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Harrabin's Notes: E-mail arguments

In his regular column, the BBC's environment analyst, Roger Harrabin, assesses the arguments sparked by the leaking of information on climate change.

CLIMATE CHANGE: METHODOLOGY QUESTIONED

A dried-up reservoir
Hacked e-mails have raised questions on climate change data

Scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia are facing a fierce attack from climate sceptics following the hacking of the university's computer.

The hacker stole thousands of e-mails and data. Much of it has been posted on the web. And some of the e-mails are causing acute embarrassment.

My contacts at the CRU tell me the e-mails are being taken out of context and insist they are part of the normal hurly-burly of conversations between scientists working on some of the most complicated questions of our times.

They ask how many of us would feel completely comfortable if our own inboxes were emptied out for the world to see. How much of what we had said to close colleagues in industry jargon would be liable to misinterpretation?

"If the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) can't do closed e-mail, no-one with any expertise could do anything. I don't know how you are supposed to work if you don't have e-mail," my source said.

But the e-mail stash is proving a treasure trove for sceptics who have challenged every facet of climate science and policy.

Some of the e-mails reveal the frustration and annoyance among mainstream climate researchers about the probings they face from critics who relentlessly question their methodology.

And although my contact insists that the e-mails are about how data is presented and interpreted, sceptics say the e-mailers may have been discussing how the data could be manipulated.

The CRU has been repeatedly asked to publish the entire data set from which it compiled an important grid-based record of global temperatures.

It says it will publish full details when it has clearance from all the world's meteorological offices whose permission is needed.

But speaking to my source at the CRU, it is also clear that the unit has been dragged down by what it considers to be nit-picking and unreasonable demands for data - and that there is personal animus against their intellectual rivals.

Now this sort of hostility is nothing new in academia - but the revelations come at a sensitive time as the world's nations gather for the climate meeting in Copenhagen.

My CRU source points out that its unpublished full data set is almost identical to the ones at the National Climatic Data Center and the Goddard Institute of Space Studies.

Both of these are in the US, where there are no restrictions on publication. The CRU view is that when the sceptics see the full data in due course they will be very disappointed.

The scientific establishment is likely to support the CRU. Despite continuing uncertainties in some areas of climate science, they say officially that their overall confidence that humans are warming the climate is now more than 90%.

One leading figure told me unofficially that confidence was now at 99%.

But the email controversy may prove an uncomfortable moment in the careers of some researchers in the spotlight and will undoubtedly provoke demands for renewed scrutiny of the CRU's influential work.

These demands may surface in the US Senate, where climate change sceptics and their allies are holding up the energy and climate bill which President Obama needs before he can sign a legally-binding agreement over cutting emissions.

Myron Ebell, a climate sceptic from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is funded by US business interests, told me: "We sceptics have been winning the argument for some time and this will further undermine confidence in IPCC science.

"This is very embarrassing indeed for the scientists behind these emails."

The climate science website RealClimate sees the CRU computer raid as the latest attempt by lobbyists to discredit mainstream climate science at a critical time.

It explains in detail what it says is the legitimate scientific rationale behind some of the apparently incriminating emails, and says they offer a glimpse into the real world of science.

It says people should not be shocked by "scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in 'robust' discussions; scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense...

"It's obvious that the noise-generating components of the blogosphere will generate a lot of noise about this," says RealClimate. "But it's important to remember that… gravity isn't a useful theory because Newton was a nice person."



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