The Hacked Climate Change Emails: What They Do And Don’t Show

December 3, 2009 8:07 a.m.

So, what to make of those emails, stolen from a top climate research center in Britain, that conservatives are excitedly touting to argue that the science of climate change is fatally flawed?

The Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Henninger calls the episode “an epochal event” that shows “science is dying.” But underneath the bombast, the key question is whether the emails — hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU), and indexed here — actually undermine the case, now settled, that man-made warming is happening. And despite the claims of the New York Post, among others, they don’t come close to doing so.Exhibit A for conservatives has been the revelation in the emails that, back in the 1980s, CRU discarded a set of data on raw surface temperature. The Post argues that that means “it’s now impossible to check the CRU research,” and adds “So much for settling questions and resolving debates with science.”

But as Brad Plumer at The New Republic notes, at least three other respected organizations — NASA, NOAA, and the Japan Meteorological Agency — have been analyzing global temperature trends, and all three, like CRU, have found clear evidence that warming is occurring. (Plumer even has a handy chart.)

Even an email by CRU director Phil Jones about using a “trick” to “hide the decline” in temperatures, merely refers, according to Plumer, “to a method of concatenating two different data sets–this “trick” has been openly discussed in scientific journals like Nature since 1998.”

So in terms of the larger “debate” on global warming, the emails just don’t appear relevant. But that’s not to say they don’t show some seriously improper conduct by some of the climate scientists. In one message, Jones refers to two papers by global warming skeptics, and writes “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow–even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

It’s certainly possible that Jones was just talking trash here, loosely suggesting he would do something he had no intention of doing. But given the contentiousness of the issue, the quote on its face seems indefensible. It would be one thing for Jones to argue that the papers don’t meet the scientific standards of evidence necessary for publication. Indeed, one of those papers, published in the journal Climate Research, “turned out to be so badly flawed that the scandal resulted in the resignation of the editor-in-chief,” according to George Monbiot of The Guardian, who calls the emails “very damaging.” But manipulating the review process — “even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is” — in order to obtain a specific desired result is close to the very definition of putting ideology over scientific integrity.

In another message, Jones appears to suggest deleting emails that were subject to a Freedom of Information request, which is a crime.

Jones has now resigned, pending an investigation, which seems appropriate.

As for the larger issue, supporters of action on global warming might be well-advised, for the sake of argument, to concede more than they should. OK, they might say to the deniers, we’ll treat all of CRU’s data as irrevocably compromised, and never refer to it again. From now on, we’ll rely only on information from NASA, NOAA, and the Japan Meteorological Agency, as well as the affirmation of the UN’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. The consensus that warming is happening would be unaffected.

Still, in the lead-up to the Copenhagen summit, you can expect right-wingers to ramp up the overblown claims in regard to these emails. When it comes down to it, what else have they got?

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