Sixth Independent Investigation Clears "Climategate" Scientists

In late 2009, more than 1,000 emails belonging to the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom were disclosed without authorization by an unknown party. The contents of a relatively small number of the email messages became the basis for the controversy commonly known as “Climategate.”

Prior to any investigations, my initial read of the emails found some unbecoming behavior by a few individual scientists but no indication of scientific misconduct, like hiding data or suppressing scientific debate.

In the course of 2010, five investigations—three in the U.K. and two in the United States—cleared scientists working for the CRU and an American scientist working at Penn State University of any scientific wrongdoing.

In the United States, the scientists who developed and maintain the data set estimating global surface temperature work in the National Climatic Data Center run by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, an arm of the Department of Commerce. Since some of these scientists appeared in the CRU emails, the U.S. Senate’s most ardent climate change doubter, James Inhofe, asked NOAA’s Inspector General to investigate whether the CRU emails contain any evidence that NOAA scientists had engaged in any scientific misconduct.

In a February 18 report to Senator Inhofe, the Inspector General said, “In our review of the CRU e-mails, we did not find any evidence that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data … or failed to adhere to appropriate peer review procedures.”

Apart from how NOAA researchers conducted their science, the report found that they inappropriately used NOAA computers and work time to poke fun at climate change deniers, including Senator Inhofe. The report also found evidence that two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were not fully executed and recommended that NOAA return to those requests and perform a more thorough search for responsive documents.

Senator Inhofe’s statement about the report seems to indicate that he accepts its findings. Having been denied an opportunity to use the CRU emails to claim that scientists have manipulated data or squelched scientific debate, the senator limited his remarks to issues of foot dragging on FOIA requests.

Because climate change is so politically charged, scientists involved in climate research need to conduct themselves in the most transparent manner possible and avoid acting out in frustration. This is true even if many of their critics are motivated by ideology and profit rather than by an honest reading of the science. The emails demonstrate that there is room for improvement in this regard.

That said, in my experience climate science is already more open and transparent than most other scientific fields, with gobs of data publicly available and many assessment reports and other climate science products intended specifically for public consumption (examples: here, here, here). No other field I can think of has been laid so bare to public scrutiny.

In the final analysis, six separate investigations by a variety of unrelated organizations—ranging from the U.K. House of Commons to Penn State University to NOAA’s Inspector General—have found no evidence that scientific evidence was molded to a preferred outcome by climate scientists. In any case, the fact remains that the CRU emails center on such a small sliver of the many independent lines of evidence for human-induced global warming that losing it would be about as consequential as a mosquito bite on a bull moose.

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program