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Climate debate

November 25, 2009

An e-mail hacking scandal at a British climate institute has set off shockwaves just ahead of key climate talks in Copenhagen. Skeptics say the mails show scientists have misrepresented climate data.

Hands typing on a keyboard
Those involved say warming is real - despite the poorly worded e-mailsImage: AP

The fallout continues over the theft of private e-mails from a server at a world-renowned climate change research unit in Britain. Last weekend, computer hackers broke into the server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and then posted hundreds of private e-mails, and other papers online.

The e-mails date back some 13 years, and afford a rare glimpse into the inner workings of scientific publishing and the peer-review process. Some included nasty comments by global-warming scientists about climate skeptics and other researchers, and there were exchanges on how to present data in charts that will make global warming more convincing.

In one eyebrow-raising exchange, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, wrote: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."

Exposed: Bickering among scientists

Climate skeptics say the mails shed new light on climate science - and on the climate conference in Denmark in December. Speaking to Reuters news service, Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said research that had fed into official reports "is now very suspect."

But those closely involved say that the mails do nothing to cast doubt on the research that shows global warming exists. At worst, they say, it exposes internecine bickering in the climate community. And some say the timing of the news was especially intended to undermine the upcoming climate conference.

Climate researchers have been warning that time is running outImage: AP

Phil Jones, the professor at the CRU whose mail account at East Anglia was hacked, told the British Guardian newspaper that he "absolutely" stands by his research. He said any suggestion that the e-mails show evidence of a conspiracy to manipulate data was "complete rubbish."

Scientist "regrets" word choice

One exchange that is at the heart of the scandal is a now infamous e-mail from 1999, in which Jones discussed a "trick" to "hide the decline" in global temperatures. He now says that was a poor choice of words, and observers have been quick to explain that the quote referred to a way of dealing with a little understood problem involving temperature records gleaned from tree rings.

In other words, as he told the Guardian, while he "regrets" sending some mails "in the heat of the moment," Jones says nothing he wrote changes the science underlying global-warming warnings.

"That the world is warming is based on a range of sources," he said. "Our global temperature series tallies with those of other, completely independent, groups of scientists … The facts speak for themselves."

And as for Trenberth, he told The New York Times that his "travesty" comments are also being taken out of their original context. They were part of a longer message about the difficulties in temperature measurement, he said.

"What this is saying is we need better observations," he said. "What it's not saying is that global warming is not here."

Credibility damage - with an upside

In scathing comments on his Web page, German climatologist Hans von Storch of the Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany, remarked that the "unfortunate writing" done by Jones and others has "likely damaged the credibility of climate science."

Especially problematic is the way scientists seemed out to influence the peer-review process, which researchers are supposed to use as a test of objectivity and honesty.

A coal fired power plant in china emits billowing smoke
Skeptics say research on man-made climate change is now 'suspect'Image: AP

"I found the style of communication revealing, speaking about other people and their ideas, joining forces to 'kill' papers, exchanges of 'improving' presentations without explaining," he wrote. "Interesting exchanges, and evidences, are contained about efforts to destroy 'Climate Research.'"

But the fallout may not be entirely negative, he writes; in fact he sees a silver lining for climate science: "I would assume that … a useful debate about the degree of politicization of climate science will emerge."

Political fallout, too

Exactly what form that debate might take is still uncertain, but it seems to be jumping the borders of the blogosphere. In the US, Republican lawmakers are opening an inquiry into the mails. Senator James Inhofe, a global-warming skeptic, sent letters on Tuesday to the inspectors-general of several agencies and to scientists asking them to retain records related to the e-mails.

And House Republicans want to know how much the scientists contributed to a widely cited UN report on climate change. The report has served as the basis for action in Congress and by the Obama administration to reduce greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, East Anglia's Jones suggests that the timing of the theft means it was intended to cause maximum embarrassment ahead of the Copenhagen talks.

"One has to wonder if it is a coincidence that this e-mail correspondence has been stolen and published at this time. This may be a concerted attempt to put a question mark over the science of climate change in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks," he told the Guardian.

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Michael Lawton