Gloabl warming is fake!Shucks, we shoulda known!Photo courtesy Andrew Ciscel via Flickr With the Copenhagen climate talks upon us we learn that hackers recently broke into thousands of emails and internal documents from a leading climate research center and dumped them onto an anonymous Russian server. The hacked emails (160 MB worth, unzipped) came from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU). They allegedly include 10-year’s worth of exchanges between top U.S. and British climate scientists who were debating the latest developments in climate research. Global warming skeptics, the internet over, are using the (illegal) hacking to claim that global warming is a hoax, full of fudged data and dishonest, conspiratorial scientists. It’s “the global warming scandal of the century,” claim conservative bloggers.

A CRU spokesperson confirmed that their server was hacked; however, the spokesperson told the BBC that “Because of the volume of this information we cannot currently confirm that all of this material is genuine.”

The exchanges reportedly include discussions about climate data and how to respond to climate skeptics, a few blunt comments about the most fervent deniers, and one doctored photo of climate skeptics stranded on an ice floe. But the most controversial comments, plucked out of context, come from a private correspondence between CRU researcher Phil Jones and Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann (author of the infamous “hocky stick graph” of rising global average temperatures):

“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,” wrote Jones.

I’ll save you from the science wonkery and allusions here (check out RealClimate for a more detailed explanation), but noisy climate skeptics are jumping on two parts of that sentence. Guess which ones? Yup, “trick” and “hide the decline.”

Jones was referencing two sets of data on temperature change during the last decade. One used changes in tree rings; the other used thermometers. Both showed a rise in temperature until the 1960s, when the thermometers continud to record a rise and the tree rings did not. When other independent temperature measures confirmed the thermometer readings, scientists abandoned the tree rings data. 

The legitimate climate scientists over at RealClimate have an indepth response to the allegations being made against the CRU folks, some of whom are RealClimate contributors. While conceding that “hide” was a poor choice of words, they translate the science slang at work here: “Scientists often use the term ‘trick’ to refer to ‘a good way to deal with a problem,’ rather than something that is ‘secret.”

“It sounds incriminating,” Michael Mann told Andrew Revkin of The New York Times about his email exchange with Phil Jones. “But when you look at what you’re talking about, there’s nothing there.”

RealClimate’s level-headed response to the event is worth reading, along with its active and excellently moderated discussion thread. Another point they make which is worth emphasizing in light of blog posts calling this “a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science“:

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’ [Grist note: MWP refers to “Medieval Warm Period], no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though …

It’s obvious that the noise-generating components of the blogosphere will generate a lot of noise about this. But it’s important to remember that science doesn’t work because people are polite at all times. Gravity isn’t a useful theory because Newton was a nice person … Science works because different groups go about trying to find the best approximations of the truth, and are generally very competitive about that. That the same scientists can still all agree on the wording of an IPCC chapter for instance is thus even more remarkable.

It appears that the original Russian FTP server, which held the illegally obtained files, has been shut down, although the files have now been uploaded elsewhere on the web.

A few things to keep in mind throughout this entire “scandal”:

  • People — whether they are world reknowned scientists or your little sister — tend to use much more casual and joking language in emails than they would, for example, in a public statement or IPCC report.
  • It’s easy, though inadvisable, for those of us outside of the scientific community to make sweeping assumptions about discussions of complex data sets.
  • Climate change skeptics are always looking for an excuse to declare peer-review scientific data a “fraud.”
  • How ironic — and convenient? — that this should occur in the weeks leading up to the biggest international climate talks to date.

As implicated researcher Michael Mann notes to the respected international scientific journal Nature: “The deniers will probably do anything they can to distract the public from the reality of the problem [of climate change], and the threat that it poses. Cherry-picked, out-of-context quotes, stolen from private e-mails, is the best they’ve got.”