'Climategate': leaked emails push scientists toward transparency

The leaked emails from a British university don’t undermine climate-change theory, most scientists insist. But several are calling for more transparency in the global-warming field. On Monday, climate talks begin in Copenhagen, Demark.

By , Staff writer

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    Steam billows from the cooling towers of a coal power plant in Neurath, Germany, Friday.
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As delegates for climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, prepare to craft the outlines of a new global-warming treaty, a controversy over the hacked e-mails of some climate researchers is triggering calls for greater transparency in the UN body that provides governments with scientific advice on the issue.

The e-mails have raised questions about the credibility of some climate researchers’ work and revived criticism from those who say global warming is exaggerated. Though most scientists insist the e-mails don’t undermine climate-change theory, several call for greater transparency in the field.

Measures they’d like to see range from ensuring that all scientists have access to raw data used in climate science to requiring that the assessments of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) appear along with something akin to a dissenting minority report.

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“Climategate,” as some label the controversy, concerns at least 1,000 e-mails and files leaked or hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in Britain.

Many of the e-mails are innocuous. But others depict a small, influential group of scientists – several of whom work on global temperature trends over the past 1,500 years – trying to prevent skeptics of their work from gaining access to raw data used.

Other e-mails suggest some researchers manipulated data and tried to block publication of papers that called their work into question. One e-mail urges colleagues to destroy e-mails related to work on the 2007 IPCC reports on global warming.

On Friday the IPCC chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, said that his organization would investigate allegations stemming from the e-mails.

"We will certainly go into the whole lot, and then we will take a position on it," he told the BBC. "We certainly don't want to brush anything under the carpet."

In addition, the universities where two of the most prolific e-mail writers worked have begun investigations. These involve Michael Mann of Penn State and Phil Jones, who stepped down as head of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) for the duration of the University of East Anglia’s probe.

In Washington, Republicans sent a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 2 asking the agency to back off trying to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act until it can show that “the science underlying these regulatory decisions had not been compromised.”

Testifying before Congress the same day, President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, told lawmakers that the science behind global warming, although “incomplete,” is sound. But he added that if data has been manipulated “in ways not scientifically legitimate, I regard that as a problem and I would denounce it.”

The IPCC chair has said the e-mails don’t undermine its reports. This is because climate-change research relies on many lines of evidence and thousands of research papers, while the e-mails relate mainly to one line of evidence and a relative handful of papers.

But the e-mails do show some scientists trying to protect a higher level of confidence in their results than the data allow, says John Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and a target in the e-mails.

“This puts the whole field under a cloud,” he says.

Scientists behaving badly

The e-mails open a window onto a side of competitive scientific research the public seldom sees, including back-stabbing and politicking.

“The sort of behavior seen in the e-mails is not unusual in academia,” says Roger Pielke Jr., a specialist in science policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But “it’s not the sort of behavior that gives you faith” when decisions affecting the environmental future of billions of people are at stake.

In one widely cited e-mail from CRU’s Dr. Jones to Dr. Mann, Jones verbally smacks down two research papers, then writes that he and a colleague will find a way to keep them out of the 2007 IPCC reports “even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is.” (Both papers were ultimately cited and discussed in the IPCC reports.)

The inclination to block other views, however, wasn’t limited to these scientists. A 2001 e-mail from Thomas Crowley, a researcher at Texas A&M University in College Station, cautions that a colleague might try to use a similar tactic on them.

But even some targets of the e-mails say the scientific enterprise can self-correct to compensate for the failings of scientists. Eduardo Zorita of the GKSS Research Center’s Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany – a target of ire in some e-mails – notes that two other CRU researchers and e-mail authors should be commended for not yielding to pressure to convey “a distorted picture” of some research.

“The net result of this behavior is that a few deserving papers might not have gotten published or included in the IPCC assessment report,” says Judith Curry, a tropical-climate specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in an e-mail exchange. She adds, “Groupthink can slow things down, but eventually the scientific process will self-correct.”

Still, she and others argue for greater transparency in the way the science is conducted. One approach might be termed the Virtual Climate Observatory, loosely modeled on a system astronomers use to archive data coming in from space- and land-based telescopes. Astronomers asking to use federally funded telescopes must turn their data over to the virtual observatory a year to 18 months after gathering it.

Funding agencies in the United States already expect researchers to put their data into the public domain two years after it’s gathered, Dr. Curry notes. “But this is clearly not enforced,” she adds.

More public ‘ownership’

Others suggest changes in the IPCC process. The body is supposed to avoid favoring one set of policies over another. But that doesn’t always happen, some say.

Germany’s Dr. Zarita says some of the researchers involved in the e-mail controversy should be banned from serving as IPCC authors or reviewers. At the least, Dr. Pielke suggests, a scientist who contributes research to the climate-policy discussion shouldn’t sit on the panel assessing his or her work.

Greater transparency and wider public access would also give the public a sense of ownership in the climate-science enterprise – and allow people with the interest and math skills to get a glimpse of how the work is done.

“That gives more trust and credibility to the process,” Pielke says.

See also:

Storm contiues to swirl around Climategate, as multiple investigations get under way

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