The release of a series of e-mails apparently stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was timed so that they would hit the news immediately before the Copenhagen climate conference. They didn’t seem to affect the conference itself (where deals appear to have collapsed under their own weight), but they did spawn over a half-dozen inquiries, all of which cleared the researchers of anything other than a cavalier attitude towards the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless, whoever was behind that original release has loosed another batch in advance of this year’s Durban climate meeting.
The last time out, only Saudi Arabia seemed to reference the contents of the e-mails at the Copenhagen meeting itself. And this time, indications are that a significant agreement is very unlikely, so it’s not obvious that the e-mail release will even register. This is especially true because the e-mails have come from the same stash as the original batch. And, in the mean time, multiple inquiries have concluded that the e-mails didn’t raise questions about the validity of climate science, although individual researchers displayed a cavalier attitude towards sharing data and Freedom of Information Act requests.
It also seems likely that the ones that sounded the worst came out in the first release. The quotes from the new ones that are making the rounds have been completely divorced from their context, and typically constitute a single sentence from a much larger conversation.
To see how misleading this is, it’s easy to take an example. One scientist is quoted as saying, “The trick may be to decide on the main message and use that to guide what’s included and what is left out.” On its own, that sounds like an attempt to start with a conclusion and work your way backwards to selectively present data. And, in fact, many blogs are predictably presenting it that way.
However, the surrounding text makes it clear that the author was describing the best approach to writing and editing a half-page summary. The full text provides a very different impression:
“I think the hardest, yet most important part, is to boil the section down to 0.5 pages. In
looking over your good outline, sent back on Oct. 17 (my delay is due to fatherdom just
after this time), you cover ALOT. The trick may be to decide on the main message and use
that to guid [sic] what’s included and what is left out. For the IPCC, we need to know what is
relevant and useful for assessing recent and future climate change. Moreover, we have to
have solid data—not inconclusive information.”
That quote is just one of over 100 instances of the word “trick” in the files, a term that caused a lot of hyperventilating the first time around. But most of them show how the term is actually used in very boring contexts, as a way of referring to a technique: “Tricks like regressing out the (known) NAO-signal or smoothing the
response patterns (hoping to further reduce the noise) don’t help much. I expected this to work better, so I may have to look at this again.”
There’s also a bit of an indication that those people doing the excerpting don’t understand the state of the science. For example, one frequently quoted excerpt states, “It is inconceivable that policymakers will be
willing to make billion-and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.” But the problems with regional climate projects are well known, having been discussed in a report from the National Academies of Science and been named one of the key areas of uncertainty in climate science in Nature.
So it seems unlikely that the new e-mails tell us anything we didn’t already know. Again, the most striking thing is that some of the climate scientists responded to the aggressive demands of people who doubted their work by going into a defensive posture and refusing to cooperate with their ethical (and perhaps legal) requirements for sharing scientific data.
What’s striking this time around is that the scientists involved, rather than circling the wagons, are actively engaging the public and press. The RealClimate blog contains a post in which NASA’s Gavin Schmidt offers, “If anyone has any questions about anything they see that seems interesting, let us know in the comments and we’ll see if we can provide some context.” And many scientists are helping provide the press with information on the e-mails, leading to some detailed reports like one at The Guardian.
So far, the event hasn’t received much attention in the wider media, probably because of the sense that we’ve all been here before.
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