UEA E-Mails Fail to Provoke

Wary of “Climategate,” reporters treat latest leak as minor news

Uneager, perhaps, to provoke the type of criticism that followed the dreadful coverage the “Climategate,” journalists have treated the emergence of a new cache of e-mails (apparently collected at the same time as the first) with a skepticism they failed to exhibit two years ago. While the reporting has been better this time around, however, it’s hard to say that it’s been a lot better.

On November 22, an anonymous group calling itself “FOIA” added a file containing more than 5,000 e-mails taken from England’s University of East Anglia to a Russian server, and then posted a link to the file on a variety websites popular with climate skeptics. With the start of a new international meeting about climate change in Durban, South Africa, this week, many reporters, including The Guardian’s Leo Hickman, quickly observed that the leak was “an apparent attempt to repeat the impact of a similar release of emails on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit in late 2009.”

Cherry-picked quotes from the first dump, whipped into pseudo-scandal by media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, led to accusations of fraud within the climate science community. A series of nine investigations in the Unites States and United Kingdom cleared the scientists involved of any wrongdoing, but reprimanded them for being less than forthcoming with some data. The new batch of e-mails seems to be more of the same: quotes that seem damning out of context, but merely reflect the usual pokes, prods, and disagreements that take place among scientists.

Regardless of their content, ignoring the release was clearly not an option. As Mother Jones’s Kate Sheppard explained:

I’d hesitate to call attention to a bunch of stolen, out-of-context emails at all, except for the fact that part of the reason that Climategate 1.0 was blown so far out of proportion is that most people ignored it for so long and let the denial crowd frame the conversation. By the time reasonable people caught up, it was already out of control. Journalists basically ran with the skeptic’s talking points, and despite numerous investigations and exonerations, the incident remained a stalking horse for the global warming denial crowd.

That’s the right outlook, but only a day later Sheppard was expressing understandable disappointment with the media’s performance. Liberal watchdogs such as Media Matters and ThinkProgress were likewise dismayed. Reporters didn’t fall as deeply into the trap as they did in 2009, but they didn’t avoid it entirely.

It’s unsurprising, of course, that the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal would publish the balderdash of James Delingpole, a laughable British columnist and climate skeptic, or that Fox News would call the e-mails “eye opening” without doing an ounce of reporting. The coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, meanwhile, was more of a mixed bag.

Both papers produced lacking, late-in-the-game articles about the 2009 e-mails, and both performed better last week, running stories on pages 8 and 2, respectively (the incident clearly does not merit front-page treatment). They basically dismissed the significance of the e-mails, but engaged in a bit of “he-said, she-said” reporting, respectively letting Myron Ebell and Marc Morano, two of the most delirious climate skeptics around, make sweeping assertions that the e-mails are strong evidence of a scientific conspiracy to mislead the public. Beyond that, the Times, whose article was 300 words shorter than the Post’s, did the better job.

Reporters Justin Gillis and Leslie Kauffman won points for doing a little legwork and contextualizing one of the more provocative quotes from the latest e-mails, in which Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said that a seminal 2003 paper reconstructing past temperatures “was truly pathetic and should never have been published.” In an interview with the Times, Bradley confirmed the e-mail was his and stood by his criticism, “but said his comment had no bearing on whether global warming was really happening.”

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin went with a quote from Peter Thorne, a scientist now at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. He charged that an early draft of a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report wasn’t being transparent and honest with regard to uncertainties about temperature rise in the lower atmosphere, and that science was “being manipulated to put a political spin on it.” But Eilperin failed to add context.

An early online version of her article (quoted here by Media Matters) didn’t specify that Thorne made those remarks in 2005 and it suggested that his concerns pertained to the IPCC in general rather than just the early draft. The Post fixed that by the time the story made the paper the next day, but it didn’t say anything about the final report, which Thorne signed and which clearly reflected the disclosures he wanted to make about uncertainties, citing him numerous times in regard to “disparate results … structural uncertainties and parametric errors.”

Not all of the criticism from the left held up, though. AP reporter Raphael Satter caught a lot of flak for his reporting, but at least one of his dispatches did a good job contextualizing another of the e-mails:

Excerpts quoted on climate skeptic websites appeared to show climate scientists talking in conspiratorial tones about ways to promote their agenda and freeze out those they disagree with. There are several mentions of “the cause” and discussions of ways to shield emails from freedom of information requests.

Penn State University professor Michael Mann — a prominent player in the earlier controversy whose name also appears in the latest leak — said on Twitter that “the cause” he was referring to was the cause of “communicating science in face of massive disinformation effort.”

Some critics pushed back in the other direction. One of the most interesting and thought-provoking commentaries on coverage of the latest e-mails came from freelance journalist Keith Kloor, who seemed disappointed that most journalists “dutifully reported the basics, but were not inclined to treat the latest disclosures as especially newsworthy, much less as a story with new revelations or wrinkles.” He suggested that reporters should:

… look beyond the surface of these emails and acknowledge that the story is not so black and white as: Nothing in these exchanges overturns or undermines the basic findings of climate science (the earth is warming, humans are contributing, we probably want to take that more seriously, etc). [emphasis his.]

In fact, when it comes to basic findings of climate science these e-mails are, actually, pretty black and white. It might be a “simplistic angle,” as Kloor put it, but it also is a most relevant and important one. Nonetheless, Kloor was right that “there’s great fodder in the emails for a more substantive, nuanced discussion on the kinds of uncertainties that get seized on (and often distorted) by the more politicized climate skeptics and contrarians.”

Take the quote from Peter Thorne cited in The Washington Post:

Observations do not show rising temperatures throughout the tropical troposphere unless you accept one single study and approach and discount a wealth of others. This is just downright dangerous. We need to communicate the uncertainty and be honest.

The comment relates to a nuanced point about tracking global temperatures and a popular argument among “skeptics and contrarians” used recently in a weak attempt to rebut Richard Muller’s Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Models and theory predict that there should be more warming in the lower atmosphere than at the surface, especially in the tropics. But that temperature rise doesn’t show up in all the observational data, especially in the tropics. This is one of the more vexing—though by no means crippling—problems in climate science.

So, to the extent that these e-mails can illuminate scientists’ arduous and often frustrating efforts to resolve the quandary, yes, reporters should use the leaked e-mails. But it’s important to stress that they show scientists arguing over specific data, points, and papers, and not the field’s fundamental conclusions. Handled correctly, they can even add a dose of transparency that will improve scientific integrity.

As New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin pointed out, referring to the e-mails released in 2009, “the first time around there was news. The contents of the files did raise questions. The questions were answered.”

The inquiries following the first leak cleared the scientists involved of all serious wrongdoing, but reprimanded them for being unnecessarily secretive at times. Hopefully, that pushes science in the direction of greater openness—the same thing we want from our government and businesses. One could argue that the lingering confusion and misunderstanding that “Climategate” created outweigh any benefit along those lines, but that is the fault of the reporting, not the information itself.

Revkin stressed the “insignificance” of the e-mails and that they have “little bearing on the overall thrust of decades of research revealing a rising human influence on the global climate system.” But more broadly, he wrote:

Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes.

Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.

“Can we all agree that this a reasonable position for a journalist to take?” Kloor asked in his post, referring to Revkin’s comment.

Indeed it is, as long as it’s understood that we are speaking generally, and not saying that these particular e-mails offer any evidence of scandal.

Kloor pointed out that two articles at The Guardian—one by Damian Carrington, which argued that the “failure to catch the climate email hacker is the real scandal,” and the other by Leo Hickman, which asked readers to help the paper “find clues” about the identity of the individuals or groups responsible—drew criticism from readers. One comment read:

I take it your next project will be to enlist help identifying anyone and everyone who has ever provided leaks to Wikileaks, right?

The Guardian has, of course, collaborated with WikiLeaks on more than one occasion. Kloor had a “brief Twitter exchange” with Hickman about the comparison. Hickman argues, quite fairly, that “diplomatic cables which were redacted by hundreds of journalists over months before release is hardly comparable to private emails with details,” but concedes, as he should, that “there is an interesting debate about the moral equivalence between these two types of ‘whistleblowers.’” [Tweets edited for clarity.]

A would-be “whistleblower” is not always justified simply because he or she feels justified, Hickman added, which is absolutely true. The media shouldn’t condone the breaking of laws in the gathering of information. At the same time, it’s an industry based on leaks, and sometimes those doing the leaking break laws. The purloined information is out there and it can be of service to the public interest if used responsibly.

There’s no question that the Wikileaks’ information was more significant than what was in the climate e-mails, but in either case the public wants and needs to know what those “in charge” are talking about behind closed doors.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.