NEWS THAT more than 1,000 emails and hundreds of other documents created by scientists at the University of East Anglia's (UEA) Hadley Climate Research Unit (CRU) were leaked onto the Internet, allegedly after one of the organisation's email servers was hacked, sent the world into a spin last week.
CRU spinners and tree huggers shrugged their shoulders and claimed that some of the documents, which date back as far as 1996 and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, could have been tampered with, trying to suggest that the emails and other files had been carefully selected and perhaps even edited.
The fact that the vast majority of the emails, many of which were sent by leading climatologist Phil Jones, are dull almost beyond comprehension suggests otherwise. Surely if the hack attack or leak was a concerted effort by climate change nay-sayers to discredit the whole concept of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW - the theory that the Earth is rapidly warming and it's all our fault) then they would have spent more time cherry picking the several emails that have really set tongues to wagging.
As it is, sorting through the 176MB of data to find damning items of evidence has been left to newspaper journalists, or more likely an army of minimum wage junior research monkeys. However, all of that hard work has unearthed a number of worrying gaffes by several of the climate research boffins involved.
One document refers to a paper presented to science magazine Nature which plotted temperature changes using data collected from tree rings. The author states, "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) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." An innocent bit of book cooking to make the numbers look neater, or a leftist conspiracy designed to make the government confiscate our cars? It could be either, depending upon whom one believes.
Defenders of the AGW faith at Real Climate have maintained that it was all above-board and just a case of unfortunate terminology. "Scientists often use the term 'trick' to refer to a good way to deal with a problem, rather than something that is secret," one poster has insisted without an apparent hint of irony.
Other emails that are causing concern suggest that some of the world's leading climate scientists were harbouring personal doubts about whether the planet is really heating up. "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," one correspondence reads. It continues, "Data shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate."
Another suggests that the organisation has suppressed evidence by asking a number of individuals to delete inconvenient emails, and yet another offers a novel approach to convincing respected scientists with opposing views to come around to the CRU's way of thinking. It says, "Next time I see Pat Michaels at a scientific meeting, I’ll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted."
And it's not just the threat of physical attacks that becomes apparent when scouring the mass of emails. Verbal insults are also commonplace: "After the meeting in Norway, where I presented the Esper stuff as described in the extended abstract I sent you, and hearing [redacted]'s follow-up talk on how everybody but him has f****d up in reconstructing past NH temperatures over the past 1000 years (this is a bit of an overstatement on my part I must admit, but his air of papal infallibility is really quite nauseating at times), I have come up with an idea that I want you to be involved in."
Perhaps most concerning are the organisation's apparent attempts to pervert the peer review process by excluding anyone with an opposing opinion, regardless of their credibility or authority. One such is an email that says, "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."
Of course it is possible that the hacker - or disgruntled insider as some have suggested - was smart enough to bury a couple of smoking guns within the massive pile of innocent witterings. It doesn't take a criminal genius to fake a few convincing looking email headers, if armed, as they apparently were, with hundreds of genuine ones. Nobody at the UEA has come forward to confirm or deny the authenticity of the data, which is totally unsurprising. If the emails do turn out to be genuine, the very least the red-faced writers can expect is to be subjected to a series of increasingly embarrassing inquisitions at the hands of the world's press, the government institutions that fund their research activities and the British taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab.
At worst, they should be sacked or even prosecuted for misleading the world about what most concerned people see as the single most important international issue facing the planet today. Having said that, we really wouldn't want to be the person responsible for Internet security at the UEA.
In most industries a bit of light jiggery-pokery of the figures is commonplace. A favourable audit here, a wayward stock market valuation there, some creative accounting just about everywhere. But we're not talking about crooked MPs fiddling their expenses to pay for their castles to be renovated here. When the folks at the CRU speak, the world listens. It's true that more than 50 per cent of the world then sticks its fingers in its ears and goes "la la laaa laaa", but many trillions of dollars worth of finance, commerce and industry teeters on the issue of the whole global warming and climate change science construction.
These people are rewarded well from the public purse to supply the population and the politicians who serve us with accurate data and well-founded scientific explanations. Their conclusions will necessarily inform momentous decisions that will have immense consequences for billions of people throughout the entire world for decades to come, and will impact the quality of life - or even matters of life or death - of millions. Therefore, there should be no hidden agendas, no manipulation of numbers and no pandering to political lobbyists, global warming scam artists or fat cat industrialists keen to maintain the status quo.
The CRU has been accused of cherry-picking and withholding its raw data before, but accusations from individuals or organisations with opposing opinions without solid evidence have been quickly dismissed.
The bottom line is that these are all smart people. It's true that, when we write emails at work most of us behave as though we were operating in an impenetrable bubble. We have firewalls and security experts and virus-killing software and systems administrators to protect us and our badly spelled ramblings from the public gaze. We insult colleagues with apparent impunity, commit our casual banter and deepest secrets to the digital domain, and bandy about commercially sensitive information safe in the knowledge that our emails are private and will never fall into the hands of anyone other than the intended recipient.
But the real world isn't like that. If you work in an industry where what you say and do potentially affects the lives of every living being on the planet, you should be very, very careful about what you say and do.
Be assured that this story will run and run. If the emails do turn out to be genuine, which is so far nigh on impossible to definitively prove either way, the CRU has some very searching questions to answer.
With the Copenhagen Treaty looming on the horizon, and the credibility of one of the world's leading climate think tanks in tatters, this lapse in mail server security, or whistleblower's leak, could turn out to be this generation's Watergate.
Climategate, anyone? µ