Climategate: the cold comfort is that it is now a hot topic

UEA v-c believes there may be a positive outcome from the climate science scandal. Zoë Corbyn writes

April 8, 2010

The head of the University of East Anglia does not mind the term "Climategate", which has been used to describe the controversy that has dogged both climate science and his university since 4,000 emails and documents were leaked or stolen from its Climatic Research Unit last November.

In fact, said Edward Acton in his first press interview on the scandal, the choice of name is "quite a useful analogy". "If you go back to Watergate (the US political scandal), you find that in the end it was the burgled party that actually came out really rather well," observed the UEA vice-chancellor, a historian.

But while it may turn out that the CRU scientists are vindicated in the long run, the content of the emails has been damaging for both the unit and UEA, and has provided a fillip to doubters (see box below).

There is also evidence that it has set back scientists' efforts to convince the wider world of the need to act to avert catastrophic climate change.

A BBC opinion poll indicated that the percentage of the public that believe climate change is largely man-made fell from 50 per cent to 34 per cent between November 2009, when the emails entered the public domain, and February 2010.

The allegations are that CRU scientists manipulated data to strengthen the case for man-made climate change; failed in their public duty to cooperate with requests for material to be released for public scrutiny; and engaged in unethical scientific practices.

Dealing with requests

It is not just the conduct of the CRU but also that of UEA that has raised eyebrows.

The deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, found evidence that requests made by climate-change sceptics under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been.

Last week, MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concluded that much of the responsibility for the "mishandling" of the FoI requests rested with the university.

The MPs all but cleared the unit and its head, Philip Jones, of any wrongdoing, although they also said climate scientists as a group needed to be more transparent.

When the scandal broke, Professor Acton had been at UEA's helm for only a few months and, he said, had no knowledge of the sceptics' FoI requests. He was made acting head in early 2009 and appointed vice-chancellor in September.

His first response was to call in the police, and he maintained that this had been the "correct first thing" to do, adding that investigators had yet to determine whether the emails were made public by hackers or as a result of an internal leak.

Professor Acton also decided to commission two independent reviews into the affair.

Sir Muir Russell's review, due to report later in the spring, is looking at specific allegations arising from the emails, including the handling of the FoI requests. A second review by Lord Oxburgh is re-examining the CRU's science.

Professor Acton said he had "heard nothing that casts any doubt on the science" but added that "I do want it looked at again so we can all be quite sure".

He agreed that the emails appeared to indicate that FoI laws had been breached, but he insisted that this was not the same as saying there had "definitely been wrongdoing".

Professor Acton confirmed that he would implement recommendations made by the reviews, within budgetary constraints.

The Sir Muir review is certain to assess whether Professor Jones' conduct was acceptable, and if he complied with UEA's codes of conduct.

At UEA, said the vice-chancellor, "the deal is we vouch for, employ, back, support and enable academics to research ... But they must comply with our codes of good conduct."

In a warning to any UEA mole, he said that while he supported the rights of whistleblowers, there was a correct way to go about it, adding that if the police found that the emails had been leaked, "theft is a crime".

One issue to be addressed by UEA is the accusation that its initial response appeared to focus more on the security breach than the content of the emails.

This point was raised by Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, when he questioned Professor Acton as part of the Science and Technology Committee's inquiry last month.

In the fallout from last year's MPs' expenses scandal, he observed, "the Speaker (of the House of Commons, Michael Martin) lost his job partly because he seemed to think it was more important to pursue people who had leaked the expenses than to deal with the issue".

But Professor Acton said he did not recognise any "great tension" in the chronology of his actions.

"If your emails are stolen and your systems are broken into illegally ... none of us likes it and it is a shock," he said.

"The next question is, what about the specifics of it? The way in which the controversy exploded obviously meant that the allegations have become very important."

Management issues

Questions have also been raised about the actions of senior management. In one of the contentious emails, sent on 3 December 2008, Professor Jones suggests that the vice-chancellor at that time, Bill MacMillan, was involved in a decision to ignore an FoI request. Professor Acton said his predecessor may have signed an FoI exemption, but was adamant that this did not constitute "ignoring" a request.

"We have a very thorough procedure for handling every FoI (request) that comes through. Ignoring them is never an option ... I am afraid (Professor Jones) is imagining that," he said.

Having learned some hard lessons from the Climategate affair, Professor Acton said he was clear that, where FoI was concerned, it was "healthier" just to say yes to requests.

So is it a good thing that the emails have come under public scrutiny, albeit in an unsatisfactory way? And what will be the long-term effect on UEA's reputation?

Professor Acton said there were positives and negatives in both cases.

As far as reputation was concerned, he acknowledged that some "very critical things" had been said about the CRU and UEA, but he insisted that there had been upsides too.

The fact that the affair had caused such a storm was "acknowledgement that key work of world historic importance has been initiated at this university (that is) just 50 years old".

As to whether it would have been better if the emails had not been published, he said that for those at the eye of the storm it had been a "horrendous" period and that much of the reporting had not aided the public understanding of climate change.

But if the world is ever going to act on the issues, he said, people needed to talk, think and argue about them.

Looking back in decades to come, Professor Acton said, the Climategate affair may prove to have been "a necessary part of getting people's minds around" climate change.


Committee room 16, deep within the Houses of Parliament, is buzzing. Gathered inside are 20 or so global warming sceptics, and they clearly feel they are on the front foot.

Drawn to an event that casts global warming as "a paper tiger", they sit through a series of presentations on the science and politics of climate change, organised by the coalitions Climate Sense and Climate Realists and the long-range weather forecasting company Weather Action.

If ever there were proof of the extent to which the Climategate scandal has reinvigorated the sceptics, it is here. Every single speech is peppered with references to the affair.

Publisher Philip Foster is here to sell his new book Climategate: The CRUtape Letters, by Steven Mosher and Thomas Fuller.

Rushed to press to make the most of the interest surrounding the affair, it details the leaked Climatic Research Unit output, email by email. It follows in the wake of another book on the topic, The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science, by A.W. Montford.

CRU data are projected on to the committee room wall with the words "Proven fraud" stamped across in large red letters.

The event is hosted by Sammy Wilson, Northern Ireland's minister of finance and personnel and Democratic Unionist Party MP for East Antrim. A former environment minister, he is a well-known climate sceptic.

"I think we are starting to win the argument," Mr Wilson tells the audience, citing a list of "gates" - from Climategate and Glaciergate to Africagate and Amazongate - that doubters have seized on in recent months.

"While I congratulate you for the work you have done, we have also got to congratulate some of the warming fanatics, for no one has undermined their own case more."

Next up is Peter Taylor, an environmentalist and environmental consultant who says he would have considered himself aligned with the green movement until he "started to check" the science.

He says his previous work on conservation and biodiversity received mainstream publicity, but his latest book, Chill, A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory: Does Climate Change Mean the World is Cooling, and If So What Should We Do About It? has been met with deafening silence.

He predicts that now that Climategate has shaken up the status quo, a different culture will develop as scientists "have confidence to come out of the woodwork and criticise" the prevailing wisdom.

Concluding the session, he argues that those who challenge global warming should not be described as sceptics. "It is not about scepticism - I hate that word; it suggests some religious cult," he says. "It is about critical review, healthy dissent and how that is dealt with."

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