Hacked climate emails: conspiracy or tempest in a teapot?

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.

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

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 Change (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.

Over at Realclimate.org, several of whose climate-scientist contributors were involved in the pilfered email-exchanges, the "group" explains the collection this way:

...There is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in ‘robust’ discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

Yet some of the targets of the emails' ire understandably see things differently. One target, climate researcher John Christy at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, finds the emails reflect a disturbing level of what he terms "group think." In an email exchange (a polite one), he writes:

These people act in concert to diminish, reject, and otherwise denigrate findings with which they do not agree -- and they are able to do so because of their "establishment" positions. This is the preservation of "group think" at its most serious level.... The group represented by the bulk of these emails does indeed have a message to defend. Those of us who see problems with that message are aware of how the data are manufactured and interpreted to support that message -- and worse, how these establishment scientists act as gatekeepers for the "consensus" reports to suppress alternative findings.

Another target of email ire, Roger Pielke Sr. at Colorado State University, makes much the same argument. You can read his latest blog post on the subject here.

Neither rejects the notion of a human role in global warming. But they consistently object to the disaster scenarios that permeate the political discussions about global warming. And in Dr. Pielke's case, the human role extends beyond carbon dioxide to include "forcings" such as land-use change or the production of black-carbon soot from biomass burning.

Nothing in the package appears to overturn the general idea -- arrived at via many lines of evidence -- that the CO2 humans have been pumping into the atmosphere is warming the planet, nor does anything bolster the notion some put forward of a hoax on the part of climate scientists.

It remains to be seen how the release of the emails and files plays out beyond the circle of people who follow the issue closely and who hold strong views on either side of the issue. It could turn out to be a tempest in a teapot or a PR gotcha for US climate scientists. At the least, it reinforces the maxim: Don't put into an email information you don't want to see on the front page of someone's newspaper (Oops, old medium) web site.

The irony: Since the international community first took up the climate issue in a serious way in 1992, the focus of attention has been on the atmospheric effects of pumping long-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels. But that CO2 also is working its way into the oceans, making them more acidic -- something that raises its own set of serious challenges.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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