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Climategate Proves Sunlight Best Reply to Skeptics: Eric Pooley

The shouting match known as Climategate, which erupted after damaging e-mails were hacked from the server of a British climate research center, has been dominated by wishful thinking on both sides.

Climate skeptics pretend the e-mails are proof that man- made global warming is a hoax, the scientific consensus rigged. That’s preposterous.

The hacked scientists and their defenders argue that the e- mails amount to a tempest in a teacup, just another trumped-up attack from the skeptics. That’s not true either.

The real issue here is one of trust and transparency -- values that apparently didn’t matter enough to Professor Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The files made public Nov. 19 include a message from Jones asking other scientists to delete e-mails, apparently as a way of dodging requests under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information law.

Other e-mails discuss trying to oust a journal editor who published skeptical papers and preventing dissenting views from being published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report,” Jones wrote. “Kevin and I will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer- review literature is!”

Jones didn’t have the power to block research from the IPCC’s climate assessment or “redefine” the peer-reviewed literature. His evident desire to do so is troubling, though his low opinion of the skeptical papers was justified. (Jones acknowledged that some of the e-mails “do not read well” but dismissed as “complete rubbish” the charge that he and his colleagues had manipulated data.)

Light of Day

Public trust demands that this scientific debate be carried out in the light of day -- even when doing so means that bad science is trumpeted by the opponents of climate action.

One of the papers Jones questioned, for example, was so flawed that after its 2003 publication in Climate Research, the resulting furor led to the resignations of half the journal’s editorial board. By the time the paper had been discredited by other scientists, the noisiest climate skeptic in the U.S. Senate, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, had already held a hearing to publicize it. Even today, contrarian Web sites continue to tout its specious claim that the 20th century wasn’t particularly warm.


Jones and his colleagues talked about withholding information because they believed, based on bitter experience, that the skeptics who sought their data would cherry-pick their work for misleading “proof” that climate change was overblown. The irony is that by talking about withholding data, they ended up giving those skeptics a brand-new argument against them.

Circling the wagons in response to unfair attacks, an understandable response, had the effect in this case of fueling the naysayers. To regain whatever public trust may have been lost -- and it isn’t yet clear how much damage this episode has done -- Climategate must become the moment when the tactic of scientific stonewalling is abandoned, and absolute transparency becomes the only allowable standard.

Yes, the skeptics will cull data and make misleading arguments, and mouthpieces like Inhofe will trumpet them. Yet there is no better way to expose such false claims than to subject them to vigorous, transparent peer review.

Available to Researchers

The scientific community has started talking about the steps it needs to take to ensure the integrity and openness of the process, including online peer-review for scientific journals and full access to climate data. Happily, more than 95 percent of the Climatic Research Unit’s temperature data is already available to researchers, and the rest will soon be made available, according to the university. (A Nov. 29 Times of London story claimed that the unit had “dumped” much of its raw data, but the university says that isn’t the case.)

Let the skeptics have at the data -- if the record is sound, it will survive the attacks. Indeed, it already has. Temperature records have been widely available for years, and the contrarians, in spite of repeated attempts, haven’t managed to undermine their credibility.

As University of Illinois climatologist Michael Schlesinger pointed out in a recent e-mail to the New York Times, the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit is just one of four major groups tracking global surface temperatures, and all of them show the same long-term warming trend.

River of Evidence

Other lines of evidence -- changes in ocean temperature, atmospheric water vapor and sea ice, for example -- have led scientists at research institutions around the world to the same conclusion: the climate is warming, and greenhouse-gas emissions are the cause. Climate science is a mighty river of inquiry, not a garden hose that can be aimed this way or that at the whim of individual scientists.

With a new round of climate negotiations set to begin Dec. 7 in Copenhagen, the hacked e-mails came at the worst possible moment -- which was precisely what the hackers had in mind. Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann, one of the scientists whose e-mails were hacked, called the theft a “smear campaign to distract the public” from the need to reduce emissions. He is no doubt correct.

The tragedy is that Jones and his colleagues gave their opponents so much to work with.

(Eric Pooley, a former managing editor of Fortune magazine who is writing a book about the politics of global warming, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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