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Climategate closed

Climate science at the University of East Anglia is sound but lacking in transparency, according to the three official reports. But making data accessible will not be sufficient to guard against future attacks.

The case of the alleged misbehaviour of climate researchers at the University of East Anglia is now closed. The last of the three reports on the science and conduct of the researchers was published on 7 July. Taken together, the independent investigations come to the conclusion that the scientific results produced at the University of East Anglia are sound, but that there are deficiencies in the transparency of climate research, at this university and elsewhere. In response to the reports, the data used in climate change studies should be made publicly available (Nature Geosci. 3, 218; 2010). But the critics are already crying “whitewash”. More openness alone is unlikely to resolve tensions between scientists, the media and politicians, or between sceptics and alarmists.

Two Commentaries in this issue of Nature Geoscience, one by a climate scientist (page 511) and one by a social anthropologist (page 513) focus on the lessons learnt from last winter's media frenzy. They argue that climate scientists must engage in and inform discussions with the people who will feel the impact of climate change, to root their efforts in the global (and not just the scientific) community. Yet, at the same time, scientists need to be humble. Climate change projections are just one factor in any policy decision on adaptation or mitigation — and indeed, the only factor that climate researchers can expertly comment on.

The hacked e-mails reveal that such modesty seems to have been lacking at times (http://go.nature.com/k6Guis). For example, in an exchange in late July 1999, climate scientists discussed how to present projected climate change scenarios to best serve the purposes of the WWF (who had apparently expressed concern that the initial presentations were more conservative than those from other sources and asked for one section to be 'beefed up' if possible). Such considerations should not enter into scientific debate.

Furthermore, the e-mails are pervaded by a tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies. A curious contribution to the 'Letters' column in Science (Science doi: 10.1126/science.280.5372.2027e; 1998) — stating that “the reader might see more disagreement than actually exists” between the hockey-stick paper (Nature 392, 779–787; 1998) and its early criticism (Science 280, 544–545; 1998) — suggests that initial differences between scientists were quickly ironed out to present a united front. Yet a polarized view of an issue as complex as climate change can only be an oversimplification.

Difficult as this may be, scientists have to maintain a disinterested perspective on the available information, be prepared to change their assessment when new facts come to light, and accept differences in opinion while taking counter-arguments seriously. Along with greater openness, a much more nuanced and multifaceted discussion of the physical aspects of climate change needs to be presented to the public to avoid future accusations of cliquiness and gatekeeping.

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Climategate closed. Nature Geosci 3, 509 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo937

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