It has been described as the "greatest scientific scandal of the modern age." The story broke last Thursday when a person unknown — some say it was a hacker, others an inside-leak job — broke into the servers at Britain’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and published at least 61megabytes of confidential data on a Russian website.
Despite efforts in liberal quarters to play the story down as a criminal issue of no great consequence, the blogosophere almost instantly recognized it as political dynamite: perhaps even the final nail in the coffin of Al Gore’s increasingly expensive theory that the world is rapidly overheating due to Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).
Why? Because the Climate Research Unit in the windswept fenlands of Eastern England — together with its sister unit in the West of England, the Hadley Centre in Exeter, Devon — is one of the primary information sources used by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Not only have its resident scientists, computer modelers and statisticians been heavily involved in drafting the IPCC’s three reports; but its global temperature records (known as HadCrut) are one of the IPCC’s four official sources of data.
If the CRU’s data and scientific staff were shown to be unreliable, it would call into question the very basis of the IPCC’s doom-laden predictions of rising sea levels and inexorably-rising temperatures due to man-made CO2.
And to judge by the leaked data — over a decade’s worth of documents and emails — "unreliable" may be a rather polite way of putting it. As Australian blogger Andrew Bolt puts it, the CRU may well be guilty of "conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organized resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more."
The emails reveal a variety of dubious practices, quite contrary to what might reasonably be expected of a world-renowned climate research institution lavishly funded by the UK government. These include:
1. Manipulation of evidence. In one email, the CRU’s director, Professor Phil Jones apparently confesses to having played with data – most unscientifically – in order to achieve his desired end. "I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline." (Professor Jones has defended himself, somewhat disingenuously you might think, by saying that "trick" – in the world of science – has no negative connotations).
2. Concealing private doubts about whether the world is really heating up. One scientist expresses his frustration that the global temperatures are not behaving as he feels they ought to behave: "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. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate."
3. Destruction of evidence (following a Freedom of Information request – almost certainly an illegal activity): "Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise. He’s not in at the moment – minor family crisis. Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise."
4. Fantasizing violence against prominent climate sceptic scientists: "Next time I see Pat Michaels at a scientific meeting, I’ll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted.’
5. Gloating over news of the death of a prominent climate-change skeptic, Australian John L Daly, founder of the Still Waiting For Greenhouse site: “In an odd way this is cheering news.”
6. Attempting to disguise the inconvenient truth of the Medieval Warm Period (ie the period from about 900 to about 1200 when global mean temperatures were considerably warmer than they are now): "……Phil and I have recently submitted a paper using about a dozen NH records that fit this category, and many of which are available nearly 2K back–I think that trying to adopt a timeframe of 2K, rather than the usual 1K, addresses a good earlier point that Peck made w/ regard to the memo, that it would be nice to try to “contain” the putative “MWP”, even if we don’t yet have a hemispheric mean reconstruction available that far back…."
7. And, perhaps, most damningly, a long series of communications discussing how best to squeeze dissenting scientists out of the peer review process. How, in other words, to create a scientific climate in which anyone who disagrees with AGW can be written off as a crank, whose views do not have a scrap of authority: “I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…What do others think?”
Climate change "skeptics" have long had their suspicions about the reliability of CRU. Among the first to voice these was Steve McIntyre, the statistician who exposed the “Hockey Stick” curve – the now utterly discredited graph initially used by the IPCC (and Al Gore in his film An Inconvenient Truth) to suggest that global temperatures had risen more sharply at the end of the 20th century than at any time in the previous thousand years. (This meant ignoring the Medieval Warm Period – hence the email quoted above).
Over a period of several years, McIntyre sought to acquire from the CRU the raw data used to fuel its computer models of climate Armageddon but was constantly rebuffed. (At one stage, CRU told him that the data had been "lost"). When finally he did get hold of it, he discovered the samples used to have been flawed; just as years earlier, he had showed that the Hockey Stick computer model had been programmed with an algorithm so that whatever information you put into it, it would always come up with the same scary-looking Hockey Stick shape.
But the "Climategate" scandal is a step beyond this. Where before it was only possible to accuse the CRU of being foolish, what these emails prove beyond reasonable doubt is that it has been guilty of conspiracy too. And it is a conspiracy which implicates a good many of the world’s leading AGW-promoting scientists, not just in Britain but in the US and beyond.
Besides Professor Jones, the director of the CRU (and a doughty defender in several papers of the Hockey Stick curve) the emails implicate many more of those scientists most deeply involved in drafting the IPCC’s reports. They include Dr Keith Briffa, a ‘lead author’ on the IPCC’s 2007 report; Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; Ben Santer, a pro-AGW scientist at the US government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – and the man responsible for the notorious claim in the IPCC’s second report that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on climate change"; and Dr Michael Mann, the physicist-turned-climate-scientist at the University of Massachusetts who created the infamous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph.
What is commonly misunderstood amid the IPCC’s vaunted claims that its reports are approved by "2,500 scientists" is that only a tiny number – perhaps 53 in all – were actually responsible for drafting the sections predicting global eco-disaster due to AGW. These 53 scientists are a close knit circle, peer-approving one another’s pro-AGW papers, banding together to shut out any dissenting voices. Almost all of them are close to the CRU; many are implicated in the offending emails.
This is what makes Climategate so significant. It is the smoking gun that climate "skeptics" have long been searching for. Or indeed, as one retired US climatologist Dr Tim Ball puts it, a "whole battery of machine guns".