Scientists Respond Cautiously to Hijacked Email

I’ve spent several days dithering over whether to weigh in on the recent email heist from a server at the University of East Anglia in the UK. For those who choose to read it that way, the hacked email originally passed among climate scientists worldwide has, rightly or wrongly, provided those who reject the prevailing climate science with enough radioactive ammo to fill Yucca Mountain.

Some high-profile California researchers figure prominently in the material. In a searchable database of the messages, for example, the name of Ben Santer, a climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Lab came up 173 times. Stanford’s Steve Schneider came up 71 times. Both are outspoken defenders of science supporting the human contribution to global warming.

Another scientist quoted or referred to (99 times), Kevin Trenberth, is a name familiar to readers of this blog and listeners to Climate Watch radio coverage. Trenberth is a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO.  I’ve interviewed him mostly about the role of the Pacific oscillation known as El Nino in climate patterns. After the decade’s worth of email came to light, I wrote Trenberth for a response. His reply may not be entirely original. Some lines have also been attributed to a spokesman for the university whose servers were invaded. In any case, here’s Trenberth’s response to Climate Watch:

It is a matter of concern that data, including personal information about individuals, appears to have been illegally taken and a criminal investigation is underway. The selective publication of some stolen emails and other papers taken out of context is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with this issue in a responsible way. The volume of material published and its piecemeal nature makes it impossible to confirm what proportion is genuine.  Many elements have been published selectively on a number of websites. Generally the items are out of context, incomplete and very misleading. Some others are wildly misinterpreted and have a simple explanation.

The material published relates to the work of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and other scientists around the world.  Many of the scientists featured in the emails with [Phil] Jones [of East Anglia] have web sites and freely and openly make available their papers, presentations, blogs and other information. Several of the emails document the detailed procedures used in the IPCC AR4 Fourth Assessment report for Chapter 3 (for which Phil Jones and Kevin Trenberth were coordinating lead authors) and other chapters. They actually reveal the integrity of the process and the hard work that goes into such an assessment.

Trenberth then went on to cite some specific “examples of misinterpretations:”

From Kevin Trenberth, interpreted as a failure of computer models:

“The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.”

This refers to the inability of our current observations from satellites and in situ to account for where all the energy has gone. A paper on this is available here:

Trenberth, K. E., 2009: An imperative for climate change planning: tracking Earth’s global energy. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 1, 19-27, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2009.06.001. [PDF]

This paper tracks the effects of the changing Sun, how much heat went into the land, ocean, melting Arctic sea ice, melting Greenland and Antarctica, and changes in clouds, along with changes in greenhouse gases. We can track this well for 1993 to 2003, but not for 2004 to 2008. It does NOT mean that global warming is not happening, on the contrary, it suggests that we simply can’t fully explain why 2008 was as cool as it was, but with an implication that warming will come back, as it has. In 2008 there was a La Nina event.  We now have an El Nino underway.

Kevin Trenberth

Meanwhile, the university’s Climate Research Unit has posted a series of rebuttals. Still, this digital hijacking is disturbing on a lot of levels. Whether you accept the prevailing climate science or consider the email damning evidence to the contrary, it is a distraction from the business at hand in Copenhagen and a public relations train wreck for the IPCC and many of its most eminent contributing scientists. You can bet that it won’t be forgotten when a major climate bill hits the floor of the U.S. Senate for debate, early next year. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, vocal critic of global warming science, is already calling for an investigation.