Futher climate research emails released – experts respond

The apparent release of further email correspondence between climate researchers based at the University of East Anglia is believed to be an attempt to revive the 2009 ‘Climategate’ fiasco.

The emails and other documents are understood to relate to the Climatic Research Unit based at the University, which was beleaguered with accusations of data tampering after a similar release of hacked emails in 2009 – now known as the ‘Climategate‘ scandal. None of the allegations were in that instance were upheld.

The new batch of emails was anonymously uploaded to a Russian server on Tuesday, accompanied by a text file highlighting particular emails. According to the Guardian, the the message “includes a sample of cherry-picked quotes selected from a small handful of the emails focusing on apparent disagreements between the scientists, the workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and attempts to block climate sceptics from securing documents from the scientists via freedom of information requests. Many of the same issues were highlighted in the 2009 release.”

It is currently thought that the emails were hacked at the same time as the original climategate emails in 2009 and have been held back until now to be used as a disruption in international climate negotiations. The release of emails in 2009 was timed to cast doubt on climate research ahead of the Copenhagen summit negotiations.  Likewise, the current release precedes critical climate talks to be held at a climate summit in Durban next week.

In a statement to Reuters, the University of East Anglia said, “This appears to be a carefully-timed attempt to reignite controversy over the science behind climate change when that science has been vindicated by three separate independent inquiries and a number of studies”.

Our colleuges at the UK Science Media Centre collected the following commentary from leading figures in climate research.

Prof Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at University College London, said:

“The re-release of selectively-edited and out-of-context emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and within the USA is evidently timed to weaken resolve at the upcoming climate treaty negotiations in Durban.  The real world context is the continuing rise in human-generated atmospheric carbon dioxide and the evidence that our ability to avoid damaging levels of climate change is slipping away.

“Sadly the messages that the hackers and their supporters seek to deliver feed an all-too-human need.  Climate change is unwelcome news.  This is the case not just for the obvious vested interests, but to all of us whose prosperity derives from its underlying causes.  All the more ironic and hypocritical then, that the shadowy author FOIA 2011 invokes the predicament of the world’s poor to argue that addressing the collective impacts of the rich on climate is unaffordable.

“As those that wish to prevent progress at Durban become more desperate, those of us that have confronted the uncomfortable truth need to stand up and be counted.

Prof Nigel Arnell, Director of the Walker Institute at the University of Reading, said:

“The recent release of more excerpts from emails hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in 2009 is clearly timed to sow confusion in advance of the climate negotiations starting next week in Durban.  The statement accompanying the excerpts makes it clear that those responsible for the release object to government policies to tackle climate change; they are therefore seeking to undermine the science in order to achieve their political objectives.

“The underlying science behind climate change is well established, has been documented in many peer-reviewed publications, and rigorously assessed in a series of IPCC reports.  Climate science – like all branches of science – advances through scientists questioning and challenging each other over not only their conclusions but also how to present evidence.  The excerpts from the published emails simply reveal parts of this process, albeit parts which rarely reach the wider public.  A string of enquiries in the UK and US following the original email hack in 2009 cleared the scientists involved of any wrongdoing.”

Dr Meric Srokosz, National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton, said:

“The newly-released e-mails seem to come from the same batch as those released two years ago and so are, in one sense, old news.  The timing of the release, as with the previous one, is clearly a desperate attempt by climate sceptics to disrupt the process by which the international community is trying to address the serious problems caused by global warming.  It saddens me that some in the more privileged part of the planet are acting in ways that will ultimately cause harm to the poor and needy of our world.

“The science is clear: human use of fossil fuels is increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and this results in global warming.  This understanding of the effects of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere goes back to 19th century science, and is not something scientists have dreamed up at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, as the sceptics would have people believe. The real question is a moral not a scientific one: are we going to continue as we are, leading to devastating consequences for the poor of the world?  Or are we going to act now to address the issue of human-induced global warming?”

Dr Stephan Harrison, Associate Professor in Quaternary Science at the University of Exeter, said:

“The release of old emails, taken out of context, shows a misunderstanding of the nature of climate science and the vigorous debate that occurs within it.  Not surprisingly, these have been released to cause maximum impact just before a major climate conference and shows the depths to which powerful vested interests will go to derail international agreements to reduce carbon emissions.  And while we waste time arguing, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reach levels not seen for at least 700,000 years and the Earth continues to warm.”

Prof Andrew Watson FRS, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of East Anglia, said:

“Reading down these selective quotes, what comes across to me is that climate scientists are a diverse, complex and argumentative bunch, much like any other group of people. They argue about the data and trash the models.  They bitch about their colleagues. Some see global warming as a “cause” and all are passionate about the importance of their work, but they worry and complain that the science is becoming distorted by the politics.  Some feel that their religious belief requires them to promote the stewardship of the Earth; others feel that their critics are driven by religious zealotry.

“So what to make of all that?  That they are diverse, sometimes contradictory, and have multiple motives.  Well, so what?  Welcome to the human race!

“But by being sceptical, argumentative and critical of themselves and each other, they are applying the scientific method and slowly iterating towards an understanding of the climate.  Which is what you’d hope they would do.

“Meantime, none of this, not one word that I can see, subtracts from the simple fact that the world has warmed significantly in the last 100 years and it’s most likely caused by humans increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Dr Simon Lewis, Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds, said:

“This latest email leak, again on the eve of important international climate talks, is about politics. Yet the shadowy, undemocratic group trying to influence these international talks will fail.  I sat through two weeks of talks in Copenhagen after the first email release and heard them mentioned only once.  This new leak will have a similarly limited impact.  Governments know that climate science reports signed off by over 190 countries, each with their own scientists, cannot be unduly influenced by a single scientist or a small group.  These emails are irrelevant.

“The group who released the emails say they released them because the world’s poor may suffer if carbon emissions are reduced.  But in reality the world’s poorest people have been calling most loudly for serious action on climate change.  Next week in Durban it will be rich, polluting countries refusing to sign new legally binding agreements, and poor countries – along with South African social movements outside, – who will be vocally protesting the lack of action.  The new email leak is a play by rich people to keep on polluting regardless of the consequences, and should not be seen as anything else.”

Prof Piers Forster, School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, said:

“Science thrives off open debate.  Releasing personal emails will only serve to make scientists more guarded in how we communicate and lead to worse, not better, science.  Phil Jones is my respected colleague: he and the others should be afforded the same privacy in their correspondence as the rest of us expect.  But when it comes to their science, the openly-published, highly scrutinised data and analyses speak for themselves.  I hope the public will judge the peer-reviewed, published work – and not the authors themselves.”

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“It is perhaps not surprising that those responsible for the release of hacked e-mails before the Copenhagen summit in 2009 should make another intervention before the United Nations climate change meeting in Durban next week.  The selective presentation of old e-mail messages is clearly designed to mislead the public and politicians about the strength of the evidence for man-made climate change, in the hope that governments will stop their efforts to reach an agreement on international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“But the fact remains that there is very strong evidence that most the indisputable warming of the Earth over the past half century is due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities.  The e-mails that have been highlighted by self-proclaimed climate change ‘sceptics’ do not raise any questions of substance that have not already been addressed by the independent inquiries into the original publication of hacked messages in November 2009. None of the inquiries found evidence of fraud or serious misconduct by climate researchers, but they did conclude that levels of transparency should be improved.

“These e-mails, like the last batch, show that climate researchers are human and prone to the same rivalries and disputes that occur in many professions.  Nonetheless, the University of East Anglia should carry out a formal review of all the new material to check whether it raises any new issues of substance. No doubt the police will also be investigating whether this new set of e-mails sheds any new light on the identity of the hacker.”