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The Great Climate Change Scandal of 2009

Drama is unfolding as the weekend begins, with the revelation that the University of East Anglia's well-respected Climate Research Unit had its servers hacked and almost a decade's worth of email revealed to the public.

Hidden away among thousands of boring, everyday messages are a few dozen that don't look good for the CRU, including references to using a "trick" to make a graph display climate change a certain way, suggestions that information should be kept from public view, and some rather negative comments about climate change skeptics.

Some of those same skeptics, having combed through the emails, are more or less unanimously agreeing that the emails constitute the global warming scandal of the century, one that will quickly end the concept of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

I've read a number of the emails myself (they're all here), and I'm not seeing it. My take: A group of climate scientists, finding themselves opposed by people who reject or don't understand their science, discuss how to present their data most favorably and strike out through political channels against their foes. And for the most part, it's not a big deal.

Luckily, there's an incredibly convenient rundown of the dirt at Bishop Hill, so readers can nip over and judge for themselves. The juicy bits include questionable statements by some top scientists, including Phil Jones, the CRU's director, and Michael Mann, a scientist who is one of the primary contributors to RealClimate, probably the most respected pro-climate change blog.

What could be a big deal -- the broader scientific community will have to be the judge -- is the politicization, which really doesn't have a place in good science. But most scientists, being all too aware of how much in-fighting is common within their own fields, probably won't find much shocking about the emails.

Still, this is a scandal that's just beginning, so it remains to be seen how far it travels. So far, the larger media outlets haven't had much interesting to say. The good bits are all at blogs. On the pro-climate change side, the message is, "Nothing to see here, move along." RealClimate makes the same point I did above, along with a few more. Here's the relevant snippet:

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to 'get rid of the MWP', no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no 'marching orders' from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

Instead, there is a peek into how scientists actually interact and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined. People working constructively to improve joint publications; scientists who are friendly and agree on many of the big picture issues, disagreeing at times about details and engaging in 'robust' discussions; Scientists expressing frustration at the misrepresentation of their work in politicized arenas and complaining when media reports get it wrong; Scientists resenting the time they have to take out of their research to deal with over-hyped nonsense. None of this should be shocking.

On the other pole, here's Andrew Bolt, a blogger at Australia's Herald Sun:
...the 1079 emails and 72 documents seem indeed evidence of a scandal involving most of the most prominent scientists pushing the man-made warming theory - a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science. I've been adding some of the most astonishing in updates below - emails suggesting conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more. If it is as it now seems, never again will "peer review" be used to shout down sceptics.
Again, my own take is that RealClimate's response is a bit closer to the realms of reality; no grand conspiracy is actually in evidence, and the emails, while calling a few scientific points into question, don't do much to discredit the greater body of work on AGW. But they certainly do cast a negative light on some of the scientists involved, notably CRU director Phil Jones, who I'd imagine may find himself short of a job soon.

And he probably should be fired, perhaps along with others. Yes, scientists have human flaws and foibles, but the leading scientists trying to prove AGW should be impeccable both in action and motive. The debate means too much for us to accept any less.

I will point out, however, that there's a a double standard. Climate change skeptics have spent over a decade doing their best to politicize the science and feed misleading information to the public -- remember the Global Climate Coalition?

I've seen a few suggestions already that there should be a counter-hack -- that someone should obtain and release the private emails of skeptical scientists. Fair enough (if also illegal and morally reprehensible), but I can't imagine that anyone would be surprised to find skeptics engaging in obfuscation or political manipulation.

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