Page last updated at 20:08 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Harrabin's Notes: E-mail impact

In his regular column, the BBC's environment analyst, Roger Harrabin, looks at the impact of the leaked information on climate change following an e-mail hack.


Keyboard (EyeWire)
Hacked e-mails have raised questions over climate change data

Next month, more than 60 leaders will travel to Copenhagen to seal a deal to cut emissions blamed for warming the climate.

In their briefcases, they may be carrying newspapers proclaiming skulduggery in the fine print of climate science.

Some climate sceptics hope that the e-mails stolen by a hacker from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (CRU) will generate enough energy to undermine the talks in Denmark.


Negotiators who have spoken to BBC News say that climate sceptic rows aren't influencing the talks. But that doesn't mean that the CRU e-mails won't have a lasting impact within the world of science.

The former UK Chancellor and climate policy sceptic Nigel Lawson, for instance, is leading calls for an inquiry into the affair. And now the green campaigner George Monbiot has gone so far as to demand the resignation of Professor Phil Jones, the academic at the centre of the row.

In his Guardian column Mr Monbiot is scathing about the content of some of the e-mails, and says: "I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the e-mails should be re-analysed."

He adds: "But do these revelations justify the sceptics' claims that this is 'the final nail in the coffin' of global warming theory? Not at all."

In an interview with the Press Association, Professor Jones said he wouldn't resign. He said the suggestion that there was a conspiracy to alter evidence was "complete rubbish". And he insisted the CRU had never manipulated or deleted data or e-mails.

Nothing to fear?

Professor Jones, who has received personal threats since the e-mails were leaked, said he regretted "poorly chosen words in the heat of the moment, when I was frustrated". He said the past few days had been the worst of his professional life.

Professor Andrew Watson, a long-term colleague of the researchers at the CRU, said the unit should have nothing to fear from an inquiry, as the CRU temperature data set at the heart of many of the e-mails is almost identical to the two other authoritative data sets, both in the US.

"The difference between science and other branches of life - like politics - is that we should be completely transparent about what we do," he said.

"Everything should be open to question. The people who have been alleging a conspiracy over the years will see that there is no conspiracy - that one side has clearly won the debate that the climate has been changing and that human activities are the only plausible explanation.

"If this is the most evidence they can come up with of a conspiracy after looking through thousands of e-mails where researchers thought they were talking in private - well, it's pretty pathetic."

Any inquiry could explain the difficulties of smoothing data curves at each end, or of aggregating data from developing countries where weather stations have suddenly moved.

This does raise the question of who exactly would carry out such an inquiry, of course, and what its remit might be. Would it be to verify CRU science, or to examine the issues of peer review and data availability to which many of the stolen e-mails pertain? The outcomes might be different.

Certainly there is concern over the tone and nature of some of the e-mails in the stolen stash.

'Trial by internet'

Take a posting on the Climate Audit website from Professor Judith Curry, a mainstream climate scientist from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US.

"Even if the hacked emails… end up to be much ado about nothing," she says, "the damage to the public credibility of climate research is likely to be significant."

She adds: "In my opinion, there are two broader issues raised by these e-mails that are impeding the public credibility of climate research: lack of transparency in climate data, and 'tribalism' in some segments of the climate research community that is impeding peer review and the assessment process.

"The need for public credibility and transparency has dramatically increased in recent years as the policy relevance of climate research has increased. The climate research enterprise has not yet adapted to this need, and our institutions need to strategise to respond to this need."

This is a serious challenge and it is likely to provoke further debate. There will certainly be others like Professor Curry who take a view that science will gain most in the long run if it is transparent.

But in the world of science policy, many others find themselves in a war of influence against those firms who fund the amplification of the messages of the relatively small number of genuinely sceptical scientists outside the consensus. The sceptic business lobby aims to keep scientific doubt alive to paralyse policy. This is the world of science Realpolitik.

Over two decades I've spoken to mainstream scientists who are sick of hearing their work attacked and their motives questioned. In this world, climate science extends beyond arguments about trend-smoothing to become a matter of life and death for millions of people, according to the mainstream projections on temperatures.

But this affair will surely change things: From now, scientific teams and peer-review groups will be much more cautious about how they word e-mails.

Researchers at CRU complain that no one will want to do collaborative work if their private e-mail conversations may later be revealed. But many commercial corporate organisations at risk of hacking have developed ways of communicating that don't leave them open to sabotage.

In the absence of any formal inquiry, trial by internet will continue. For better or for worse.

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