Skip to content

Probes into the Climategate emails used biased panels and carefully restricted terms of reference

At the end of 2009 hundreds of emails were hacked or leaked from the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The emails appeared to show scientists at the very centre of global warming science manipulating and withholding data, perverting the peer review process in order to keep their critics from publishing in the academic literature and having much more sanguine private views of climate science than the ones they presented to the public. There was a worldwide furore as the possible implications for policymakers sank in.

A number of inquiries were set up in the wake of the allegations. In the U.K., the House of Commons science and technology committee held a brief investigation, regrettably curtailed by the impending general election. The University of East Anglia, meanwhile, set up two panels, under Lord Oxburgh and Sir Muir Russell. All three inquiries have now presented their findings and, while making minor criticisms of the scientists involved, all have largely exonerated them of serious wrongdoing.

However, as I show in a recently published report, there is now overwhelming evidence that there were serious problems with the conduct of the inquiries. Public and policymakers alike can no longer regard their findings as reliable.

For example, it is clear that there was no attempt to appoint panels representing a balance of opinion regarding the climate change issue. Lord Oxburgh has been much criticized for taking on his Scientific Assessment Panel while having business interests in wind farms and green capital investment firms.

Since the Oxburgh panel reported, emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have shown that senior members of the scientific establishment in the U.K. tried to ensure that the panel would have no skeptics on board and that they expected that only a minority of its members would look at the inquiry with “questioning objectivity.” The Russell panel appears to have been little better, with no known skeptics on board, but several vocal campaigners for the global warming cause.

One of the most serious findings is the way the inquiries’ terms of reference, which were either vague or non-existent, steered the panels away from many of the most important questions.

The Oxburgh panel was advertised as looking at the whole of CRU’s science, but it ended up looking only for evidence of deliberate wrongdoing and then only in a carefully selected set of CRU publications. This meant that serious allegations relating to the work of CRU staff on the IPCC reports went uninvestigated.

What is worse, although the public was told that this short list of papers was selected on the advice of the Royal Society, in fact they were chosen by the University of East Anglia itself and were approved by Phil Jones, CRU’s director and the man at the centre of many of the most serious allegations.

A number of other very serious allegations were not examined or were brushed aside on the say-so of CRU staff. Lord Oxburgh admitted in evidence to the science and technology committee last week that his panel had failed to investigate a well- documented and well-publicized allegation of fraud relating to one of the papers that appeared on his list.

The Russell panel, meanwhile, appears to have cleared Phil Jones of the allegation of perverting the peer-review process, based on little more than Jones’ say-so.

One of the most serious allegations related to possible breaches of the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act. In recent days it has emerged that Russell was informed early in his investigation that emails subject to FOI requests were no longer available at the university, since the scientist involved had taken them home for “safekeeping,” a remarkable step that could indicate a breach of FOI legislation and yet is not even discussed in Russell’s report.

It is no longer simply a small group of skeptics who are watching the outcome of the Climategate affair. Scientists from around the world, including some senior people working in the field of climate, have looked at what has happened here in the U.K. in the last 12 months and they are shocked by what they have seen. The American climatologist Prof. Judith Curry has described the Oxburgh panel as having “little credibility,” while Prof. Hans von Storch, the eminent German climatologist, has said that the U.K. inquiries “blew an opportunity to restore trust.”

While some of the press reaction to the report has suggested that it will be ignored, one member of the House of Commons science and technology committee who attended the press conference for the report’s release went on the record as saying that he had been shocked by some of what he had learned. He described some of CRU’s work as being more like “literature” than science.

Regardless of how the press views my report into the inquiries, it appears clear that Parliament is taking the concerns it raises very seriously. The science and technology committee has already reopened its inquiry, taking evidence from Oxburgh last week and with Russell and the vice-chancellor of the university expected in the coming weeks.

Perhaps now that the sham of the inquiries has been exposed to public view, Parliament will seize the day and save British science from itself.

Andrew Montford’s report, The Climategate Inquiries, is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He is the author of The Hockey Stick Illusion, a history of some of the events leading up to Climategate.

Financial Post, 18 September 2010