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'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 Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / December 4, 2009

Steam billows from the cooling towers of a coal power plant in Neurath, Germany, Friday.

Ina Fassbender/REUTERS

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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.

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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.

“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.