The legacy of Climategate: 5 years later (Climate Etc.)

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by Judith Curry

UPDATE: new email from student that motivated “An open letter . .”

Every year at Thanksgiving, I am reminded of Climategate.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2009, in the midst of extensive email discussions with Andy Revkin and Joe Romm (!), I penned my essay An open letter to graduate students and young scientists in fields related to climate research.  Which followed my essay (published at Climate Audit) On the credibility of climate research. In February 2010, I wrote an article Towards rebuilding trust.  The main themes of my writings were concerns about:

  • lack of transparency – need to make data and documentation publicly available
  • tribalism among scientists and circling the wagons strategy: attacking skeptics with ad hominem attacks, appeal to motive attacks, isolating skeptics through lack of access to data, manipulation of the peer review process to reject skeptic papers
  • the need for improved analysis and communication of uncertainty

Seems like motherhood and apple pie issues?  Well maybe from the perspective of 2014.  But in 2009/2010, this was heresy. One of the story lines from Climategate became me, and my engagement with skeptics:

So, what are we to make of all this 5 years later?  The ‘establishment’ has maintained that Climategate was overhyped and irrelevant, and that the various enquiries have exonerated the scientists and the science.  On the other hand, skeptics find Climategate to have been highly significant (found the inquiries to be bogus), and still discuss it.

There have been several interesting scholarly articles written on Climategate, including:

5 years later – meta issues

So, what has changed in the past 5 years and can any of it be attributed to Climategate?

Transparency has improved substantially.  Journals and funding agencies now expect data to be made publicly available, along with metadata.  The code for most climate models is now publicly available.  As far as I know, there are no outstanding FOIA requests for data (other than possibly some of Mann’s HS data and documentation).  Climategate shed a public light on the lack of transparency in climate science, which was deemed intolerable by pretty much everyone (except for some people who ‘owned’ climate data sets).

Understanding, documenting and communicating uncertainty has continued to grow in importance, and is the focus of much more scholarly attention.  With regards to the IPCC, I feel that WG2 in AR5 did a substantially better job with uncertainty and confidence levels (I was not impressed with what WG1 did).

Improved understanding of the deep uncertainty surrounding climate change has stimulated more sophisticated decision making analyses, beyond the simple linear model of predict then act.

The IAC review of the IPCC (instigated by Climategate) highlighted a number of problems with the IPCC.  The IPCC has made a token response to some of them, A number of serious scholarly critiques of the IPCC have been made (for a summary see Grundman article), with suggestions for reform. The problems with the IPCC remain endemic and serious, in my opinion (Kill the IPCC).

The IPCC AR5 arguably had a much smaller public impact than did the AR4.  Climategate has probably contributed to some people not paying attention to the AR5.  However, I think it was the failure of the AR5 to deal with the surface temperature hiatus in a significant way that resulted in this lessening impact.

Climategate illuminated a serious lack of leadership from the scientific and environmental communities.  Has this improved any?  Well IMO there remains a serious lack of leadership from the establishment communities (e.g. institutions). I regard the death of Steve Schneider perhaps to be significant in this regard.  On the plus side, in this leadership vacuum there has been a growing number of diverse voices entering into the public discussion on climate change.

The sociology of climate science received a substantial impetus from Climategate.   There have been a number of insightful analyses, which I’ve highlighted at CE, related to the politicization of science, and the social psychology of consensus building and groupthink.  There have also been a number of dubious to nonsensical studies on deniers, etc.

Hulme’s article remarks that Climategate has triggered a new interest in studying and understanding the various manifestations of climate change skepticism. The populist notion that all climate sceptics are either in the pay of oil barons or are right-wing ideologues, as is suggested for example by studies such as Oreskes and Conway (2011), cannot be sustained.

There has been a huge growth in attention to climate science communication, within academic circles and NGO/advocacy groups.  Climategate was a turning point: pronouncements from the IPCC were no longer sufficient.  Apparently as a result of the IPCC pronouncements no longer being sufficient, we’ve also seen  a substantial increase in the number of scientists acting as advocates for mitigation policies.

Institutionally, Climategate triggered the formation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which has become quite influential in UK climate policy and to some extent internationally.

Climategate also motivated the formation of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group.  The significance of this group includes being private sector, transparency in data and methods, extensive website and prepublication press releases, and publication of their papers in a brand new online journal.

As a result of Climategate, there is little tolerance for the editorial gatekeeping ways of trying to keep skeptical papers from being published.   I recall discussion in Climategate emails about a paper by Pat Michaels that found a climate sensitivity of 1.6C, that the Climategaters were trying to keep from being published.  Hmmm . . . 1.6C sensitivity . . .  seems pretty mainstream these days.  The BEST publications in new online journals  illustrate the waning stranglehold of the traditional high impact journal publications. We are even seeing skeptical papers being published in mainstream high impact journals (this is probably mostly attributable to the hiatus in warming).

The skeptical climate blogosphere has thrived and expanded, largely triggered by Climategate (Climate Etc. was triggered largely by Climategate).  Whereas the ‘warm’ blogosphere for the most part has waned (notably RealClimate), with the exception of Skeptical Science.  It seems that most of the ‘action’ on the warm side has switched to twitter, whereas skeptics prefer the blogosphere.

The growth of the technical skeptical blogosphere (pioneered by Steve McIntyre) has challenged traditional notions of expertise, i.e. credentials and sanctity of journal publications, through Climate Audit’s blogospheric deconstruction of many publications, particularly related to paleo proxies.  While the technical skeptical blogosphere seems to have provided the motive for the Climategate ‘hack’, the technical skeptical blogosphere has thrived, and many of these sites are followed by the media and decision makers of various stripes.

And finally, what about climate policy and politics?  Following the 2007 publication of the AR4 and through summer 2009, it seemed that climate (CO2 mitigation) policy was on an unstoppable juggernaut and that the COP in Copenhagen (Dec 2009) and U.S. carbon cap and trade legislation was on track.  By summer 2010, all of that had fallen apart.  Regarding the UN negotiations, most analysts have stated that Climategate played little role; it was all about raw politics and economics.  But I suspect that as a result of Climategate, climate science/scientists had lost the moral high ground, allowing raw politics and economics to take over.  But in the U.S., it seems that Climategate had a more palpable impact on climate legislation.  Senator James Inhofe stated that Climategate was the death knell of carbon cap and trade legislation.  More significantly, I saw somewhere that John Kerry said essentially the same thing (tho I can’t find the link).

Engaging with skeptics

5 years ago, my engagement with skeptics was sufficiently unusual and surprising to be picked up by the mainstream media.  Particularly in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, post-Climategate there are welcome efforts by climate scientists to engage with skeptics (academic, blogosphere, policy foundations) and skeptics are taken seriously in the media.  The Dutch effort ClimateDialogue is particularly notable in this regard.

In the U.S. (and Australia and Canada), the situation remains much more polarized.  A recent exchange illustrates the differences in the UK versus the US.  You may recall that several months ago, Nic Lewis hosted a dinner that included some skeptics (incl. Anthony Watts) as well as some climate scientists (including Richard Betts and Tamsin Edwards).  Well Tim Ball recently wrote an article at WUWT People starting to ask about motive for massive IPCC deception, with a lengthy quote from Mein Kampf,   Building on their engagement with Watts, Tamsin Edwards and Richard Betts responded over at WUWT with a post A big (goose) step backwards, where they criticize Ball’s post for the Mein Kampf quote and for snide remarks about the IPCC, without actually engaging with the real content of the post.  Anthony responds in a conciliatory way, stating that Ball’s article was posted at a time when he was unavailable to exercise any editorial control.

Seems like a rather small deal, no?  Well the 1100 comments at WUWT were absolutely vitriolic against Betts and Edwards.  On twitter, the vitriolic comments were coming from the warm side, i.e. how stupid they were to post at WUWT.  There is some relatively sane discussion of this over at ATTP, including comments from Betts and Edwards.   The most interesting comment IMO is from Eli Rabett:

They had invested effort and taken stick for their let’s break bread position without it ever being clear what the other side was offering them for making the effort. Having done the early Judy trick they found themselves at a fork in the road, and either had to cash in some of their winnings, fold, or go the way of Curry.

They chose a straddle, trying to play nice with Watts while condemning Ball. At the same time Tamsin is tweeting like crazy to defend the other flank. This may have slightly moved their Overton window, or not.

Well, it seems Betts and Edwards are trying to promote civility, something that the UK does pretty well.  Presumably they thought that posting at WUWT would be like posting at BishopHill.  NOT.  Climate change and social media is mostly blood sport over in the US (and Australia and Canada), where the situation remains very polarized and polarizing.

Regarding scientists that are skeptical of AGW or critical of the IPCC, they seem to be better off post-Climategate (in terms of getting journal articles published and interviews from mainstream media) and a larger population of such scientists have emerged.  This can partly be attributed to Climategate, but again I think the hiatus is a bigger factor.  Life for a scientist that is skeptical of ‘consensus’ climate science or critical of the IPCC is definitely easier post-Climategate.

Mann vs et al.

Climategate lives on in the lawsuits than Michael Mann has filed against CEI, National Review Online, Rand Simberg, and Mark Steyn.  For background, see these previous posts:

The lawsuit is related to the ‘fraudulent hockey stick’ that was illuminated by the Climategate emails.  Climategate considerably broadened public awareness of the hockey stick and the associated controversies, making it an icon for concerns about climate science and scientists.   This post is getting too long, so I don’t want to get into this subject any more here, but with these lawsuits there is no denying that the impacts of Climategate are still playing out.

Personal impact

My own saga, after the three essays I wrote immediately following Climategate (referenced above), was set in place with these three essays:

Particularly with the last two essays, I established myself as an ‘outsider’ to the climate ‘establishment’ and incurred the wrath of many of climate scientists (the feedback loop article is particularly hard hitting, read it if you missed it the first time).  The Scientific American article played no small role in my ‘radicalization’ at this time; it set me on a path where I no longer judged anything that I did in context of my academic peers in the climate science community.

Intellectually, I embarked on my ‘uncertainty odyssey’ following the March 2010 Royal Society Workshop on Scientific Uncertainty, which stimulated the publication of these two papers in 2011 that seeded the uncertainty series in the early days of Climate Etc:

This uncertainty odyssey spilled over into decision making under uncertainty, a topic I had been exploring since 2004 with the preparation of a major NSF STC proposal Environmental Predictions and Decisions, which made the semi-finals but was not funded.  I explored the issue of decision making under deep uncertainty in numerous blog posts, plus these papers published in 2012:

By the time 2011 rolled around, my ostracization by the climate establishment was pretty complete, so I redefined  (broadened) my academic peer group to include physicists, social scientists and philosophers (not to mention the extended peer community developed on my blog).  I found this much more stimulating and interesting than the circled wagons of the climate community.

To assess the personal impact of Climategate, I’m trying to figure out exactly where my head was at prior to Climategate in 2009. Wherever; I’m not sure it matters anymore.  In 2014, I no longer feel the major ostracism by my peers in the climate establishment; after all, many of the issues I’ve been raising that seemed so controversial have now become mainstream.  And the hiatus has helped open some minds.

The net effect of all this is that my ‘academic career advancement’ in terms of professional recognition, climbing the administrative ladder, etc. has been pretty much halted.  I’ve exchanged academic advancement that now seems to be of dubious advantage to me for a much more interesting and influential existence that that feels right in terms of my personal and scientific integrity.

Bottom line:  Climategate was career changing for me; I’ll let history decide if this was for better or worse (if history even cares).


In conclusion, I will quote this statement from Reiner Grundman:

We need much more reflection on this case which should not be closed off because of political expediency. The debate has only just begun.

UPDATE:  I just received this email from the student whose email, following my ClimateAudit essay, motivated my post “An open letter . . .”

Hi Judy,

I hope all is well. It is amazing that climategate was five years ago. I just successfully defended my dissertation in September and have started the xxxx Fellowship. It is going to be an exciting year learning about policy making. 🙂

I just wanted to send you a short note regarding your latest post – The legacy of climategate: 5 years later.

I still stand by my statements in the email all those years ago and although, months and years may turn into decades, you continue to inspire me.

History will decide. And it will care and what has happend was for the better.

All the best,


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