NOAA’s Climategate Exoneration

Posted by Dan Karney on Mar 4, 2011

Filed Under (Environmental Policy)

Do you recall the “Climategate” controversy from late 2009?  If not, here is a quick refresher: on or about November 17, 2009, a computer hacker stole emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University, and posted a selection of the emails on the internet in an attempt to discredit the climate change research done by CRU.  Using these out-of-context emails, allegations of data manipulation and scientific fraud were leveled at CRU researchers along with their colleagues at other institutions.  This episode became known as Climategate and resulted in a media frenzy.  (Please see a previous CBPP blog post on this topic, click here.)

In response to the Climategate scandal, Congress held hearings because National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees were named correspondents in the leaked emails.  Following these hearings, Sen. James Inhofe (OK-R) sent a letter to the Inspector General (IG) of U.S. Department of Commerce requesting an investigation of NOAA’s handling of the CRU email leak and to determine the integrity of NOAA’s Global Historic Climatology Network-Monthly dataset (GHCN-M).

(Note: Sen. Inhofe famously said on the Senate floor that global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”)

The Inspector General issued his report two weeks ago (report) and it exonerates NOAA.  The report clearly states, “In our review of the CRU emails, we did not find any evidence that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data comprising the GHCN-M dataset or failed to adhere to appropriate peer review procedures.”  Furthermore, other investigations conducted in the United Kingdom have already cleared British scientists at the CRU (source).

However, the IG’s report does criticize NOAA for not replying quickly or thoroughly enough to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, as it must do because it receives federal funds.  The report recommends that NOAA should consider “an overall assessment of the sufficiency of its FOIA process.”  This is an important point because this potential lack of transparency, even if the underlying research process is sound, can lead to undo skepticism of the science.  With the environmental and economic implications of climate change being so large, a “just trust me” approach by scientists will not work.  The IG report already demonstrates that NOAA’s science adheres to best-practice procedures, so clearly telling the public their methodologies could reduce some of the confusion regarding the data of climate change science.