Getting the Facts About the Global Warming E-mail Scandal

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KeyboardRemember the so-called “Climategate” e-mails that created a lot of hype last month? Now that the noise has subsided, we are left to ask, What did all that really amount to? 

First, What Started It All?

In November, unknown hackers stole thousands of documents and e-mails, some as many as 13 years old, from computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in Norwich, England. The Climate Research Unit is a pretty big player in global warming research. The British Broadcasting Corp. notes that they are one of the world’s leading research bodies on natural- and human-induced climate change.

The hacked e-mails, including personal exchanges from those at the CRU, appeared on the Internet on Tuesday, Nov. 17 (without permission from the university). A spokesperson from the university has confirmed that their server was hacked and that they are completing a thorough internal investigation and have involved the police.

Why Did the E-mails Create Such a Stir?

Apparent deception in some of the e-mails led to extensive media coverage and fired up skeptics of global warming, with some claiming these e-mails reveal that scientists have been purposefully skewing climate change research. For instance, one e-mail written by a researcher discusses using the “trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years” in an attempt to “hide the decline.” (Watch this CNN video, Climate E-mails Hacked, for more details.)

In another e-mail, a scientist calls one research paper “garbage,” saying, “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” 

Other e-mails, such as the one detailed in the Time article, Has ‘Climategate’ Been Overblown? use some harsh language to talk about global warming skeptics. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit devoted to promoting scientific solutions to environmental issues, explains that the most troubling messages refer to deleting e-mails to avoid disclosure in the event of a Freedom of Information request.  

The wording used in the e-mails in question provides little context, so it’s difficult to determine exactly what was done by the Climate Research Unit and why (especially for a casual reader). Seeing words such as “trick” and “hide” when referring to scientific evidence on such a serious global concern has certainly been enough to raise eyebrows for some, especially those already skeptical of climate change.

However, the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that the “trick” referred to is actually a common technique (i.e. a “trick of the trade”) of replacing one set of data with a more accurate set. (Read more on this phrasing plus an explanation of what “hide the decline” refers to in the UCS backgrounder Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails in the “Climategate” Manufactured Controversy.)

How Have the Skeptics and the Scientific Community Reacted?

The Union of Concerned Scientists argues that “opposition groups are taking passages out of context to try to undermine public confidence in climate science.” Even some politicians, such as longtime climate change skeptic Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), consider the e-mails evidence against global warming. He has stated that “the e-mails reveal possible deceitful manipulation of important data and research” and that the controversy “could have far-reaching policy implications.”

On the other side of the debate, Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program, is upset that certain members of Congress are using this isolated incident to undermine decades of climate research. “Opponents of climate change legislation are trying to deceive the American public on climate science,” she says. “After years attacking the science on its merits and failing, they’re now using stolen e-mails to attack climate scientists directly.”

Ekwurzel goes on to say that “our understanding of climate science is based on decades of research from thousands of scientists. These e-mails don’t affect what we know about human activity driving dangerous levels of global warming or the measures we must take to address it.”

James McCarthy, a former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recently sent a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stressing that e-mails stolen from climate scientists have no bearing on our overall understanding of climate science. He wrote: “The robust exchange of ideas in the peer-reviewed literature regarding climate science is evidence of the high degree of integrity in this process. The body of evidence that human activity is a prominent agent in global warming is overwhelming. The content of these few personal e-mails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming.”

What’s the Actual Significance of the E-mails?

Let’s assume for a moment that certain researchers did indeed massage information to make certain pieces of evidence more convincing. What would this mean in the larger picture of climate change research? Jeff Masters, director and founder of the weather forecasting website Weather Underground and Ph.D. in pollution meteorology, argues that “even if every bit of mud slung at these scientists were true, the body of scientific work supporting the theory of human-caused climate change — which spans hundreds of thousands of scientific papers written by tens of thousands of scientists in dozens of different scientific disciplines — is too vast to be budged by the flaws in the works of the three or four scientists being subject to the fiercest attacks.”

Also, the Union of Concerned Scientists states that while it is still not clear any wrongdoing (by the scientists) took place, scientists in general should do more to address concerns about openness.

Indeed, this seems to be an important lesson to come out of the events. Judith A. Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees, noting that scientists are frequently bombarded with requests for information. She states that “the number of such requests would be drastically diminished if all relevant and available data and metadata were made publicly accessible.”

The United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen ran from December 7 to 18, so the timing of the Climategate scandal was frustrating to many hopeful that the Copenhagen Summit would result in a positive global initiative to address global warming. Graham Cluley, a computer security expert and senior technology consultant for Sophos, a leading security company, thinks it’s possible that the Climate Research Unit was a hacker target precisely because the summit in Copenhagen was on the horizon. Even if that wasn’t the case, it can’t be denied that the buzz from bloggers and media personalities — especially those happy to take the issue of “spin” and do a lot of spinning of their own — cast a shadow over the Copenhagen talks. For skeptics, this shadow was one of doubt (perhaps dramatized and constructed doubt), while for those studying the comprehensive body of research indicating human-induced global warming, it was one of frustration. 

The general consensus is that Climategate is largely hype, but one aspect that can’t be ignored is that some people seem to be buying it. A recent CNN global warming poll indicates that the number of Americans that think global warming is a problem is in decline. While several factors are likely contributing to this shift, the e-mails can’t be helping. So even if you agree with the Union of Concerned Scientists that the whole fiasco was a “manufactured controversy,” the way these controversies and subsequent media frenzies have the potential to cause actual shifts in thinking is still a significant concern.  


What’s your opinion on the climate e-mail controversy? Post a comment below to share your thoughts. 


To learn more, check out these resources on climate change:

Climate One Stop
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
National Climate Data Center
Union of Concerned Scientists 


Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and .