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University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit

The University of East Anglia is found in the city of Norwich in eastern Britain. The university, which is home to some 15,000 students, is ranked in the top 1% of all higher education institutions around the world. Of note to climate research is the university’s Climatic Research Unit, which is widely known  and considered to be one of the top institutions for climate change research in the world.

The Climate Research Unit (CRU)

The CRU is part of the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences and consists of 20 research scientists and their graduate students. The goals of the CRU, and the reasons it was established in 1971, are to improve scientific understanding of:

  • Past climate history and its impact on humanity
  • The course and causes of climate change at present
  • Prospects for future climate conditions.

The CRU boasts one of the largest climate data sets in the world. Specific measurements fall into categories such as UK Climate indices, alpine climate data, drought indices, temperature, and precipitation among many others. The unit is currently directed by Phil Jones, who featured prominently in the Climategate Scandal discussed below.

The CRU’s most significant production is the global near-surface temperature record, which documents global temperature fluctuations starting in 1850 and was complied in conjunction with the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. The record is used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and therefore carries a great deal of weight in international climate policy decisions. Unfortunately, much of the data in this and other records housed by the CRU is proprietary. This arises from the fact that the CRU receives funding from a broad number of sources, including private industry. The data, therefore, is sometimes constrained under terms dictated by those providing funding. This contrasts with data collected by government institutions, which is widely considered to be in the public domain.

Email Controversy - Climategate

Toward the end of 2009, the CRU became embroiled in a controversy that quickly took on the moniker of “Climategate.” At issue was the fact that an external hacker had copied thousands of private emails sent between leading climate scientists that seemed to indicate an intent to deceive the public regarding the true nature of global climate change. The emails were released several weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change, which was considered to be among the most important meetings regarding international policy on climate.

The emails supposedly revealed a concerted effort on the part of climate researchers at the CRU as well as at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (made up of eight university partners in the UK) to manipulate data so as to make climate change look more severe that it actually was at the time. Most of the emails were between three members of the CRU. The most notable email stated that Phil Jones had used “Mike’s Nature trick” in a graph to “hide the decline.” The decline refers to the well-known problem in which tree-ring proxy data and measured temperature data do not correspond in the latter part of the twentieth century into the twenty-first.

Subsequent analysis of the emails by several organizations, including several media outlets, demonstrated that nothing out of the ordinary could be found in the exchanges, that the scientists involved were not hiding anything, and that the hacker had intentionally taken parts of email out of context in order to create controversy. Official inquiries by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee as well as an independent Science Assessment (both in the UK) panel found no evidence of deliberate tampering on the part of researchers and indicated that they had carried out their work with integrity. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the National Science Foundation also conducted investigations into Penn State University research Michael Mann, who was also named in the emails and is the “Mike” referred to in the line about “Mike’s Nature trick.” All three organizations found no reason to suspect Mann of misconduct.

Despite the findings, public trust in climate research diminished and has not recovered since. A second round of emails was released in 2011 (though they date back to the same time as the original hack in 2009).  The new emails highlighted the same issues raised in 2009. This time, the release was met with skepticism and little was made of it. Public trust, however, remained lower than it had been prior to the 2009 release and is manifested as less impetus to make changes to address the climate problems that the CRU and other institutions indicate need to be addressed.