Climate skeptics claim hacked e-mails prove, once and for all, that global warming is a hoax

By Andrew Leonard
November 21, 2009 3:30AM (UTC)
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The climate-change obsessed blogosphere -- including both those who accept the science behind anthropogenic climate change and those who deny it -- is in an absolute uproar today after the revelation that an unknown party hacked into the computer system of an important climate research center and posted hundreds of private e-mails to a Russian FTP server.

To climate skeptics, the e-mails prove that global warming is a conspiracy theory. At Wonk Room, Brad Johnson rounded up the politicized reaction:

  • If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW," says the Telegraph's James Delingpole.
  • Hot Air's Ed Morrissey claims the emails discuss "repetitive, false data of higher temperatures."
  • The National Review's Chris Horner salivates, "The blue-dress moment may have arrived."
  • "The crimes revealed in the e-mails promise to be the global warming scandal of the century," blares Michelle Malkin.
  • The Australia Herald-Sun's Andrew Bolt claims the emails are "proof of a conspiracy which is one of the largest, most extraordinary and most disgraceful in modern [sic] science."

RealClimate, a blog maintained by real climate scientists, is busy doing damage control. This story will no doubt rage for weeks, so I'm just going to pick one example of the back and forth before trying to take some time to go deeper, if merited.

Here's an e-mail that has gotten particular attention, with the supposedly damning language bolded:

Dear Ray, Mike and Malcolm,

Once Tim's got a diagram here we'll send that either later today or first thing tomorrow.

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. Mike's series got the annual land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999 for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.

Thanks for the comments, Ray.

Cheers, Phil

Here's RealClimate's explanation:


The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the "trick" is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term "trick" to refer to a "a good way to deal with a problem", rather than something that is "secret", and so there is nothing problematic in this at all. As for the "decline," it is well known that Keith Briffa's maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the "divergence problem" -- see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while "hiding" is probably a poor choice of words (since it is "hidden" in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.

So what's going on here? Put aside the question of whether the words "trick" or "hide" have nefarious or innocuous meanings. The scientific problem is that in attempting to reconstruct temperatures in the past, climate scientists are often faced with the problem that there were no humans standing around holding thermometers and writing down temperatures. So scientists use "proxies" -- tree rings, or ice cores, or fossilized clams, or lake pollen trapped in sediment. The "divergence problem" referred to above references a case where in one particular instance, tree ring variations in density did not match actual recorded temperatures after 1960.

That poses a conundrum, although not one that throws the entire science of multiproxy paleoclimate reconstruction into doubt.  More importantly, t the divergence problem, as RealClimate notes, is not a secret. It's exactly the kind of thing that climate scientists feast on. Such problems are discussed and debated every day by climate scientists (and every other kind of scientist.) The great thing about science is that the process of gathering  more data, improving models and theories is infinitely ongoing, and working out how to handle puzzlers like this, both in private e-mails and in the peer-reviewed literature, is what scientists live for.

Overall, the more data we have, the more clear it has become to the vast majority of scientists working in this field that the earth has gotten significantly hotter at an alarming rate in the last century, most likely due to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And if there really is a smoking gun in the hacked e-mails that convicts scientists of fraudulent behavior or faking data, well, let's hear it. I'm not convinced by the above example. But if enough scientists are, that's a different matter.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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