Hacked Climate Emails: Tempest in a Teapot?

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen just a few weeks away, leading scientists on the topic probably had a lot of work they would have liked to accomplish this week.

That hasn’t been possible, however, thanks to the recent anonymous theft of thousands of emails and documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

Instead, key climate-change scientists whose work was involved in the hack have had to spend the past few days defending their research and conducting other forms of damage control.

“I and a lot of other climate scientists have spent this week trying to mop up and deal with this mess rather than getting on with something productive,” Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told TechNewsWorld. “I think that’s part of [the hackers’] strategy.”

Deliberate Timing?

Indeed, though there’s no word yet on those responsible, the timing of the attack has been widely noted as a potentially significant factor over the past few days since the news came to light.

“One has to wonder if it is a coincidence that this email correspondence has been stolen and published at this time,” said Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit, for example.

“This may be a concerted attempt to put a question mark over the science of climate change in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks,” he added.

‘Written in the Heat of the Moment’

Jones was one of several scientists involved in the stolen emails and documents. Included among them was an email in which he wrote, “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.”

Critics have seized upon that email as evidence that data was manipulated to create the appearance of rising temperatures, but Jones and other scientists involved have vigorously defended their work.

“My colleagues and I accept that some of the published emails do not read well,” Jones said on Tuesday. “I regret any upset or confusion caused as a result. Some were clearly written in the heat of the moment. Others use colloquialisms frequently used between close colleagues.

“We are, and have always been, scrupulous in ensuring that our science publications are robust and honest,” Jones added.

In fact, the CRU also released a series of graphs illustrating the veracity of Jones’s data.

Calls for Inquiry

Whether the actual contents of the stolen emails even matter at this point, however, is highly debatable.

In the UK, officials on both sides of the controversy were already calling for an inquiry on Monday.

In the United States, meanwhile, Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla. — who has long argued that global warming is a “hoax” — has also called for an investigation.

‘Something Orchestrated’

“Clearly, there’s something orchestrated going on here,” Trenberth said.

Though he has not yet been contacted by Inhofe’s office the way others reportedly have, Trenberth has “received dozens of emails — all very short, all highly abusive,” he said. “Clearly different groups are being encouraged to do things like this.”

At least part of the situation “is clearly political,” Trenberth added.

‘Shooting the Messenger’

There’s a scientific basis for everything we understand about climate change, he noted. What to do about it, on the other hand, is “very much up for debate.”

The current firestorm of controversy, then, is an example of “shooting the messenger,” said Trenberth. “Unfortunately, I think it’s been somewhat successful.”

Looking forward, the experience “calls for more caution about what one says and maybe also going back and deleting older email messages at some point,” Trenberth added.

‘Another Political Football’

In the long run, “I seriously doubt this will have any effect on public opinion,” Aaron Huertas, a spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told TechNewsWorld.

Those pushing the claim that it will are “people who have been attacking the science for years anyway,” such as Inhofe, he noted. “They think it’s another political football they get to use.”

Such attacks boil down to the level of conspiracy theory, he pointed out, “like claiming that the moon landing was fake.”

At most, the event will change the common view of scientists “as staid gentlemen with beards and glasses,” Huertas explained. “This shows that they’re human — they’re passionate about their work.”

Isaac Newton “may have been an ass at times, but that doesn’t mean the theory of gravity is wrong,” Huertas added, paraphrasing 0 the words of NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt in an interview with The New York Times.

In other words, he concluded, “these emails don’t impugn the actual science.”


  • I can’t agree with the "tempest in a teapot" characterization. It’s wrong on at least four levels: political, legal, scientific, and sociological.

    (1) Politically, the "Climategate" emails give Republicans all the "cover" they need to attack the Cap and Trade bill and the Copenhagen accords. Most commentators expected Cap and Trade to die this year because of the economy, but now its a win for Republicans and a disaster for Democrats. That’s no minor "tempest" in an election year that’s already poised to hurt the Democrats.

    (2) Legally, there’s a lot of reason to believe Freedom of Information Act requests were unlawfully denied. If scientists conspired to dump or hide data, it’s a crime. Global warming theory is going to get a permanent black eye if any prominent scientist winds up indicted.

    (3) Scientifically, the HADCRU3 dataset now seems to be suspect and the software that processes it needs to be thoroughly reviewed. The "HARRY_READ_ME" file raises a LOT of coding questions which MUST be answered before anybody dismisses this issue as trivial.

    (4) Sociologically, these emails have aroused a sleeping giant. There are LOTS of independent-minded curmudgeons who like to believe they can think for themselves who have been sitting out the climate change debate. We’ve had years of rhetoric about the "settled science" and ad hominem attacks on anyone who dared to question it. "Climategate" has unleashed a LOT of pent-up crotchetiness. Google the phrase (if Google will let you!) and see for yourself–there are more than 30 million web hits already.

    Not a tempest. More like Hurricane Katrina.

  • That’s a pretty poor job at whitewashing the real story.

    I can dismiss most of the emails content. After all, everywhere when there’s outside funding, there’s squabbling for funds and internal politics involved.

    What I cannot dismiss is things NOT covered in this article, like arbitrary tampering with measurements data. How about adding 2.6 degrees to all measurements for the last 20 years or so? So-called "scientists" did exactly that. How about absolutely stunning discoveries in mathematics, when they get an average of two numbers to be greater than each of the original numbers? How about their atttempts to block FOI requests coming from scientists all over the globe because those scientists had the audacity to publish in "unapproved" places? Could you cite me a paragraph in any FOI laws that allows officials to discriminate FOI requests on such reasons?

    So-called "scientists" are frauds for what they did with the data. They are criminals for what they did with FOI requests. You could do a better job reporting this story, and you really should.

  • The author of this article didn’t do even the smallest AM ount of research, instead simply parroted the propaganda of a very biased source.

    If the author had done any research at all, he would have found:

    * There is more than email been released. There is data, source code and lots of comments by researchers.

    * The emails themselves contain references to hiding results, getting people fired for publishing work not agreeing with theirs, "fixing" the review process, conspiring to break UK law, hiding data and processes used to generate their results.

    * Source code which include "correction factors" which will give the impression of increasing data if fed with random data showing no such increase.

    * Comments on the state of their data repository, basically boiling down to the fact that they no longer have original data so can’t reproduce their results, data for which the source is unknown, data which is incomplete and large AM ount of what they call "synthetic data" (otherwise known as made up data).

    * Conversations referring to a previous case in which one of the primary researchers was a co-author of a paper where it would appear that the data was probably (at best) confused, and at worst fabricated.

    All this is there to see, and analysis of the code and data is freely available on the Internet.

    Speaking of timing — its pretty interesting that there are a slew of "The World is ending — run for your lives!!" articles being released by these (so called) researchers — just before the Copenhagen conference — the timing of these somehow being overlooked. One of these, from Australia is a complete fabrication. It claims that at a particular airport it has been the hottest year ever, and provides the average temperatures there to prove it. Unfortunately for them, the complete record of temperatures is available, and if one cared to look, its easy to see that this is NOT the hottest year, they simply skipped over hotter years, and only started drawing their graph after those years were passed.

  • Dear Ms. Noyes:

    You can do better than this. You are repeating the Fenton Communication talking points as promulgated by Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate. I have perused the thousands of the hacked CRU emails (documented at, noting four recuring topics:

    1) A continual search for funding.

    2) Denigration of skeptic efforts to review their work, indeed, ad hominems aimed at the skeptics themselves. Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit given especially vicious treatment.

    3) Exchange of data and code with other global warmists, the same data and code that they have vigorously fought outsiders from seeing.

    4) How best to use, manipulate, delete or ignore the data as it relates to their presumption that man is causing any or all of the climate change that we are experiencing.

    None of this has much to do with legitimate scientific process and may be illegal as public money is used to fund these "scientists." derekcrane

  • This article is tendentious at best.

    First, how has it been determined that the disclosed documents were hacked or even stolen? That their disclosure was not authorized may be only be inferred, but that it was illegal has not yet been confirmed. Pending further inquiry one can only keep an open mind, something difficult to do in the context of this article which treats all of the above, without substantiation, as established fact.

    So also is it curious that that every email of a previous administration is regarded a public document, yet those involving government-supported research are private property. Attention: Daniel Ellsberg, John Dean and Alex Butterfield and lesser "disclosurists" — stay tuned.

    Second, that those involved in the creation of the disclosed documents are perturbed is quite understandable. In due course appropriate redress may or may not be available to those who were impacted by the disclosure.

    Third, the authenticity of the material has as yet not been established. The authors are in a bit of a dilemma: in order to show injury they must attest to its authenticity even as such will be discomfiting. Those quoted in the article have not denied the source of the disclosed documents nor have they challenged the accuracy of its content, but they have not acknowledged it either. At one point it was lamely suggested that the disclosure was selective, but the sheer volume of material and its numbing breadth of coverage militate against that.

    Fourth, the antagonists involved in this drama fail to address the most blatant points of the expose, and instead deflect and divert from addressing the substance of the charges by their opponents. Whatever the motives of the individual(s) responsible for the disclosure, and irrespective of its impact and its ultimate consequences, the issue of what was revealed still remains unaddressed. Saying that the "science" is still valid is nonsense. Even junk science is valid junk. It is the substance that matters. Nor are "heat of the moment" utterances and "jocular collegial colloquialisms" meaningless (collegial adj. mutually respectful) — they tell us something about their authors. Transcripts of Richard Nixon’s White House tapes don’t read well either.

    Finally, the reporter’s loving care in draping vaporous quotes from selected sources with substantive lead-ins, reassuring solicitudes and breathless expressions of "political attack" is much to be regretted. It reveals nothing to the reader other than a single point of view and, along with its wishful-thinking title, very much gives a "circle the wagons" flavor to the reporting. She may have presented a more balanced picture by asking for an explanation of the quoted material or by seeking comment from those who found the material to be significant. Many reasonable and objective observers, not nearly as far-sighted as the Father of the Internet, have unanswered questions. The "timing" of the disclosure hardly strikes one as nefarious — what better time to ventilate the issues? Universally branding all skeptics as deniers, conspiracy fantasists, and flat-earth denizens is hardly an objective approach to a very serious issue which deserves the most wide-open debate. Could that have been the intent of FO1A?

  • You claim there is nothing to worry here except a few poorly chosen words. But what about (1) the manipulation of data, (2) the efforts to prevent skeptics from getting a fair hearing from peer-reviewed periodicals, (3) the refusal to allow release of scientific data, (4) the coordinated efforts to destroy incriminating emails, (5) the admission that the global warming community can’t explain the last decade of cooling, (6) the hate speech directed at scientists trying to validate global warming claims. Etc. etc. etc.

    Poorly chosen words? Give me a break!

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