How an Interoffice Spat Erupted Into a Climate-Change Furor
The Mail claimed that Dr. Bates had revealed fraud in important research by NOAA that supports the widely held belief that climate change is real. “How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data,” the article’s headline said.
The scientific community swiftly shot down the accusations, and affirmed the accuracy of the research. And Dr. Bates himself later stated in an interview with a business news site that he had not meant to suggest that his former boss had played fast and loose with temperature data. “The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data,” Dr. Bates said.
Still, Dr. Bates has emerged as a hero to some conservative media outlets and politicians, and among climate-change deniers on Facebook and Twitter.
The Texas congressman and longtime climate skeptic Lamar Smith posted a link to a summary of the claims multiple times on Twitter. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which Mr. Smith heads, took up the controversy at a hearing.
NOAA itself is now bringing in independent investigators to review Dr. Bates’s claims. “NOAA takes seriously any accusations that its policies and procedures have not been followed,” a spokesman, Scott Smullen, said in a statement.
Dr. Bates did not respond to repeated requests for comment nor to detailed questions about the incident and his former co-workers’ characterizations.
Interviews with six of his former colleagues at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, including two former bosses, painted a picture of a room filled with brilliant scientists, and — like many workplaces — its fair share of mundane professional spats and jealousies.
Dr. Bates was demoted from a managerial role in 2012 under Thomas Karl — the lead author of the study Dr. Bates has questioned — after complaints over Dr. Bates’s professional conduct, according to the former colleagues and supervisors. He also became frustrated that his efforts to enforce strict procedures in the archiving of climate data were not getting as much attention as he had hoped.
“He was often heard saying that he, not Karl, should be running the center,” said Marjorie McGuirk, former chief of staff at the data center.
At the heart of the furor is a study led by Dr. Karl, the former director of NOAA’s data center. The NOAA center handles the nation’s trove of climate and weather data. Dr. Karl’s study had refuted earlier work suggesting that global warming had slowed earlier in this century.
According to the article in The Mail, Dr. Bates claimed that the study relied on problematic data. The researchers threw out good data on sea temperatures recorded on buoys, and “corrected” it with what he said was bad data from ships, Dr. Bates said, according to The Mail.
“You never change good data to agree with bad, but that’s what they did — so as to make it look as if the sea was warmer,” he was quoted in The Mail as saying. The Mail on Sunday article also argued that the study had been rushed into the journal Science to influence the 2015 Paris climate deal, in which world leaders agreed to curb planet-warming emissions.
David Rose, the author of The Mail on Sunday article, said in a Twitter correspondence that he stood by his reporting.
The Mail on Sunday, together with its sister tabloid, The Daily Mail, in the past has been accused of publishing work that disputed the widely held scientific belief that warming is the result of human activity.
The outcry over Dr. Bates’s claims points to a push by some in the right-wing media to cast doubt on established climate science, and to dispel public support for emissions regulations. Breitbart, the right-wing website formerly run by Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, repeatedly played up Dr. Bates’s claims. “John Bates has provided the smoking gun,” it reported. Fox News called the accusations “explosive.”
Breitbart and Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think there’s already been enormous damage,” said Bob Ward, a researcher at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. “What they’re trying to do is to slow the pace of action on climate change.”
In his interview with the business news site Energy and Environment this month, Dr. Bates stated that the issue wasn’t with data tampering. Rather, he said, his issue was that some of the processed data used in the report wasn’t subsequently archived in accordance with strict protocols that Dr. Bates had developed. In other words, it was a filing problem, not a science problem.
The paper’s authors disputed that strict archiving of the calculations was necessary, because all of the original data used in the report was properly archived. And the data was subsequently made available to other researchers, said Tom Peterson, a research meteorologist who is a co-author of the study with Dr. Karl.
Former colleagues said that, in aiming at his former boss, Dr. Bates was motivated by more than scientific zeal.
Ms. McGuirk said that one of her responsibilities had been to manage what she described as frequent complaints about Dr. Bates’s behavior in the workplace. Those complaints led to his demotion in 2012 from his post as head of the data center’s satellite and remote sensing division, where he supervised a dozen or so employees, to a position as principal scientist, which involved no managerial duties, she said.
“This episode is consistent with his history of outbursts,” she said.
Ms. McGuirk said that she herself had filed a complaint against Dr. Bates, based on his conduct at a staff meeting in 2009. At that meeting, Dr. Bates shouted that Ms. McGuirk was not trustworthy and belonged in jail, according to an internal log detailing complaints against the scientist that was viewed by The New York Times.
Dr. Karl, the lead author of the report that Dr. Bates criticized, said he was “flabbergasted” by Dr. Bates’s accusations. “But the science has been validated and verified. I leave it to others to figure out what motivated him,” he said in an interview.
Dr. Peterson said that he had last seen Dr. Bates on Saturday — the day before The Mail article appeared — at a play in Asheville, N.C., where the NOAA center is headquartered, and where many of these scientists still live. “I asked him how retirement was going,” Dr. Peterson said.
“He said, ‘It’s going to get interesting,’” Dr. Peterson said. And when he asked Dr. Bates what he meant, “He smiled and gave me a thumbs up,” Dr. Peterson said.
Then the two men turned to the evening’s play, Dr. Peterson said. It was a performance of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
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