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Science & the Public

'Climate-gate': Beyond the embarrassment

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SAMSØ ISLAND, DENMARK Late last month, someone leaked a cache of more than 1,000 stolen emails relating to climate science. The emails had been stored in an archive at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. The hacked correspondence has proven a monumental embarrassment to its authors — for a host of reasons.

“[B]ut the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked,” the Associated Press concluded today.

The hacked correspondence offers evidence of unethical behavior and hubris on the part of certain climate scientists, according to the AP analysis. Some emails also expressed mean-spirited rhetoric about climate-change skeptics.

AP “studied all the e-mails for context, with five reporters reading and rereading them — about 1 million words in total,” the news report says. In addition, the news agency sought assessments of the e-mails from seven “experts in research ethics, climate science and science policy.

“The e-mails show that several mainstream scientists repeatedly suggested keeping their research materials away from opponents who sought it under American and British public records law,” according to the analysis. Indeed, it noted that these scientists' attitude “raises a science ethics question because free access to data is important so others can repeat experiments as part of the scientific method.”

The outside experts said the emails’ sometimes intemperate language and strategizing represented politics — which occurs in science as in many other fields of endeavor, from academia to business. None of the experts found a proverbial “smoking gun” in these emails that would diminish the strength of data underpinning the now-ongoing climate-change negotiations near here, in Copenhagen.

A Dec. 2 editorial in Nature came to much the same conclusion. Many people challenge data indicating that Earth’s atmosphere is warming, that human activities have played a substantial role in that warming, and that measures must be undertaken soon to slow emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Some of these quite vocal critics regularly post comments on the Science News website.

But the claim that the hacked emails offer evidence that mainstream climate scientists have systematically suppressed evidence contradicting global warming is simply “paranoid,” the Nature editorial charges.

In fact, the editorial argues that climate-change deniers’ misguided interpretation of the hacked correspondence “would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist  politicians in the U.S. Senate will probably use it next year as an excuse to stiffen their opposition to the country’s much needed climate bill. Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That cause is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.”

In the end, the editorial concluded, the hacked emails offer testimony “that scientists are human” and can be goaded by unrelenting criticism and disrespect for their research into exhibiting unprofessional attitudes and language.

A Dec. 4 “open letter to Congress” by 25 prominent U.S. scientists, including many who work on climate issues, charged that “opponents of taking action on climate change have misrepresented both the content and the significance of stolen emails to obscure public understanding of climate science and the scientific process.”

In fact, the letter argues, “The body of evidence that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming is overwhelming. The content of the stolen emails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming.”

For what it’s worth, shortly before the climate-emails theft (October 21), 18 scientific organizations called upon Congress to accept “that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” Signatories included the American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I find the whole "climate-gate" saga, as the stolen emails have come to be known, disturbing. Theft is disappointing — and illegal. The unprofessional language in some of the emails is also disappointing. I sincerely hope that both are investigated. Today’s AP report said the University of East Anglia will be investigating whether and to what extent information had been withheld from lawful requests. But probing these apparent ethical, if not moral, lapses can wait until the new year.

I’ve spent the day at a “Future Energy Seminar” here on a small Danish island: A social experiment showing that communities can survive quite comfortably off the grid. Samsø Island gets 100 percent of its electricity and heating from wind and other “alternative” energy sources. It showcases some of the technologies featured at the seminar.

But the bulk of discussions at the conference for 18 international reporters, convened this weekend by the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists, has pointed to how far we all still have to go to “de-carbonize” urban energy supplies if we hope to have any chance of keeping Earth’s low-grade fever from igniting into a catastrophic warming.

Particularly troubling were two talks by U.S. analysts with the International Energy Agency, in Paris. They offered ample evidence indicating that big changes have to occur quickly if we’re going to get in front of the problem and slow our trajectory from a path that’s currently heading for a 6-degree-Celsius warmer world, to one that might only get 2 degrees warmer.

The United Nations Climate Change meeting, which I arrive at tomorrow in Copenhagen, is currently deadlocked on more important issues than who said what impolitic thing about somebody else in a private email to a colleague. Glaciers are melting, reducing the stores of drinking water for downstream communities in many parts of the world. Sea level rise, due to thermal expansion, is threatening some island nations’ very survival. Acidifying oceans and overcut forests are reducing the ability of our planet to sop up excess CO2.

Who’s going to pay for measures to slow emissions of greenhouse gases? What tactics offer the most bang for our constrained bucks? Can the United States get off the sideline and take a leadership role in developing incentives to reduce our polluting ways?

Let’s get some perspective and own up to the fact that we need to restore some semblance of ecological balance to the way we live our lives.

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