Who is Phil Jones?
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Phil Jones’ name was at the centre of a media storm in 2009 when thousands of emails and documents were leaked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). He had cherry-picked documents held against him to wrongly accuse him of making up data on climate change. But before 2009 - who is Phil Jones and why is he important?
Jones was born in Surrey, in 1952. His life has been dedicated to researching climate change. He is known for his work on the time series of hemispheric and global surface temperatures; he has written over 450 papers in the last 45 years.
His career has attained him an impressive scope of awards, including; the Hugh Robert Mill medal in 1995, by the Royal Meteorological Society for work on UK Rainfall Variability, the first Hans Oesschger Medal from the European Geophysical Society in 2002 and the International Journal of Climatology Prize of the Royal Meteorological Society for papers published in the last five years, also in 2002.
Although partially retired, Professor Jones remains in the top 15 of the world's most highly-cited researchers. His work continues to contribute to the University of East Anglia’s research which feeds into the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change reports which were used, most recently, at COP26 in Glasgow.
Since 1976 (aged twenty-four) he has been a professional member of the CRU. Shortly before Professor Jones joined the CRU, they began to pioneer global climate change understanding and its effect on the global climate system and its implications on society. Since his research began at the university, the CRU has achieved the Construction of a Global Temperature Record. This includes measurements of weather stations from around the world, historical records and data from proxies such as tree rings. This creation from CRU is famous for constructing a global record of surface air temperatures up to the present day.
In 1965, Professor Phil Jones’ work directly contributed to the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2nd report, published in 1995. It indicated that the governments worldwide had accepted that humans were influencing the climate.
Despite this impressive start to his extensive career, this was not always Jones’ plan. After finishing his first degree in Environmental Sciences and then a master in PhD in Hydrology, he landed his first three-year research contract with CRU “by chance” as he described. This was followed by fifteen more years worth of three-year research contracts, before becoming a reader at RCU and then a professor a few years later. He claims that there was “no planning” in this career route, explaining that it was just a job at the time, however admitting “it has worked out quite well.”
It was amongst these years of record-breaking research that the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was hacked. Consequently, misrepresented emails were used by climate deniers. This sparked a media storm, which became known as ‘Climategate.’ Their primary focus was attention on Professor Phil Jones and debunking his work.
The consequences of Climategate were extreme for Jones. “We were bombarded,” says Professor Phil Jones who lives with his wife south of Norwich. “Reporters arrived at our house and even questioned our neighbours. We had vile, threatening and abusive mail and emails from complete strangers. Some had death threats to me and my family,” he adds. “It was very shocking and frightening for all of us.”
Prof Jones took the allegations against his work very seriously. He felt it was against his entire career of being an ethical scientist. He described how being called a fraud or a charlatan attacked him “to the core.”
Twelve years after the media storm, the BBC aired its landmark dramatisation of the intense myths surrounding the hack of the university: The Trick. The Trick tells the story of the impact that cybercrime had on all of the climate scientists caught at the centre.
The historian Professor Edwards Aton had been appointed UEA’s eighth Vice-Chancellor just months before the media storm. He describes how UEA and Professor Jones were only in the firing line because their work was so significant. Professor Jones is said to agree with this, saying that it tells us the work is really important and inspires him to continue.
You can watch the dramatisation of Climategate here on BBC iPlayer.
Professor Phil Jones and the CRU were rejected in subsequent inquiries. He has not let this hinder his faith in his work. He tells the BBC that he has “got to be hopeful” for the change in government policy and that “The science is much stronger now.” The Trick was described by the professor as a story which needs to be told. "There are climate change deniers out there who want us to go on, business as usual, continually burning more and more fossil fuels, and the more we put into the atmosphere, the harder it is going to be to do anything about it."