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Hacked climate emails: conspiracy or tempest in a teapot?

By / November 21, 2009

A woman reads a newspaper as a ship is seen spraying sand and gravel off the coast near Petten, Netherlands. The Dutch government is spending billions of euros annually to prepare for the expected impact of global warming, including rising seas.

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For all its gee-whiz discoveries and its influence on public policy, science can be a messy, sometimes ugly enterprise.

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When the science is paleontology, astronomy, or geophysics, internal politics, thinly or not-so-thinly veiled personal attacks, and water-cooler discussions among influential scientists about whose research is junk and not worth publishing draw a collective yawn from anyone outside the relatively small circle of researchers involved.

When the topic is global warming, however, look out.

This week, more than 169 megabytes worth of global-warming emails and related files were either hacked and/or leaked from computers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Center in Britain and released to the world via the Internet.

(If you're interested in poring through some 169 megabytes of emails and files, you can download 26-megabyte FOI2009.zip from here, then unpack it. You'll need to set up a free account, then you can download the file.)

The package includes a number of innocuous discussions among the 1,073 emails that span a period from March 1996 to this month. But others treat with disdain colleagues who don't share the views of the majority or who challenge the way data are analyzed. Some emails give the appearance of fudging data. Others show the authors concerned about the ways their methods or data could be (mis)interpreted by global-warming skeptics.

In yet another email, one researcher influential in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeĀ (IPCC) process vows to keep two sets of results from being included in the group's widely cited reports "somehow -- even if if we have to redefine what the peer review literature is."

The appearance of these emails and files comes at a time when the US Senate has punted action on a climate and energy bill into next year, and with a major climate summit coming up next month in Copenhagen. Over the past three months -- if not longer -- it's become increasingly clear that the meeting will not yield a legally binding climate treaty, as negotiators hoped at a similar meeting in Bali in December 2007.

This confluence of postponements led US Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, a prominent political skeptic of global warming, to announce on the Senate floor last Wednesday: "I proudly declare 2009 as the Year of the Skeptic, the year in which scientists who question the so-called global warming consensus are being heard."

For researchers directly involved in the email exchanges, such emails really present a picture of the lengths scientists go to ensure the high quality of the science. The exchanges are shocking to some of the rest of us only because they open a window on an enterprise alien to most people. The debates are public in the sense that they crop up in scientific journals. But most people don't keep science journals handy as reading material for the commute to and from work.

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