Stolen e-mails have revealed no scientific conspiracy, but do highlight ways in which climate researchers could be better supported in the face of public scrutiny.
The e-mail archives stolen last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, have been greeted by the climate-change-denialist fringe as a propaganda windfall (see page 551). To these denialists, the scientists’ scathing remarks about certain controversial palaeoclimate reconstructions qualify as the proverbial ’smoking gun’: proof that mainstream climate researchers have systematically conspired to suppress evidence contradicting their doctrine that humans are warming the globe.
This paranoid interpretation would be laughable were it not for the fact that obstructionist politicians in the US 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 case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.
First, Earth’s cryosphere is changing as one would expect in a warming climate. These changes include glacier retreat, thinning and areal reduction of Arctic sea ice, reductions in permafrost and accelerated loss of mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Second, the global sea level is rising. The rise is caused in part by water pouring in from melting glaciers and ice sheets, but also by thermal expansion as the oceans warm. Third, decades of biological data on blooming dates and the like suggest that spring is arriving earlier each year.
Denialists often maintain that these changes are just a symptom of natural climate variability. But when climate modellers test this assertion by running their simulations with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide held fixed, the results bear little resemblance to the observed warming. The strong implication is that increased greenhouse-gas emissions have played an important part in recent warming, meaning that curbing the world’s voracious appetite for carbon is essential (see pages 568 and 570).
So begins, “Climatologists under pressure,” an important and lengthy editorial in tomorrow’s Nature (subs. req’d, reprinted below), the highly respected British scientific journal, which is among the few journals “that still publish original research articles across a wide range of scientific fields,” including climate science. [I am leaving the links in the editorial, but they require a subscription.]
For all the disinformation that the deniers are pushing because of these emails — lapped up mostly by people who never understood or believed the science to begin with, I actually think this affair is an opportunity for the too-reticent, too-insular scientific community to explain climate science to the broader public, which Phil Jones and UEA chose not to do, but which many others have started doing (see Climate science statement from the Met Office, NERC and the Royal Society: It’s the hottest decade on record and “even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened”).
Indeed, besides RealClimate and CP’s posts (at the end), I’d recommend:
- An excellent piece in Popular Mechanics, “What East Anglia’s E-mails Really Tell Us About Climate Change,” by guest analyst Peter Kelemen, a professor of geochemistry at Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
- This Union of Concerned Scientists post, “Contrarians Using Hacked E-mails To Try to Fool Public on Climate Science.”
A fair reading of the e-mails reveals nothing to support the denialists’ conspiracy theories. In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14, 751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.
If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden.
The e-mail theft also highlights how difficult it can be for climate researchers to follow the canons of scientific openness, which require them to make public the data on which they base their conclusions. This is best done via open online archives, such as the ones maintained by the IPCC (http://www.ipcc-data.org) and the US National Climatic Data Center (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/ncdc.html).
But for much crucial information the reality is very different. Researchers are barred from publicly releasing meteorological data from many countries owing to contractual restrictions. Moreover, in countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the national meteorological services will provide data sets only when researchers specifically request them, and only after a significant delay. The lack of standard formats can also make it hard to compare and integrate data from different sources. Every aspect of this situation needs to change: if the current episode does not spur meteorological services to improve researchers’ ease of access, governments should force them to do so.
The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers’ own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a &ls
quo;trick’ — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature’s policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.
The UEA responded too slowly to the eruption of coverage in the media, but deserves credit for now being publicly supportive of the integrity of its scientists while also holding an independent investigation of its researchers’ compliance with Britain’s freedom of information requirements (see http://go.nature.com/zRBXRP).
In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition. After all, the pressures the UEA e-mailers experienced may be nothing compared with what will emerge as the United States debates a climate bill next year, and denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science.
See also ScienceProgress’s “Not so Swift, Hackers: Why the scandal sometimes called “ClimateGate” is overblown,” and TNR’s Vine, “Another Round With The CRU E-mails….”
And always, “To stop a climate catastrophe … Scientists must stop sanitising their message,” as the UK Guardian put it earlier this year.
- Reuters: “ANALYSIS-Hacked climate e-mails awkward, not game changer”
- Here’s what we know so far: CRU’s emails were hacked, the 2000s will easily be the hottest decade on record, and the planet keeps warming thanks to us!
- Michael Mann updates the world on the latest climate science and responds to the illegally hacked emails
- Let’s look at one of the illegally hacked emails in more detail — the one by NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth on “where the heck is global warming?”
- Science historian Weart: “We’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers.”
- Newtongate: The final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment “thinking”
- NASA’s James Hansen on hacked emails: “The contrarians or deniers do not have a scientific leg to stand on. Their aim is to win a public relations battle, or at least get a draw, which may be enough to stymie the actions that are needed to stabilize climate.”
- The newspaper that publishes George Will (and Sarah Palin) editorializes: “Many — including us — find global warming deniers’ claims irresponsible.”