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Cooking up a heat wave

Environment | 'Climategate' scandal reveals alarming tactics of influential climate scientists

Issue: "2009 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 19, 2009

The earth has warmed over the last several decades, and humanity may be partly responsible, but the science behind that claim was dealt a severe blow late last month.

Just as world leaders were preparing to meet in Copenhagen to discuss climate change, thousands of hacked emails and documents from one of the world's leading climate research institutes raised fundamental questions about the science behind global warming theory. The emails came from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England, and they revealed a pattern of groupthink and deception among influential climate scientists.

The "Climategate" scandal that ensued has three main elements:

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The manipulation of (often poor) data. In one email, CRU director Phil Jones discusses a "trick" he used "to hide the decline" in some temperature readings. In another lengthy document, a computer programmer for CRU laments "the hopeless state of our databases," which were riddled with false information and guesswork: "It's botch after botch after botch." Another emailer, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, shows an intense desire for the science to produce a specific result: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."

Attempts to skirt the British version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. In an email, Jones writes to Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann about two critics' dogged attempts to obtain CRU's weather station data. "If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone," he writes. In another email exchange, with the title "IPCC & FOI," Jones discusses with Mann the deletion of emails regarding a UN report and asking other scientists to do the same. The CRU now says that it threw out some of its raw temperature data, making it impossible to check CRU's work.

The manipulation of the peer review process to freeze out critics. In one email, Jones discusses some critical research: "I can't see either of these papers being in the next [UN] IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow-even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" Several emails show Jones and others discussing ways, including a boycott, to pressure journal editors not to publish articles by skeptical scientists. "I will be emailing the journal to tell them I'm having nothing more to do with it until they rid themselves of this troublesome editor," Jones writes about the journal Climate Research after it published research that he didn't like.

At first, the mainstream press in the United States largely ignored the story and environmental activists tried to shrug it off, but the CRU is not some backwater outfit. Both the UN's Intergovern­mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency use its research extensively; the scandal would not just go away. Penn State announced on Nov. 30 that it would conduct an inquiry into the emails involving Michael Mann, and the next day Jones said he would step down as CRU director while the University of East Anglia investigates the scandal. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is pushing for a Senate hearing on the matter.

What's clear now is that the wind is at the back of scientists who are skeptical about catastrophic global warming. "After reading the Climategate emails," joked atmospheric physicist Fred Singer during a Dec. 2 briefing in the European Parliament, "we have realized that global warming may be 'manmade' after all."

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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