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'Climategate' distracts from a crucial issue

The purloined e-mails of climate scholars raise legitimate questions that must be addressed. But their work is a drop in a global flood of evidence that something critical is going on.

December 09, 2009|By Glen MacDonald

For the past week, I have been riveted by the disclosures and diatribes swirling around Climategate. If you haven't followed the story, it began when a hacker gained access to e-mails at the Climatic Research Unit at the British University of East Anglia and released private correspondence.

Some of the leaked correspondence implies that Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit, used a "trick" based on splicing together different data sets to hide an apparent decrease in 20th century temperatures. The origin of the trick was attributed to another scientist, Michael E. Mann of Penn State. Other e-mails suggest a conspiracy to keep data out of the hands of climate warming skeptics, to destroy communications and to suppress certain scientific publications.

Global warming skeptics have pounced on the e-mails as proof that climate scientists manipulate data and arbitrarily dismiss the work of scholars who hold contrarian views.

The snippets from the purloined e-mails do not provide a full context to the disturbing quotes, and I am not willing to condemn two highly talented and dedicated scientists without a full accounting. Investigations are taking place at East Anglia and Penn State. I trust these will be thorough and fair.

As illegal and unethical as this electronic theft may be, the e-mails do raise legitimate questions that must be addressed by the scientists involved and the climate community at large. The troubling questions fall into two categories -- those of scientific ethics and responsibility, and those related to the veracity of evidence that the world is warming at an alarming rate and magnitude.

Even under the best-case scenario, it can be argued that the science of climate change has been let down by what is contained in the e-mails. The perceived value of scientific research in formulating and implementing policy is greatly reduced if there is any question about its validity or any evidence of overriding bias by the researchers. The release of the stolen e-mails on the eve of the Copenhagen summit seems aimed to impede any real progress there. Even if they were nothing more than verbal rants and without underlying malfeasance, the troubling statements have handed the militant skeptics a platform from which to cast aspersions on the conclusion that the Earth is warming.

So, what if we faced a worst-case scenario and the climatic records from Jones and Mann were spurious? Do we have reason to discount the whole corpus of evidence that the 20th and 21st centuries have experienced an unusual spike in temperatures? The answer is a simple and clear no.

The climatic data from both Jones and Mann are only two instances of such evidence. Instrumental climate records of 20th century warming trends have been developed by other groups, including NASA. Well before Mann produced his famous "hockey stick" record of unusual 20th century warming relative to the past 1,000 years, there were centuries-long tree-ring records reported from places such as the Arctic that displayed unusually high and persistent warming over the 20th century. Hundreds of records of unusual 20th century warming from glaciers, lake and marine sediments, soil temperatures, tree rings, climate model estimates, etc., have been produced independently by many scientists in many countries.

In the Arctic, where I have worked for 30 years, there is evidence of environmental changes in sensitive ecosystems such as lakes that appear to be unprecedented in recent millenniums. In some cases, Arctic lakes, including ones that I visited as a student, have simply disappeared. Similar temperature-related changes are occurring in many places. We've seen disappearing glaciers from Mt. Kilimanjaro to the Andes, terrestrial plant and animal species expanding their ranges to higher altitudes or latitudes, increasing abundance of tropical/subtropical plankton species off the coast of California, and on and on.

The Jones and Mann reconstructions are drops in a global flood of evidence that something is going on with the world's climate and environments that we had better take note of. The climate change summit in Copenhagen remains completely justified in tackling the issue of climate warming now rather than later. In this regard, Climategate is a dangerous distraction from a frighteningly urgent threat.

We are facing a world of many environmental challenges, of which climate change is one important facet. We will not be able to confront all the threats at once and are faced with difficult decisions of environmental priorities and strategies. One important lesson from Climategate for all environmental scientists is that we must redouble efforts to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards -- and be seen to be upholding those standards. Transparency and openness are not just virtues, they are necessities. For in a world of environmental triage, the production of sound science and public faith in such science are crucial to the ultimate health of the planet.

Glen MacDonald is a climate change scientist, UC presidential chair and director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

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