A slew of hacked E-mail snippets are rolling around the Internet. Posted earlier this month, the E-mails were swiped from a server at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and contain exchanges between several top climate scientists discussing, among other things, how to make their data appear more impressive for publication. Not surprisingly, climate change skeptics, ever on the lookout for a good story, are holding up the E-mails as support for their claims that climate science is being cooked.
This controversy is growing, as one might expect. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a longtime global warming skeptic and the top Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, is pushing for a full-blown investigation and has publicly said the E-mails should be a cautionary note as world leaders prepare to gather in Copenhagen next month for climate talks. Inhofe's supporters are now happily predicting that the controversy will also hurt efforts in the United States to pass a bill capping emissions from greenhouse gases, a major priority for top Democrats.
But the reality is much less clear. In fact, in recent weeks, there have been some encouraging, if tentative, signs for climate advocates—signs that have been largely overshadowed by all the fuss over the E-mails.
Last Wednesday, President Obama announced that he will go to Copenhagen next month with a pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Shortly thereafter, Chinese leaders offered their own targets to curb emissions, saying they would sharply cut the rate at which China's emissions grow over the next decade.
Neither pledge was particularly ambitious, at least from the point of view of the scientific community, which has called for much more aggressive efforts to prevent the worst of global warming. Nor were European leaders satisfied by the U.S. and Chinese announcements. But the pledges are nonetheless important. They indicate that the world's two largest polluters, the United States and China, intend to participate in a real way in next month's climate talks.
Originally the goal for the Copenhagen talks was to have all 180 or so attending countries agree on a new treaty to reduce worldwide emissions, with firm emissions targets for all of the signers. That goal may still be out of reach, but the Copenhagen talks do not appear to be dead on arrival, as many feared just a few weeks ago.
Inhofe and his supporters, however, are trying to make things more difficult. Some of the hacked E-mails were written by scientists who were involved, in one way or another, in writing the major 2007 United Nations climate report, which basically summed up the state of current knowledge on climate change. (The report is called the IPCC report, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which wrote it.) By questioning the integrity of those scientists, climate skeptics are in turn attacking the integrity of the entire consensus on climate change. "These E-mails strike at the very heart of the IPCC's work," says Matt Dempsey, an Inhofe spokesperson. "Therefore these E-mails would have tremendous implications" for future climate efforts.
Last week, Inhofe sent letters to federal agencies and some U.S. scientists, warning them not to delete any E-mails that might be linked to the controversy. Now he's considering holding hearings on the issue in his Senate committee, which would presumably involve dragging scientists and other experts to Washington to testify. To do so, he'll first need the approval of the committee's chair, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
The scientists involved have understandably pushed back. "My colleagues and I accept that some of the published E-mails do not read well," Phil Jones, the head of climate research at East Anglia, wrote on the university's website. "Some were clearly written in the heat of the moment; others use colloquialisms frequently used between close colleagues." He then added: "We are, and always have been, scrupulous in ensuring that our science publications are robust and honest."
As Jones and others note, the scientific evidence for climate change is broad and deep, coming not just from temperature data but also from the shrinking of glaciers, rise in sea levels, reductions in snow cover, and shortening of the freezing season in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The result of all these findings, the IPCC concluded, is that the evidence for human-caused climate change is "unequivocal."
With the E-mails in hand, Inhofe thinks he has found a way to challenge that finding. 'This will just escalate as we get closer and closer to Copenhagen," Dempsey says. Inhofe seems to have support from some fellow Republicans. But others in the party, acknowledging that global warming is real, have chosen a different route. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is now working with Sen. John Kerry on an outline for a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate.