The unauthorized publication in late November of thousands of hacked e-mails and documents from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom is creating headaches for federal officials here forced to defend the science that underlies much of the Obama administration's energy and environmental policies.
The pirated correspondence from March 7, 1996, through Nov. 12, 2009, shows leading climate scientists in Britain and the United States discussing how to prevent journals from publishing peer-reviewed research by scientists who reach dissenting conclusions; circumvent freedom of information laws in Britain and the United States that require scientists to reveal data underlying their conclusions; and suppress information included in a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. One e-mail cites as "cheering news" the death of a prominent climate-change skeptic.
The e-mails, some of which have been publicly acknowledged as authentic by their authors, have rocked the scientific community and provided ammunition to skeptics of the prevailing view that global warming is caused by human activity and poses a serious threat to virtually all life if warming trends continue.
At a Wednesday hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, John Holdren, President Obama's science adviser, sought to downplay the significance of the e-mails to the scientific understanding of global warming while acknowledging their potentially damaging effect on how the science could be perceived by the general public.
"The e-mails are mainly about controversy over a particular data set and the ways a particular small group of scientists have interpreted and displayed [the data]. These kinds of controversies and even accusations of bias and improper manipulation are not all that uncommon in science," Holdren said. "The strength of science is that these kinds of controversies get sorted out over time by the process of peer review and continued critical scrutiny by the knowledgeable community."
"In this particular case, the data set in question and the way it was interpreted and presented by these particular scientists constitutes a very small part of the immense body of data and analysis upon which our understanding of the issue of climate change rests," Holdren said.
A 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences thoroughly reviewed not only the data set now in question, but other data sets as well, and determined that the preponderance of evidence concludes the last 50 years have been the warmest on record on average for the past 20,000 years, if not longer, Holdren said.
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said all the data the agency collected is publicly available for scrutiny. "Climate change is not just a theory, it is a documented set of facts," she said.
Holdren said the Obama administration is committed to openness and transparency regarding the data upon which it formulates policy.
"There is, and there will remain after the dust settles from this current controversy, a very strong scientific consensus on the key characteristics of the problem: Global climate is changing in highly unusual ways compared to long experience and expected natural variation," Holdren said.
Acceptance of that consensus does not extend to the entire committee. "Hopefully, this scandal is the end of declarations that the 'science is settled' and the beginning of a transparent scientific debate," said ranking member Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
At the beginning of the hearing, Sensenbrenner asked that Holdren and Lubchenco, the only witnesses, testify under oath, but Committee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., denied the request, saying it was unnecessary.
In a letter to Markey, the Republican members of the committee requested another day of hearings on the topic with witnesses of their choosing.
"The seriousness of this issue justifies additional consideration. The majority did not permit the minority to invite a witness this morning," Sensenbrenner said.