Video: Hacked e-mails spark debate

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/3/2009 11:18:26 AM ET 2009-12-03T16:18:26

The British university at the center of what climate skeptics are calling "Climategate" on Thursday named an outside reviewer and detailed what would be investigated.

The University of East Anglia said Sir Muir Russell, until recently vice-chancellor at the University of Glasgow, will investigate whether scientists at its prestigious Climate Research Unit fudged data on global warming.

Hundreds of e-mails and other data stolen from university computers and then leaked online late last month have been seized upon by skeptics as proof that scientists conspired to hide evidence that global warming was not as strong as generally believed.

The university says Russell will "examine the leaked e-mail exchanges, other relevant e-mail exchanges and any other information held at CRU to determine whether there is any evidence of the manipulation or suppression of data which is at odds with acceptable scientific practice and may therefore call into question any of the research outcomes."

The university on Tuesday promised a probe, and said CRU Director Phil Jones, would step down for now, but didn't specify what the investigation would encompass. Thursday's announcement was the first acknowledgment that the data itself would be examined.

Russell, who has a degree in physics but is not a climate scientist, said in a statement that "given the nature of the allegations it is right that someone who has no links to either the university or the climate science community looks at the evidence and makes recommendations based on what they find."

The university said Russell would also review:

  • "Review CRU’s policies and practices for acquiring, assembling, subjecting to peer review and disseminating data and research findings, and their compliance or otherwise with best scientific practice.
  • "Review CRU’s compliance or otherwise with the University’s policies and practices regarding requests under the Freedom of Information Act (‘the FOIA’) and the Environmental Information Regulations (‘the EIR’) for the release of data.
  • "Review and make recommendations as to the appropriate management, governance and security structures for CRU and the security, integrity and release of the data it holds."

The University said it expects the review to be done by next spring and that it would then be made public.

'Trick' cited as bias
Jones has been accused by skeptics of man-made climate change of manipulating data to support his research. In particular, many have pointed to a leaked e-mail in which Jones writes that he had used a "trick" to "hide the decline" in a chart detailing recent global temperatures. Jones has denied manipulating evidence and insisted his comment had been misunderstood, explaining that he'd used the word trick "as in a clever thing to do."

Trevor Davies, the university's pro-vice-chancellor for research, said there was nothing in the stolen material to suggest the peer-reviewed publications by the unit "are not of the highest-quality of scientific investigation and interpretation."

But the correspondence from Jones and others — which appears to include discussions of how to keep critical work out of peer-reviewed journals and efforts to shield scientists' data and methodology from outside scrutiny — have been seized upon by those who are fighting efforts to impose caps on emissions of carbon dioxide as evidence of a scientific conspiracy.

Davies defended Jones and his colleagues, saying the publication of their e-mails "is the latest example of a sustained and, in some instances, a vexatious campaign" to undermine climate science.

The sentiment was echoed by Nicholas Stern, a leading climate change economist in Britain, who said the person or people who posted the leaked e-mails had muddled the debate at a critical moment.

"It has created confusion and confusion never helps scientific discussions," Stern told reporters in London Tuesday. "The degree of skepticism among real scientists is very small."

U.S. Republicans seize on e-mails
In the United States, Republicans on the House science committee on Wednesday questioned two prominent Obama administration scientists — White House science adviser John Holdren and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco — about the e-mails.

Both officials insisted that the evidence of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels and other man-made sources is too strong to be discounted, and cited that the national science academies of the U.S. and many other industrial countries have come to that same conclusion.

In the Senate, James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and a vocal skeptic of global warming, has also called for hearings on the e-mails.

In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the environment committee, Inhofe said the e-mails could have far-reaching policy implications for the United States. Both Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency are taking action to curb global warming based on a report that uses data produced by the Climate Research Unit.

Governments are in the final days of preparations for the Copenhagen conference, which is due to outline a new climate change agreement. Stern said the stakes were very high, explaining that if countries did not manage to reach agreement, world temperatures could rise by five degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, making much of the world uninhabitable.

"We have a moment now when we could get a strategy agreed," Stern said. "If it were to dissolve in disarray it would not be easy to put this momentum back together again."

A group of scientists who run the RealClimate Web site — including Gavin Schmidt at the NASA space agency and Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University — have now begun posting links to their data sources online in the stated interest of making the science "as open and transparent as possible."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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