By Quirin Schiermeier
As the blogosphere continues to buzz with discussion about e-mails leaked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK, climatologists are insisting that the controversy will not discredit their science, or hamper a global climate deal.
CRU confirmed on 20 November that more than 1,000 e-mails and documents had been copied from its servers and distributed on the Internet (see Nature 462, 397; 2009). Since then, climate sceptics have seized on the material, citing the contents of selected e-mails as evidence that the case for anthropogenic global warming has been over-stated, and US Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) has promised an investigation into the affair.
Yet climate experts say the broader impact of the leak will be minimal. "Any suggestions that these e-mails will affect public and policy-makers' understanding of climate science give far too much credence to blog chatter and boastful spin," says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Some, however, are pointing out that certain e-mails highlight a tendency for scientists to respond to critics either by retreating into an ivory tower, or by attempting to quiet dissenting voices. In an open letter posted on http://climateaudit.org, Judith Curry, a climatologist at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, wrote last week: "Scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them. Trying to suppress them or discredit the skeptical researcher or blogger is not an ethical strategy and one that will backfire in the long run."
The UEA has launched an independent inquiry into both the security breach and whether CRU has dealt appropriately with the deluge of requests for raw climate data it has received under the UK Freedom of Information Act (see Nature 460,787; 2009). It has also pointed out that more than 95% of the raw data used in CRU climate models has been publicly available for several years.
What the climate experts say
Thomas Stocker, University of Berne
"Science and science institutions should be transparent, but they are not a 24-hour help service for climate sceptics who lack fundamental scientific and technical skills."
Svend Soeyland, of environment group Bellona Foundation, Washington DC
"Only openness will make the buzz go away. If only the vaguest impression lingers on that studies have been cooked up or that facts have been hidden it will feed conspiracy theories for ages."
Eric Rignot, University of California, Irvine
"Given the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change, we should deal less and less with climate sceptics. Otherwise we should also deal with folks who think Elvis Presley is still alive, that Earth is less than 6,000 years old and that we cannot possibly have descended from monkeys."
Guy Brasseur, National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado
"It is important that scientists make their studies completely transparent, but the least ethical way to accuse others is to highlight a sentence and ignore the context in which this sentence has been written."
Mike Hulme, University of East Anglia, UK
"It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked e-mails display is something more usually associated with social organization within pre-modern cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science."
Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
"I doubt that negotiations in Copenhagen will be influenced by this unfortunate incident."
UPDATE: Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, stepped aside from his post on 1 December. In a statement he said: "What is most important is that CRU continues its world-leading research with as little interruption and diversion as possible. After a good deal of consideration I have decided that the best way to achieve this is by stepping aside from the director's role" while the university conducts an independent review of data security and its responses to Freedom of Information requests.