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Will clash of science and politics undermine Copenhagen summit?

Climategate emails could have huge impact on summit, says Saudi Arabia’s lead climate negotiator. Others say the controversial leaked emails provide an opportunity to educate the public about climate science.

By Staff writer / December 5, 2009

Visitors look at an art installation representing the planet in downtown Copenhagen, Denmark, which hosts the United Nations' climate change conference next week.

Bob Strong/Reuters

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The underlying question behind a growing number of probes into the so-called climategate emails is simple, but vexing: Did politics -- especially a quest to eliminate uncertainty from findings that indicate man’s role in global warming -- creep into the scientific method?

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And if so, what does it mean for the Copenhagen Summit that begins this coming week, where nations hope to hammer out a deal to control greenhouse gas emissions in a way that won’t pick economic winners or losers?

“While the ultimate political impact of the climate-gate scandal remains to be seen, it raises serious and disturbing questions on the validity of the science used to measure climate change,” Rep. John Sullivan (R) of Oklahoma tells the Hill newspaper.
The leaked (or hacked, it’s still not clear) emails -- which most seriously hint at attempts to keep adverse views out of the public eye -- have sparked a number of investigations.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, called questions brought up by the emails “a serious issue” that the UN will “look into in detail.”

Phil Jones, the head of East Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit where the emails originated, has stepped down temporarily as the university looks into whether the key science produced by the center to bolster influential UN reports was compromised. Pennsylvania State University has also begun an inquiry into whether paleoclimatologist Michael Mann, a co-author of last month’s Copenhagen Diagnosis document that upheld major climate change tenets, made any scientific missteps in his research.

White House still sees serious climate threat

The White House and Congress have balked at investigating the issue. White House science adviser John Holdren says the revelations have not swayed the administration belief that global warming is a serious threat that needs policy prescription, including a cap-and-trade bill that would reduce US carbon emissions by up to 20 percent by 2020.

There appears to be no so-called smoking gun in the emails that disproves the theory of human-influenced climate change.

“There is so much information that tells us the planet has been warming,” Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said during a teleconference call with reporters Friday. “No independent study is going to come up with anything other than what we’ve already concluded.”

But allegations that influential climate scientists worried about the political implications of their studies -- one email called the lack of warming in the last decade “a travesty” -- is disconcerting to many in the scientific community, especially since it now throws doubt on key findings.