climate change and the CRU break-in

Posted on: Thu, 12/03/2009 - 14:50 By: Tom Swiss

Back in August, I said "Seems we can look forward to the same sort of lies, manipulation, and manufactured outrage about climate change we're currently enjoying about health care." I hate to say "I told you so", but as we see the same sort of wacko conspiracy theories and the same sort out-of-context quoting as was applied to the health care debate being applied to the stolen emails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University...well, I told you so.

So what's really going on here?

First, some background on the science. We know, as certainly as we know anything, that the greenhouse effect is real, that carbon dioxide, methane, ozone (essentially, ozone up high good, ozone down low bad), and CFCs are greenhouse gasses whose presence in the atmosphere makes the planet warmer.

We know for certain that human activity -- the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, certain agricultural techniques -- is adding to levels of these gasses. CO2 levels have risen from about 280 to nearly 380 ppm over the past century and a half, and this CO2 does not come from the oceans outgassing CO2. It's from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation.

These points are simply not open for debate among rational people. If you wish to dispute them, please go wait in line behind the creationists, the "death panel"ers, the "birthers", the "a missile hit the Pentagon and the WTC was brought down with a controlled demolition!" variety of "9/11 truthers", and the Holocaust deniers. Thanks.

We also know with a high degree of certainty that the planet is warming up. This conclusion takes us into the realm of history, which is never as certain as physics or chemistry -- we can't re-run history like we can a physics experiment. And our knowledge of history is very biased: we have the best data from regions where there were literate civilizations, and have to rely on paleontological methods for the rest of the world. Still, while the details are fuzzy, our certainty that the planet warming is very high. That doesn't mean that measured surface temperatures for every year will be warmer than the previous one, any more than every day in May is going to be warmer than the one before.

You can see some some pictures and some details of the temperature trends here and here.

Knowing that the planet is warming, and knowing that we're doing stuff that tends to make the planet warm up, most people would jump to the conclusion that the first is caused by the second.

But scientists are professional skeptics, and thus have to account for extraordinary possibilities. It could be merely a coincidence: the planet does have natural warming and cooling cycles and natural fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 levels. Real skeptics recognize that this would be an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence -- something on the order of claiming that "yes, Smith pointed a gun at Jones and pulled the trigger, and Jones got a hole in him and died, but the wound actually came from a meteorite that coincidentally hit that precise place at that exact time". Possible, but not something that's going to be accepted over the more usual explanation -- Smith shot Jones -- without some significant evidence.

Real skeptics remain open to the presentation of such evidence, but so far, none has come to light. Proposals that the warming can be accounted for by changes in cosmic rays or by changes in solar luminosity (i.e., the the sun getting brighter; see also Peter Laut's paper here) -- changes that would have to just happen to correspond with the uptick in industrial activity -- haven't panned out.

On the other hand, corporate shills, or those who hold to religious beliefs that their god gave mankind the planet to tear up like a spoiled kid messing up a fancy car, or that "property rights" or "markets" are more important than people, have strong incentive to deny the science. Instead they hold that the IPCC, NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Sciences, the science academies of Brazil, China and India, and numerous other scientific organizations, are all engaged in a sinister conspiracy, with the apparent goal of undermining the national sovereignty of the U.S. and restricting it's God-given right to spew whatever it wants into the atmosphere, in order to...well, that part of the batshit crazy conspiracy theory has never been clear to me. I guess climatologists just hate freedom.

Given the politicization of science, and the prevalence of this sort of batshit crazy conspiracy theory, we can perhaps understand why some climatologists would express frustration -- even express it rudely -- in e-mail intended to be private, shop-talk between colleagues.

So, with that background, let's look at a few of the bits of stolen e-mail causing the most buzz. Time and space only permits me to refute a small part of the batshittery here, but if you want to dig deeper, the discussion threads at are a good place to start.

It's a trick!

Way back when I was learning calculus, I learned "tricks" like integration by parts and differentiation under the integral sign. It's been ages since I did any calculus, so don't ask me to remember more than the names! But they were "tricks of the trade", and often referred to as "tricks".

So when I see a ten year old e-mail from Phil Jones saying "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i. e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline," it's pretty clear what sort of "trick" is being referred to.

But what about the bit about "hide the decline"? OMG, that evil conspiracy is hiding something from us! Well, no. As Micheal Mann explains, "The 'decline' refers to a well-known decline in the response of only a certain type of tree-ring data (high-latitude tree-ring density measurements collected by Briffa and colleagues) to temperatures after about 1960. In their original article in Nature in 1998, Briffa and colleagues are very clear that the post-1960 data in their tree-ring dataset should not be used in reconstructing temperatures due to a problem known as the "divergence problem" where their tree-ring data decline in their response to warming temperatures after about 1960. 'Hide' was therefore a poor word choice, since the existence of this decline, and the reason not to use the post 1960 data because of it, was not only known, but was indeed the point emphasized in the original Briffa et al Nature article." [Emphasis added -tms]

Of course, that's how nefarious this cabal is: they hide their tricks right out in the open, publishing them in major scientific journals and on the web sites of government agencies like NOAA.

They won't show us the data!

Much has been made of the fact that the CRU won't release all of its raw data. But the nefarious agent here is copyright and "intellectual property" law, not a climatology cabal. Halldór Björnsson explains,

Most [National Meteorological Services] also can distribute all sorts of data that are classified as “additional data and products”. Restrictions can be placed on these. These special data and products (which can range from regular weather data from a specific station to maps of rain intensity based on satellite and radar data). Many nations do place restrictions on such data...

The reasons for restricting access is often commercial, NMSs are often required by law to have substantial income from commercial sources, in other cases it can be for national security reasons, but in many cases (in my experience) the reasons simply seem to be “because we can”.

What has this got to do with CRU? The data that CRU needs for their data base comes from entities that restrict access to much of their data. And even better, since the UK has submitted an exception for additional data, some nations that otherwise would provide data without question will not provide data to the UK. I know this from experience, since my nation (Iceland) did send in such conditions and for years I had problem getting certain data from the US.

The ideal, that all data should be free and open is unfortunately not adhered to by a large portion of the meteorological community. Probably only a small portion of the CRU data is “locked” but the end effect is that all their data becomes closed. It is not their fault, and I am sure that they dislike them as much as any other researcher who has tried to get access to all data from stations in region X in country Y.

These restrictions end up by wasting resources and hurting everyone. The research community (CRU included) and the public are the victims. If you don’t like it, write to you NMSs and urge them to open all their data.

It's a travesty!

"The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't," wrote Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in an October 12 2009 e-mail.

According to the conspiracy theorists, this is an example of someone within the cabal expressing private doubts about the reality of climate change. OMG! The conspiracy is finally falling apart!

Or, you know, it might be a scientist upset because the data they want is incomplete. That this is the reality of the situation is clean when we look at some more of the e-mail:

The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate. [emphasis added -tms]

The "travesty" is the lack of detail in our observations, not some gigantic hole in the theory. It's even clearer if we look to Trenberth's paper that he cites in the e-mail:

Given that there is continual heating of the planet, referred to as radiative forcing, by accelerating increases of carbon dioxide (Fig. 1) and other greenhouses due to human activities, why isn’t the temperature continuing to go up? The stock answer is that natural variability plays a key role1 and there was a major La Niña event early in 2008 that led to the month of January having the lowest anomaly in global temperature since 2000. While this is true, it is an incomplete explanation. In particular, what are the physical processes? From an energy standpoint, there should be an explanation that accounts for where the radiative forcing has gone. Was it compensated for temporarily by changes in clouds or aerosols, or other changes in atmospheric circulation that allowed more radiation to escape to space? Was it because a lot of heat went into melting Arctic sea ice or parts of Greenland and Antarctica, and other glaciers? Was it because the heat was buried in the ocean and sequestered, perhaps well below the surface? Was it because the La Niña led to a change in tropical ocean currents and rearranged the configuration of ocean heat? Perhaps all of these things are going on? But surely we have an adequate system to track whether this is the case or not, don’t we?

Well, it seems that the answer is no, we do not. But we should! Given that global warming is unequivocally happening and there has so far been a failure to outline, let alone implement, global plans to mitigate the warming, then adapting to the climate change is an imperative. [emphasis added -tms]

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