Heated Debate

Leaked e-mails raise questions about the basis of U.S. energy and science policies.

When the Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 7 issued an "endangerment finding" that six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations," many saw it as either an end-run around the Senate, which had been slow to act on carbon cap-and-trade legislation that passed the House last summer, or as a blunt instrument intended to push lawmakers to act. Either way, the finding paves the way for federal regulation of carbon emissions and it improved the Obama administration's standing in Copenhagen, where international climate talks were just getting under way.

But controversy sparked in late November by thousands of leaked e-mails and documents from a leading research center in the United Kingdom threatens to undermine EPA's finding. E-mails hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit appear to show a handful of influential scientists in Britain and America pressuring editors of scientific journals and manipulating the peer-review process to prevent dissenting views from being published. They also reveal efforts to suppress information included in the 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a report that has had far-ranging influence as governments worldwide grapple with how to respond to the threat of global warming. What's more, the scientists discussed deleting data and other ways to circumvent freedom of information laws that would require them to disclose the data and formulations that underlie their conclusions.

The revelations have angered not only skeptics of the view that man-made carbon emissions are causing sea levels to rise and ice caps to melt as a result of warmer global temperatures, but some environmentalists as well, who believe the bad behavior of a few scientists is undercutting sound science. As George Monbiot, a British environmentalist, wrote in the Guardian on Dec. 7, "If science is not transparent and accountable, it's not science."

Monbiot believes that all supporting data and computer code should be made publicly available as soon as an article is published in a peer-reviewed journal. "That anyone should have to lodge a freedom of information request to obtain them is wrong. That the request should be turned down is worse. That a scientist suggests deleting material that might be covered by that request is unjustifiable."

The Climatic Research Unit is not the only source of environmental data scientists use, but neither is it a bit player. It controls one of the three major data sets that inform climate research and is a leading source for those who believe man-made carbon emissions pose a clear and present danger to the planet.

Whether the e-mail and document disclosures represent a tempest in a teapot or a full-blown firestorm is yet to be seen, but they certainly have the attention of some lawmakers concerned about imposing hugely expensive cap-and-trade policies on a stalled economy. At a Dec. 2 hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the committee's ranking Republican, said, "There is intimidation in the scientific community, and we're being asked [by scientists] to make major changes in American society."

Obama administration officials were quick to suggest that unseemly as the e-mails might be, they don't fundamentally change scientists' understanding of climate change. "The e-mails do nothing to undermine the very strong scientific consensus . . . that tells us the Earth is warming [and] that warming is largely a result of human activity," Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told lawmakers. NOAA and NASA both maintain independent climate records, which are publicly available, she said.

John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama's science adviser, agreed: "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."

But Holdren and Lubchenco are avoiding a core issue raised in the e-mails, says Patrick Michaels, a former research professor of environmental sciences at University of Virginia for 30 years and now a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute. The peer-review process clearly has been corrupted, Michaels says, and that raises doubts about the EPA finding, among other things. That's because the agency cited three sources as the scientific basis for its finding: the IPCC, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The reports all three organizations issued are based on analysis of the peer-reviewed literature, much of it from data collected by the Climatic Research Unit.

"We know from these e-mails that, in fact, papers in the refereed literature were kept out from the IPCC reports by several people involved in the e-mails. Furthermore, there were attempts that were successful to intimidate editors of scientific journals and to pressure them into not publishing anything that would cast doubt on their view of global warming," Michaels says. "This is not the way science is supposed to work, to say the least."

Michael E. Mann, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University and author of many of the pirated e-mails, including some that discuss influencing the peer-review process at certain journals and efforts to prevent the IPCC from including dissenting views in its 2007 report, says, "It's important to understand what peer review actually is. Peer review is not a license for anybody to publish in the scientific literature an article that doesn't meet the basic standards of quality that are required for publication in the scientific literature."

"There is very robust consensus that humans are warming the planet and altering Earth's climate," Mann told reporters during a conference call with several scientists arranged by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that advocates federal regulation of carbon emissions. Penn State is reviewing issues the e-mails raise to determine whether an investigation of Mann's work and conduct is warranted, something he says he welcomes. "I have nothing to hide. I have done nothing wrong, and you know my work has been held to the highest quality standards," he says.

Not everyone believes so. Mann's work has had tremendous influence (his "hockey stick" graph shows that after 1,000 years of decline, global temperatures shot up to the highest levels in recorded history), but his statistical methods have been challenged by other scientists and a heated battle between Mann's supporters and detractors has raged for years.

Michaels is one of the detractors. He believes humans are responsible for some warming of the climate, but he doesn't believe the evidence thus far warrants the alarm embodied in the IPCC reports and has publicly questioned the data cited by the Climatic Research Unit. He also is the subject of a number of angry e-mail exchanges between scientists, including one who admits he's tempted "to beat the crap out of [Michaels]."

If nothing else, what's been dubbed Climategate could open the doors to a broader discussion of scientific conduct and greater scrutiny of the peer-review process. "These guys have created such a climate of fear, why would anybody be candid?" Michaels says.

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