Climate Scientists’ E-mails Hacked, Posted; So What Does it All Mean for the Climate?

A veritable flood of hundreds of e-mails surreptitiously released by a computer hacker from a famous climate change research facility has climate skeptics seeing, or hoping for, blood. It has climate change “consensus” scientists crying foul, but anxious and standing by the underlying science. And it has those personally linked in or to the e-mails looking embarrassed, in some cases petty and vindictive, and, by some reasonable interpretations, on thin ice.

The unauthorized computer hacking and release of hundreds of e-mails from the University of East Anglia initially is being greeted by those critical of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change as a game-changer, what one called “the blue dress moment.” That’s a reference to Monica Lewinsky. From this group, expect to see terms like “climate-gate” and worse. They can hardly contain their glee.

News Analysis and Commentary

No big or lasting deal, those involved with the e-mails or generally associated with the “consensus” science insist. Those on that side of the issue are more inclined to point to what they see as the ethics or legal issues involved in the hacking and e-mail dissemination. Much ado about nothing, they say, perhaps with more hope than conviction.*

An Eli Snyder, a commenter on liberal climate blogger Joe Romm’s Climate Progress site sums up this latter attitude with this comment:

The important thing to note about this story is that, even if it’s all true and all the e-mails are genuine, and even if it completely discredits every scientist involved and all of the work they’ve ever done, this does not falsify AGW [anthropogenic global warming] theory.

The great thing about a robust scientific theory is that it’s not dependent on any one line of evidence or the work of any particular individual or group. Most of the research this calls into question is proxy studies of the temperature data over the last couple of millennia. This is only one of many lines of evidence supporting AGW, and it is not the primary line of evidence.

Even if you throw out every piece of research done by every scientist mentioned in this data, there will still be plenty of evidence to show that global warming is real and created by human activity.

So ultimately this is a tempest in a teacup. The deniers will make a huge deal about it, and it may have an impact on public opinion, but it will have very close to zero impact on actual science.”

Wishful thinking? Maybe not, so long as the “actual science” is his focus. But what about political science? What about how the climate change issue is and has been communicated to the apparently increasingly doubtful public in these days leading up to the international Copenhagen meetings? And, presumably, in the months – no longer weeks – leading up to a real potential for some climate action in the U.S. Senate?

A different ball game altogether, and it’s on this unlevel playing field that the leak from the University of East Anglia could have its greatest impacts. That’s exactly the field that climate contrarians and “skeptics” are seen by their adversaries as having preferred to play on all along. And it’s the one where the policy responses to researchers’ findings on climate change causes and impacts now are being played out.

In the early hours (days? weeks?) of this quickly changing development, it’s prudent not to jump to quick conclusions about the likely merits of the newly released e-mails; about the motives behind them or behind those who chose to release them; about their policy and political impact; or, most importantly, about their impact on the extensive body of science on climate change as it has evolved and matured for decades. There are too many double entendres, too many amorphous interpretations, too many shades of color in those e-mails to yet lead to decisive conclusions.

That said, what’s at issue is not just the hacking, and not just the unauthorized posting of what the numerous authors, over numerous years, clearly intended as private communications, surely an outdated concept in any event in our new 24/7 digital age.

Yes, the casual digital exchanges make many of the involved scientists “look human.” And that can be a good thing. But too, lacking as they are in thorough context, the words and the wording in a number of cases raise troubling questions about the veracity and integrity of some of the nation’s and world’s most respected and most pivotal climate scientists. Those words lend themselves to, almost beg for, misinterpretation and abuse.

Sometimes, looking human isn’t so flattering to those who too often see themselves, and expect society to see them, on a pedestal.

This continuing story will evolve. Contrarians will make the most of it, play it to the hilt, take phrases out of context, cherry-pick, and go for the weak underbelly. Truth is, there is a lot there for them to choose from.

On the other hand, the far larger and (still) far more reputable climate science community will have to double-down, face increasing scrutiny and doubts about even their most evidence-based findings, and face what likely will be a heightened and stretched-out period of cynicism about them and their work.

The timing? Clearly, it could hardly be worse. Copenhagen. Delays, delays, delays in the Senate, with congressional election season edging ever closer, and partisan politicization only increasing.

Don’t make TOO much of the blogospheric bloviating certain to attend this week’s release of all these sensitive e-mails.

Just don’t make the mistake either of making too little of it. There is, one might regret to say, an appearance of some there there. And appearances, as we’ve often learned but too seldom remember, are reality when it comes to making policy in Washington on complex public policy issues.

For now? Take those who see this event as the end of days when it comes to anthropogenic climate change with a huge grain of salt. And take those dismissing it as much ado about nothing with an equal dose. There’s more here than meets the eye of those wanting not to see anything to it. And less here than meets the eye of those wanting so much to distort and amplify it.


*A few, among many possible, early links for details. (You can simply search online for “Hadley CRU hacked”):

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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10 Responses to Climate Scientists’ E-mails Hacked, Posted; So What Does it All Mean for the Climate?

  1. V.Griva says:

    Insider or hacker? Bet on INSIDERS
    On Nov 17, 2009 at 9.57 pm occurred the first public notice of the 63 MB CRU file entitled “FOIA.zip” came at Jeff Id’s blog     by a poster called “FOIA”, who stated:
    We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps.
    “___We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code, and documents. 
    ___ Hopefully it will give some insight into the science and the people behind it.”
    while the it was a post that asked 18 leading US scientific associations about their letter to the US Senate Oct.21,2009, at http://www.whatisclimate.com/
    It should be possible to find out.
    The AIr Vent: Comment 10 at : http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/open

  2. TGO'D says:

    It appears to me that Joe Romm’s commentator misses the point. The issue is not the volume or diversity of the evidence for AGW, rather it is one of trust.

    The public is invited to ‘believe the science’ and by extension, to trust the scientists involved in the interpretation and dissemination of the evidence that supports AGW. Having read some of the emails posted, I for one, now question whether many of those scientists, if presented with hard evidence in conflict with the theory, would actually publish.

    For those of us who are uncommitted and who rely on the honesty of the scientists involved to inform our thinking, the issue of trust is central. Unless we can be confident that scientists who argue passionately for AGW would argue with equal passion against it if the evidence were available, then we cannot with any confidence believe the science as they propound it.

  3. Anna Haynes says:

    As someone prone to hyperbole, who’s done things like terming an entirely innocent and reader-friendly scripting project “my nefarious plot” in email…I feel for these guys.

  4. Dan Rogers says:

    It’s a matter of trust. At least some of the “scientists” who tell us that AGW is the truth obviously don’t BELIEVE it’s the truth! They are peeing on our legs and telling us it’s raining!

    Why do they do this? They do it because they see all sorts of advantages to be gained by society as a whole if they can just fool us “common folk” into doing what they know is good for us. They know for certain that the world will be a better place if we can get away from fuels which come from troubled areas of the world and gradually switch to atomic energy as our primary source of electric power.

    I am a skeptic — a “denier” if you will — and every skeptic I know agrees with those goals. But we all decry and condemn the attempt to achieve those goals by lies, deceit and ham-handed propaganda. Those tactics discredit the goals and reduce greatly our chances of achieving them.

  5. paulina says:

    Bud Ward writes:
    “For now? Take those who see this event as the end of days when it comes to anthropogenic climate change with a huge grain of salt. And take those dismissing it as much ado about nothing with an equal dose. There’s more here than meets the eye of those wanting not to see anything to it. And less here than meets the eye of those wanting so much to distort and amplify it.”

    Is Yale Forum suggesting that it’s unlikely that a bunch of emails will prove the “end of days for ACC,” but that it’s possible? The latter part of this claim seems not simply false but nonsensical. A kind of category mistake. Please clarify.

    And are you suggesting that that (nonsensical) possibility is as good as the chance that there is some wrong to be found in the emails? The “equal dose” prescription is rhetoric and not helpful in this context. Please clarify.

    Thanks.

  6. Is it the media’s job to educate the public on science? Or should they report on whether or not anti-scientific forces are lying to the American public forcefully and “effectively” enough to overcome public acceptance of actual science?

    I clearly think they should play the role of educator. But I’m afraid journalists and editors too often emphasize conflict and give too much attention to worthless claims. They are reporting on the news as scientists vs. interest groups and uniformed people on the blogosphere. I fear that by reporting on conflict stories, they give too much credibility to spurious claims.

    Somehow, I can not imagine journalists treating the scientific underpinnings of HIV/AIDS and the tobacco/cancer link the same way, though I can find plenty of blogs that dispute the mainstream scientific understanding of both.

  7. Brad Johnson says:

    “Much ado about nothing, they say, perhaps with more hope than conviction.”

    Huh? This only makes sense if the last fifty years of climate science are resting on an edifice of fairy-bubbles and lollipop dreams — or a global conspiracy by thousands scientists to take money from oil companies and give it to, well, investment bankers.

  8. John P says:

    How about you guys pull your heads out of the sand and just look at the global warming religion with a little skepticism.

  9. Fred M. MD says:

    The CRU needs to release ALL of their raw data that has been the basis of their research and they need to investigate whether data has in fact been suppressed and/or deleted, because if it has, somebody needs to go to jail.

  10. J. M. V. says:

    Hmmm, seems the “there [that's] there” should be examined through:
    1. how many in the media public can tell you where E. Anglia is..or have ever heard of the place?
    2. clearly the media are NOT educators (thank goodness but says a lot about the sorry state of education in general),
    3. ethical concerns aside, isn’t this a prime opportunity to enhance public understanding of the scientific process…and maybe a reminder that scientists are indeed human?