A third inquiry into the "climategate" e-mails—documents from a climate-research center that skeptics claimed proved global warming was a hoax—has cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing. But what exactly was the scandal?
Climategate, as its "gate" suffix suggests, has attained mythical status. For skeptics, the 1,000 or so e-mails and documents hacked last year from the Climactic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (UEA), in England, establish that global warming is a scientific conspiracy. There is no such proof. Here's what happened.
In November 2009, the documents and e-mail from the Climactic Research Unit were leaked. Citing the e-mail exchanges, skeptics alleged that scientists were engaging in chicanery to prove their theory of man-made global warming. "I've just completed Mike's Nature [a science journal] 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," wrote one scientist. Others, in messages that spanned 13 years, celebrated the death of a climate-change denier and implied that the scientists would censor papers that did not fit their views. E-mails from a University of Pennsylvania scientist, Michael E. Mann, included in the leak also implicated that institution.
The UEA research was used as part of a report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report, based on peer-reviewed data from many sources beyond the UEA, concluded that man-made climate change was unequivocal. It helped inform the debate at the Copenhagen climate-change conference.
The UEA e-mails were, for many, an opportunity to question the idea that we should be addressing man-made global warming at all. The week before the Copenhagen summit, in December 2009, Mohammad al-Sabban, lead climate negotiator for Saudi Arabia—which, needless to say, would prefer that the world continued to use a lot of oil—told the BBC that the e-mails proved that "there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change."
Domestically, Sarah Palin, among others, leaped on the scandal. In a Washington Post editorial, she wrote that "the radical environmental movement appears to face a tipping point" because "[t]he e-mails reveal that leading climate 'experts' deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to 'hide the decline' in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals." Thus, she argued, proposals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions were flawed.
The Copenhagen summit was widely judged a failure, as only loose agreements were reached. Since then a British parliamentary inquiry and an independent panel have cleared the climategate scientists of any serious wrongdoing. The third review, out today, reached the same conclusions. And Penn vindicated Mann in a separate investigation. The science that the UEA turned out was sound—even if different methods had been used, the conclusions would have been the same.
But, as NEWSWEEK's Sharon Begley pointed out, the retractions of the original "smoking gun" stories have been muted. Climategate, now a firmly established "gate," will probably continue to be cited as evidence of a global-warming conspiracy. Indeed, the reaction to the report today has been somewhat odd. Bloomberg News's headline was 'Climategate' Scientists Wrongly Withheld Data, Probe Finds'. It is inflammatory and misleading—the report did not say that information was withheld. It said that the scientists could have been better at responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, and generally, as Begley also noted, more open to scrutiny.
"We accept the report’s conclusion that we could and should have been more proactively open," said UEA's vice chancellor, Edward Acton, "not least because—as this exhaustive report makes abundantly clear—we have nothing to hide."