Stormy Times for Climate Research

Clare Goodess, University of East Anglia, explains the circumstances behind the resignation of half of the editorial board of the journal Climate Research

Article from SGR Newsletter no. 28, November 2003
 

How can the publication of one poor paper in a scientific journal have caused the resignation of half the members of its editorial board (including the newly-appointed editor-in-chief) and have these resignations had any effect? As one of the editors who resigned from Climate Research at the end of July 2003, these are some of the questions that I am left pondering.

The article in question (Soon and Baliunas, 2003) was published at the end of January 2003. It is in fact a literature review of over 240 previously published studies of climate proxy records (such as tree rings, glaciers and ocean sediments) covering the last 1000 years. It contains some startling and controversial conclusions, notably: “Across the world, many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest or a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium’ and ‘Overall, the 20th century does not contain the warmest anomaly of the past millennium in most of the proxy records which have been sampled world-wide.”

With conclusions like these, it is not surprising that this paper (and a remarkably similar version published in Energy and Environment (Soon et al., 2003) attracted the attention of the White House administration. At least one press release from the authors deliberately fuelled this politisation of the paper and its conclusions. Internal documents from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), now in the public domain, show that the Bush administration attempted to get this paper cited in an agency report on the state of the environment. EPA staff members blocked this by deleting all mention of climate change from the report. This did not stop the anti-Kyoto lobby, however, and the Republican Senator James Inofhe from Oklahoma called a hearing of the Senate environment committee in late July to debate the paper.

In the meantime, Hans von Storch (another Climate Research editor) and myself had been receiving numerous unsolicited complaints and critiques of the paper from many leading members of the international palaeo and historical climatology community. At the beginning of May 2003, these had reached such a level that we raised the concerns with the editor who had processed the Soon and Baliunas paper (Chris de Freitas) and the publisher (Otto Kinne of Inter-Research). In response, de Freitas accused us of ‘a mix of a witch-hunt and the Spanish Inquisition’. The publisher eventually asked to see the documentation associated with the review of the paper - which had apparently gone to four reviewers none of whom had recommended rejection. Otto Kinne concluded that the review process had been properly conducted.

This left many of us somewhat confused and still very concerned about what had happened. The review process had apparently been correct, but a fundamentally flawed paper had been published. These flaws are described in an extended rebuttal to both Soon and Baliunas (2003) and Soon et al. (2003) published by Mike Mann and 11 other eminent climate scientists in July (Mann et al., 2003). Hans von Storch and I were also aware of three earlier Climate Research papers about which people had raised concerns over the review process. In all these cases, de Freitas had had editorial responsibility.

My main objective in raising the concerns of myself and many others over the most recent paper was to try to protect the reputation of the journal by focusing on the scientific rather than the political issues. Though I was well aware of the deliberate political use being made of the paper by Soon and Baliunas (well-known ‘climate sceptics’) and others. Chris de Freitas has also published what can be regarded as ‘climate sceptic’ views.

Eventually, however, Inter-Research recognised that something needed to be done and appointed Hans von Storch as editor-in-chief with effect from 1 August 2003. This would have marked a change from the existing system, where each of the 10 editors works independently. Authors can submit a manuscript to which ever of these editors they like. Hans drafted an editorial to appear in the next edition of Climate Research and circulated it to all the other editors for comment. However, Otto Kinne then decided that Hans could not publish the editorial without the agreement of all of the editors. Since at least one of the editors thought there was nothing wrong with the Soon and Baliunas paper, such an agreement was clearly never going to be obtained. In view of this, and the intervention of the publisher in editorial matters, Hans understandably felt that he could not take up the Editor-in-Chief position and resigned four days before he was due to start his new position. I also resigned as soon as I heard what had happened. This turned out to be the day of Inofhe’s US senate committee hearing and the news of the two resignations was announced at the hearing . Since then, another three editors have resigned.

So Climate Research (CR) has lost half of its editors and the five remaining include Chris de Freitas. The latest twist in this story is an editorial by Otto Kinne in August’s edition of the journal (Kinne, 2003) which cites the two conclusions of Soon and Baliunas quoted earlier in this article and then states that “While these statements may be true, the critics point out that they cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper. CR should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication.’.

I will be watching Climate Research with interest over the coming months to see whether there are any changes in editorial practice and/or in the editorial appointments. Otto Kinne has published fairly extensively on the nature and quality of the science review process – though from a rather theoretical perspective. My experience over the last few months has been that practice does not always meet theory.

The last few months have also taught me quite a lot at first hand about the highly sensitive and political nature of the climate-change debate in the US. Though I have been quite impressed with some of the media coverage of the whole affair. I had fairly lengthy interviews with reporters from the Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education amongst others. The latter article in particular gives a very balanced and well-researched account of events.

Some journalists are digging even deeper – into the sources of Soon and Baliunas’s funding. Their Climate Research paper includes acknowledgements to NOAA, NASA and the US Air Force, as well as to the American Petroleum Institute. Yet NOAA flatly deny having ever funded the authors for such work, while the other two bodies admit to funding them, but for work on solar variability – not proxy climate records, the topic that has caused such a storm.

Clare Goodess is a Senior Research Associate in the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, where she has worked since 1982.

References

Kinne, O., 2003: Climate Research: an article unleashed worldwide storms. Climate Research, 24, 197-198.
Mann, M.E., Ammann, C.M., Bradley, R.S., Briffa, K.R., Crowley, T.J., Jones, P.D., Oppenheimer, M., Osborn, T.J., Overpeck, J.T., Rutherford, S., Trenberth, K.E. and Wigley, T.M.L., 2003: On past temperatures and anomalous late-20th century warmth. EOS, 84, 256.
Soon, W. and Baliunas, S., 2003: Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research, 23, 89-110.
Soon, W., Baliunas, S., Idso, C., Idso, S. and Legates, D.R. 2003. Reconstructing climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years: A reappraisal. Energy and Environment, 14, 233-296.