate scientists could sometimes act, well, a little dismissively towards skeptics. (More on Read more on climate change and space junk)

But the idea that those emails and a few errors within the IPCC’s massive reports somehow represented an international scientific conspiracy—as more than a few websites argued—is simply untrue. And as Mann’s exoneration and the Sunday Times retraction shows, it’s the skeptics who seem to be pushing the facts too far, not the other way around. But the damage may have already been done—a February poll by the BBC found that 26% of Britons believe the climate change is real and is happening, down from 41% in November 2009, and a similar drop occurred among Germans, two countries that are usually in favor of action on climate change.

So what to do? As Nature argued in an editorial June 30, climate scientists need to be more open with their data and steer clear of hype. But the public—and the media—need to be more open as well, open to the reality that climate change is a reality, even if we can argue endlessly about how to deal with it. It’s not a conspiracy. Tt’s long since time to deal with the consequences, and stop arguing about the footnotes.