Updated: Dec. 1, 2009
The road to the Copenhagen climate-change summit this week has been filled with potholes over political dithering, bitter debates and lingering doubt that an enforceable agreement can be reached. But one thing hasn't been questioned: the essential conviction that global warming is real and that it is caused by human activity. Which may explain why someone recently illegally obtained thousands of e-mails from the personal account of a climate-change scientist at Britain's University of East Anglia and posted them on a website dedicated to debunking the leading theories for the causes of global warming. Faced with nearly universal consensus on the issue, climate-change deniers are apparently adopting ever-more creative tactics to discredit the science behind global warming.
The e-mails, taken from the account of Phil Jones, director of the university's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), raise questions about whether Jones attempted to obscure evidence that contradicts the prevalent theories about rising global temperatures. In one message that has been widely circulated online, Jones explains how he applied another colleague's methodology: "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." In another, he writes about two studies submitted for inclusion in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): "I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Keith and I will keep them out somehow even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is."
After the e-mails were published on a blog called the Air Vent in late November, climate-change skeptics were triumphant. Blogger James Delingpole wrote a post on the website of the Daily Telegraph called "Climategate: The Final Nail in the Coffin of Anthropogenic Warming?" Jeff Id, editor of the Air Vent, referred to the East Anglia scientists as "a pile of leftists with an agenda and an already determined conclusion who don't believe they should have to reveal their data or methods in full openness." And Judith Curry, head of the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department at the Georgia Institute of Technology and contributor to the skeptical website Climate Audit, accused the researchers of trying to "squash legitimate criticism" of their work. "I don't think they're doing it for politically motivated reasons, but they don't distinguish between genuine disagreement and the kind of stuff Rush Limbaugh does," she says.
But many leading climate researchers, some of whose correspondences with Jones were published on the Air Vent, have said the e-mails were taken out of context and willfully distorted. Regarding Jones' comment about "hiding the decline," Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, says, "It's unfortunate that he used that phrase, but there's nothing to hide. We've known there was a decline over a decade; [CRU researcher] Keith Briffa published an article about it in Nature in 1998. So the idea that there is anything to hide is silly."
Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., says he is mystified by Jones' referral to redefining peer-review literature since he co-authored a chapter for the IPCC report with Jones and can attest to its rigor. "We had over 60 contributing authors, including some climate skeptics. The IPCC report is an open process and subject to extensive review you really can't keep stuff out of it." Trenberth, who is connected to about 100 e-mails in the uploaded documents, says some of his comments have been radically misconstrued. In one e-mail, he writes, "We can't account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it's a travesty that we can't." Some climate-change deniers have heralded that line as proof that global warming is a hoax, but it refers, Trenberth says, to a problem with the observational instruments used to measure temperatures. "Our instruments couldn't account for cooling in 2008," Trenberth says. "So we need to figure out what's wrong with our system of measurement. But that doesn't undermine the fact that global warming is real."
The CRU at East Anglia is of particular interest to skeptics because it is one of the leading centers for research into what is called global warming "proxy" data, which is based on indicators, such as tree rings, that are not scientific instruments. Because many skeptics question the validity of such data, they have attempted, through Freedom of Information Act requests, to gain access to the numbers used by researchers at the CRU and other publicly funded research centers. Those requests have repeatedly been denied. Mann believes this is what prompted the apparent hacking into the CRU system. "They were going to get that information one way or another," he says.
So what will be the impact of the e-mail scandal? It looks like it has forced scientists to be more transparent: after refusing to do so at first, the CRU said last week that it would release all its data to the public as soon as possible. Some scientists see this as a troubling sign of things to come from an intellectual-property standpoint. Although Trenberth favors greater transparency, he also asks, "Is it right that Phil Jones should simply hand over his lifetime's work? Shouldn't the skeptics have to go back and do the work themselves, rather than simply requesting that it be given to them?"
The incident will undoubtedly harden the animosity between climate-change researchers and deniers. "The deniers see that the world is coming really close to some kind of agreement, so it's time for pitched battle," says Ray Pierrehumbert, professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago. "But you know what? Carbon dioxide doesn't care if you're conservative or liberal."
Update: On Dec. 1, Phil Jones, the director of a research unit at the center of a row over climate change data, said he will stand down from his post while an independent review takes place.