Hacked e-mails heat up climate-change debate

Richard Foot
Canwest News Service
November 27, 2009

Christmas came early this year for Diane Katz and other Canadians at the forefront of the most polarized political fight on the planet.

For many years Katz — the director of environment policy at the Fraser Institute, the free market Vancouver think-tank — has argued alongside her allies that global warming is neither a man-made phenomenon nor the doomsday crisis it is widely considered to be, and that the scientists who fuel such fears have in fact hoodwinked us.

Then last week Katz and her colleagues were handed an unexpected gift: a computer hacker had stolen hundreds of e-mails and other documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Britain — an influential centre of climate change study — and posted the material on the Internet, only weeks before world leaders gather in Copenhagen on Dec. 7 to hash out a new global strategy on carbon emissions.

The e-mail exchanges, between a group of powerful, like-minded scientists based in Britain and the U.S., written over the past 13 years, suggest they may have rigged their data, suppressed contrary information and conspired to control what should be an independent peer review process surrounding the publication of their scientific papers.

It’s partly the work of these scientists — whose computer modelling research has formed the basis of reports published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — that now compels many countries to write new laws on carbon emissions limits.

But Katz says the hacked e-mail exchanges prove the IPCC, and governments everywhere, have been seriously misled.

“The perversion of science exposed in these e-mails is a vindication of the scholars and analysts who have long questioned the claims of climate alarmists,” said Katz in an interview this week.

“It also shows that the real deniers are the researchers such as those at the CRU, who ignore evidence that man-made emissions are not causing global warming. It’s imperative now that governments not impose measures to mitigate global warming.”

In one e-mail, the CRU scientists and their U.S. colleagues discuss using a “trick” to “hide the decline” in temperatures presented on a set of data.

Other e-mails show the scientists may have plotted to eliminate from their modelling an entire set of temperature data from the Middle Ages, when the world may have been warmer than it is now.

And in others they discuss rigging the rules of the peer review process, to ensure that scientific articles on climate change are reviewed by friends, not critics.

When this doesn’t work, they resort to bullying. In 2003, when the journal Climate Research published an article contrary to the views of the CRU and its friends, one scientist suggested boycotting the journal or trying to manipulate its editors.

“Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal,” one e-mail said. “We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues, who currently sit on (the journal’s) editorial board.”

In another e-mail the scientists even refer to the death of a prominent climate change skeptic as “cheering news.”

Phil Jones, the director of the CRU, has admitted that “some of the published e-mails do not read well. . . . Some were clearly written in the heat of the moment.”

But he has also called it “complete rubbish” that he and his colleagues conspired to manipulate the data itself, or the journals that published it.

Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University scientist who wrote some of the offending e-mails, said the messages have simply been misunderstood, and wrongly turned from “something innocent into something nefarious.”

“What they’ve done is search through stolen personal e-mails, confidential between colleagues who often speak in a language they understand and is often foreign to the outside world.”

Asked about the furor on Friday, John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, made the same argument, saying: “Mann and his colleagues were simply speaking in their own high-level code, and a number of things were taken out of context.

“They used the word ‘trick’ in one of the stolen e-mails,” Bennett said, “but they were simply referring to a way of dealing with a complicated mathematical problem. They weren’t using the word in the sense of, ‘I’m going to fool you.’ ”

In some of Mann’s e-mails, however, his meaning is perfectly clear, including the one to a New York Times reporter, in which he disparages Canadian climate researcher Stephen McIntyre as someone “not to be trusted.”

McIntyre is a Toronto-based blogger who has become a thorn in the side of Mann and his colleagues, fact-checking their research and pointing out their inconsistencies on his website climateaudit.org.

What kind of effect the “climategate” revelations will have on the future of the global warming debate isn’t yet clear. Next month’s meeting in Copenhagen is unlikely to be influenced by the scandal, says Katz, because expectations are already low that the meeting will produce any kind of serious new plan on carbon emissions.

But the longer-term impact could be greater. Nigel Lawson, a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer and a well-known climate change skeptic, has called for a public inquiry into the CRU and the scientific study of global warming.

“I am confident that we’ll see a major inquiry within the next one to three years,” says Lawrence Solomon, another skeptic, and executive director of the Toronto think-tank Energy Probe.

He says if an inquiry isn’t opened by Britain’s Labour government, the Conservative opposition, widely expected to win power in the next election, will almost certainly convene one. A U.S. congressional committee might also decide to hold hearings into the science of climate change.

An inquiry, says Solomon, is likely to produce “a lot more e-mails like the ones we’ve seen so far in ‘climategate.’ ”

He also hopes an inquiry would include a forensic analysis of the computer codes, or programs, that produced the climate models now being relied on by the IPCC.

Even if governments don’t investigate the matter, the affair may have permanently shifted the momentum of the debate.

“Until now, what these scientists have said is, ‘trust us.’ Now, what the scandal has almost certainly done is put the onus on these people, the doomsayers, to demonstrate the validity of their data. They’ve never been required them to do that before.”

Says Katz: “Proponents of the more alarmist chain of thinking have always assumed this mantle of moral superiority, even going so far as to call those who disagree with them ‘deniers.’ This has now changed all that. It shows in fact that they don’t have any moral superiority, because they’ve been fixing the data.”

Bennett brushes aside those claims, insisting the scandal will be short-lived.

“I think it will have no impact whatsoever,” he says.

For one thing, the computer modelling studies that have now been thrown into question aren’t the only form of science behind the climate change crisis. Observational science — witnessed evidence of melting glaciers, disappearing polar ice, rising sea levels and changing ocean acidity — also inform the world’s understanding of global warming.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been a tremendous amount of observed changes in the climate,” says Bennett. “We’re observing the very changes that Mann’s models predict. So his work, and that of his colleagues, remains pivotal and important.

“All this controversy will prove is the desperateness of the fossil fuel industry, and those they back, the tiny, minuscule group of pseudo-scientific deniers, who are so desperate they will resort to this kind of criminal tactic — stealing e-mails — to make their point.”

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