“Climategate” Researchers Cleared—But Don’t Expect the Controversy to End

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In what I really hope is the final word on “climategate”—the controversy over thousands of emails stolen from the archives of climate researchers at Britain’s East Anglia University and published on the Internet last year—an independent British inquiry into the matter largely cleared the scientists involved. Muir Russell, a senior British civil servant who lead the inquiry, found today that while some of the researchers involved could have been more open with their critics and more willing to share data, there was no evidence of fraud, according to CNN:

“We went through this very carefully and we concluded that these behaviors did not damage our judgment of the integrity, the honesty, the rigor with which they had operated as scientists,” Russell said.

Phil Jones—the beleaguered head of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), who had stepped down in the wake of the emails’ publication—will now return to a new post at the university as director of research. For a man who was reportedly contemplating suicide at the height of the controversy, the decision has to come as a validation—even though the review said that Jones was often too slow to act on Freedom of Information requests from outside critics. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Jones’s new job won’t involve any administrative responsibilities—although most working researchers would probably view that as a bonus.)

Importantly, the Russell report found no evidence that anything within the climategate emails might have unduly influenced the UN’s authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessments. When the emails were released, skeptics seized on the idea that all the temperature data from CRU might somehow be tainted. But temperature is tracked independently by a number of other institutions around the world—including NASA in the U.S.

Edward Acton, East Anglia’s vice-chancellor, said in a statement that he hoped the Muir inquiry would be the last nail in the false climategate affair:

Today, for the third and hopefully for the final time, an exhaustive independent review has exposed as unfounded the overwhelming thrust of the allegations against our science.

We hope that commentators will accurately reflect what this highly detailed independent report says, and finally lay to rest the conspiracy theories, untruths and misunderstandings that have circulated.

Will that be the case? Will skeptics lay down their arms? Since this is an English affair, let’s put it in their terms: not bloody likely. For years, climate researchers and activists who were convinced of the danger of global warming believed that the public would wake up if they just had access to the right information, the right studies, that showed how frightening climate change really was. The reason the public wasn’t clamoring for a carbon cap was because fossil fuel interests—aided and abetted by a lazy media—were blocking that information, obscuring the picture, as Joe Romm of ClimateProgress wrote in a recent post.

Now it’s true that the fossil fuel industry, among other business interests that would be threatened by climate change, have long financed attacks on global warming science that are right out of the tobacco industry playbook. (Read Naomi Oreskes’s and Erik Conway’s new book Merchants of Doubt for the full story.) And too often the media—far from being in the pocket of environmentalists—have reported on climate change in a he said, she said kind of way that creates the appearance of an equivalence of fact between climate scientists and deniers even when none exists.

But as Andrew Revkin pointed out in a recent post, there’s no indication that if the public somehow had perfect access to scientific information about climate change—which is itself still riddled with some uncertainty, as all science is—they’d be marching on Washington to demand a carbon tax. Our positions seem set, and have as much to do with emotion and ideology as anything else. It’s inescapable that nearly all the plans to reduce carbon emissions involve either a new tax or stronger government regulations of the private industry through a carbon cap and efficiency standards—so it’s not exactly surprising that Republicans would be more skeptical of climate change, and Democrats more accepting.

We like to think we’re perfectly rational beings, capable of weighing the evidence dispassionately and coming to the correct conclusion. We’re not.

So what’s the answer? Well, at the very least climate scientists need to be more upfront with the public about their methods, data and conclusions. Science—especially when you’re dealing with an issue as vital to the future of the planet as global warming—has to be done in the open now, transparently. (Blogs like the great RealClimate, which feature actual climate researchers talking to the public, are a step in the right direction.) And there’s hope that the climategate affair, for all its tawdriness, might actually push researchers in that direction, as Muir Russell said on CNN:

“Science is no longer done as it were amongst consenting scientists in private, producing scientific papers that only they discussed and only they understood. And instead it becomes part of public debate,” Russell said.

“One of the things that’s really driven that is what they call the blogosphere. It’s the fact that there are lots and lots of challengers and critics who get out there and discuss, argue, make suggestions, call for changes and the scientist find themselves in that debate,” he said.

Fighting climate change will be the equivalent of a war, one that will last for decades. But we can’t get started until we end the civil war amongst us.