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.