Stolen Emails Do Not Change the Facts of Global Warming

| by NRDC

Facts are stubborn things. Since my last post the discussion of the emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) has continued to swirl, but as scientists and the mainstream media have delved into what the emails actually say and what their implications are for our understanding of global warming the facts have begun to bubble up to the surface. Of course, there is still a lot of noise out there, such as today’s Washington Post op/ed by noted climate scientist Sarah Palin, but the signal to noise ratio has improved in recent days.

Here is a quick survey of some of what has emerged.

*Yesterday the World Meteorological Organization reported that with just a few weeks left in this decade, the 00s (January 1, 2000 – December 31, 2009) will be the warmest decade on record. Warmer than the 1990s, which was warmer than the 1980s. Some climate change deniers have claimed that the earth has been cooling since 1998, but that is based on the actual “trick” of starting the time series in a year that was far warmer than the long-term trend. No responsible scientist has ever claimed that global warming means every year will be warmer than the year before. After all, global warming does not eliminate inter-annual variability. Rather, it imposes a long term trend on top of that natural variability. The most straightforward way to look for the underlying trend is to examine running multi-year averages, such as the red 5-year running average line in these data from NASA.


*On December 4th a group of 25 leading U.S. scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences and one Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, wrote to Congress to “set the record straight.” They note:

In the last few weeks, opponents of taking action on climate change have misrepresented both the content and the significance of stolen emails to obscure public understanding of climate science and the scientific process….The body of evidence that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming is overwhelming. The content of the stolen emails has no impact whatsoever on our overall understanding that human activity is driving dangerous levels of global warming. The scientific process depends on open access to methodology, data, and a rigorous peer-review process. The robust exchange of ideas in the peer-reviewed literature regarding climate science is evidence of the high degree of integrity in this process.

*A more thorough reading of the purloined emails, rather than just the handful that have received the most attention, demonstrates that a “robust exchange of ideas” is exactly what these scientists were engaged in. Yes, they vented frustration in private with each other and with climate deniers who they thought (with good reason in many cases) were only interested in attacking them. But they also expressed a commitment to the scientific process. For example, this email from Michael Mann:

Dear Ed, Tom, Keith, etc.

In keeping w/ the spirit of Tom's and Keith's emails, I wanted to stress, before we all break for the weekend, that this is ultimately about the science, its not personal. If my comments seemed to assail e.g. Keith's motives or integrity, etc. I believe that they were misunderstood (as I tried to clarify that in my previous message), but I can see that there was a potential for misunderstanding of my message (precision in wording is very important) given the high levels of sensitivity in this debate. So I wanted to leave no uncertainty about that. And of course, I very much apologize to Keith (and Tim) if they took them my comments that way. They, again, were most decidedly not intended that way.

I hope we can resolve the scientific issues objectively, and w/out injecting or any personal feelings into any of this. There are some substantial scientific differences here, lets let them play out the way they are supposed to, objectively, and in the peer reviewed literature.

Enjoy the weekend all.



*The scientific journal Nature published a thoughtful editorial about the controversy. They point to direct evidence of global warming, such as melting ice and rising sea levels, as well as “decades of biological data on blooming dates and the like suggest that spring is arriving earlier each year.” I left this large and growing set of biological observations out of my previous post. Nature also points out that while some of the scientists involved in the CRU emails thought that a couple of papers by climate change skeptics were bad science and should be kept out of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, in fact that didn’t happen and those papers were reviewed by the IPCC (Chapter 3 of Working Group I report, pages 244-245).

*Time magazine provided reasonably balanced coverage of what they called “Climategate/Swifthack.” The article starts with a pretty detailed recitation of the denier’s arguments but goes on to ask “Do the e-mails weaken the scientific case for global warming?” Time answers this question by quoting from scientists’ letter I quote above. The article goes on to put the whole episode in context of the long-standing ideologically-driven effort to confuse the public about global warming in order to block action to cut emissions.

Ultimately, though, we need to place Climategate/Swifthack in its proper context: amidst a decades-long effort by the fossil-fuel industry and other climate skeptics to undercut global-warming research — often by means that are far more nefarious than anything that appears in the CRU e-mails. George W. Bush's Administration attempted to censor NASA climatologist James Hansen, while the fossil-fuel industry group the Global Climate Coalition ignored its own scientists as it spread doubt about man-made global warming. That list of wrongdoing goes on. One of the main skeptic groups promoting the e-mail controversy, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, was recently revealed to have links to the energy company Exxon-Mobil, which has long funded climate-change deniers. "This is being used to confuse the public," says blogger James Hoggan, whose new book Climate Cover-Up details Exxon-Mobil's campaign.