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Scientists Respond to "Climategate" E-Mail Controversy

Stolen e-mails and computer code do nothing to change average temperature trends, but they could damage climate researchers' credibility just when polls are showing public belief that greenhouse gases are warming the planet is ebbing
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Courtesy of University of East Anglia

With all the "hot air" surrounding climate change discussions, none has been hotter in recent weeks than that spewed over a trove of stolen e-mails and computer code from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England. Longstanding contrarians, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R–Okla.), who famously dubbed climate change a "hoax" in a 2003 speech, has pointed to the stolen e-mails as information that overturns the scientific evidence for global warming and called on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to halt any development of regulation of greenhouse gases pending his investigation into the e-mails. And recent polls have found that fewer Americans today than just two years ago believe that greenhouse gases will cause average temperatures to increase—a drop from 71 percent to 51 percent.

Yet, Arctic sea ice continues to dwindle—as do glaciers across the globe; average temperatures have increased by 0.7 degree Celsius in the past century and the last decade is the warmest in the instrumental record; spring has sprung forward, affecting everything from flower blossoms to animal migrations; and the concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to rise, reaching 387 parts per million in 2009, a rise of 30 percent since 1750.

Nor has the fundamental physics of the greenhouse effect changed: CO2 in the atmosphere continues to trap heat that would otherwise slip into space, as was established by Irish scientist John Tyndall in 1859. "There is a natural greenhouse effect, that's what keeps the planet livable," noted climate modeler Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) during a Friday conference call with reporters organized by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "Without it, we'd be 33 degrees Celsius colder than we are. That's been known for hundreds of years."

He added: "We're getting up to the point where the total amount of forcing from these greenhouse gases is equivalent to the sun brightening about one percent. That's a very big number indeed."

In fact, nothing in the stolen e-mails or computer code undermines in any way the scientific consensus—which exists among scientific publications as well as scientists—that climate change is happening and humans are the cause. "There is a robust consensus that humans are altering the atmosphere and warming the planet," said meteorologist Michael Mann of The Pennsylvania State University, who also participated in the conference call and was among the scientists whose e-mails have been leaked. "Further increases in greenhouse gases will lead to increasingly greater disruption."

Some of the kerfuffle rests on a misreading of the e-mails' wording. For example, the word "trick" in one message, which has been cited as evidence that a conspiracy is afoot, is actually being used to describe a mathematical approach to reconciling observed temperatures with stand-in data inferred from tree ring measurements.

The scientists on the conference call, including atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, also addressed other parts of the content of the stolen e-mails, including some that griped about particular journals (Climate Research) or editors (at Geophysical Research Letters). "It's important to understand what peer review really is," Mann noted. "It's not a license for anybody to publish."

In essence, he argued, in both cases, some papers that "did not make a credible case to support the conclusions that were reached" were being published. As a result, climate scientists were complaining, among themselves, about the quality of the journals.

"Scientists care very much about the quality of the journals they publish in," Schmidt noted. "If a journal is perceived to have lax reviewing standards, then you are tarred with the same brush if you publish in that journal. Your work becomes devalued."

And ultimately, even those papers specifically challenged in the e-mails (one of which featured a vow to "keep [these papers] out [of the IPCC report] somehow—even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is") made it into the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report.

As for charges that the CRU database is corrupt or compromised such that its results cannot be trusted, Schmidt noted that a number of other databases with climate records supporting global warming exist throughout the world—including NASA's GISS, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center and even the IPCC, all of which provide access to the raw data. Further, many of the same contrarians arguing that global warming has stopped in recent years are relying on the same CRU record that they are now disparaging as untrustworthy.

"Most of the data have been freely available for decades," Oppenheimer added. "There's been plenty of opportunity for people to reach a different conclusion."

In fact, an independent effort to dispel global warming findings by using the NASA data and discarding certain parts of it ultimately also revealed an increase in average temperatures over time. And scientists have become more open as well over the course of the past decade. (Many of the e-mails are from the 1990s.) "We published a paper in Science last week where we uploaded 30 megabytes of supplementary information to the Web site," Mann said. "So anyone who read the paper had access to every piece of raw data and every piece of code we used to do the analysis."

The stolen e-mails may ultimately provide a sociological window into the workings of the scientific community. "This is a record of how science is actually done," Schmidt noted. "They'll see that scientists are human and how science progresses despite human failings. They'll see why science as an enterprise works despite the fact that scientists aren't perfect."

The one piece of stolen information that all agreed showed at least a "lapse in judgment" was CRU Director Phil Jones's e-mail asking Mann specifically to delete any correspondence related to "AR4," otherwise known as the report from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Frankly, the sending of that e-mail demonstrated unfortunate judgment on the part of the scientist who sent it," Mann said. "To my knowledge, no one acted on that request. I did not delete any e-mails." The continuing existence of the e-mail itself would seem to support Mann's contention, although his response at the time was to agree to contact a fellow scientist "Gene," as requested by Jones.

Minimal impact is expected from the stolen e-mails at the upcoming Copenhagen climate conference, although a negotiator from Saudi Arabia has already pledged to use them to complicate the process of negotiating an international agreement to combat climate change. But they could play a role in pending U.S. legislation, particularly in the Senate where a climate bill is likely to be debated next spring. "Those opposing action will throw everything including the kitchen sink into the debate," Oppenheimer said. "Do I think it will have a significant effect on the judgment of lawmakers or public opinion? No, I don't, but you never know with these things."

And it might be that the recent polls are simply uncovering a hardening partisan divide: 73 percent of Democrats accepted that greenhouse gases lead to global warming whereas only 28 percent of Republicans agreed, in a poll conducted by Harris Interactive that matches similar findings from The Pew Research Center. A decline among Independents sharing that view of anthropogenic climate change seems to be largely driven by those who "lean Republican," according to Harris.

As always, weather might also be playing a role: This past October was among the coolest on record in the continental U.S., which shows that when it comes to public understanding of global climate change, the local weather might be skewing the results. And just as glacier levels are raising sea levels around the globe, scandals like this continue to raise confusion.

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