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In e-mails, science of warming is hot debate

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

It began with an anonymous Internet posting, and a link to a wonky set of e-mails and files. Stolen, apparently, from a research center in Britain, the files showed the leaders of climate-change science discussing flaws in their own data, and seemingly scheming to muzzle their critics.

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Now it has mushroomed into what is being called "Climate-gate," a scandal that has done what many slide shows and public-service ads could not: focus public attention on the science of a warming planet.

Except now, much of that attention is focused on the science's flaws. Leaked just before international climate talks begin in Copenhagen -- the culmination of years of work by scientists to raise alarms about greenhouse-gas emissions -- the e-mails have cast those scientists in a political light and given new energy to others who think the issue of climate change is all overblown.

The e-mails don't say that: They don't provide proof that human-caused climate change is a lie or a swindle.

But they do raise hard questions. In an effort to control what the public hears, did prominent scientists who link climate change to human behavior try to squelch a back-and-forth that is central to the scientific method? Is the science of global warming messier than they have admitted?

The stolen electronic files include more than 1,000 e-mails and 3,000 documents, all taken from servers at the Climatic Research Unit, a world-famous center at the University of East Anglia in Britain.

Phil Jones, the unit's director, wrote a colleague that he would "hide" a problem with data from Siberian tree rings with more accurate local air temperature measurements. In another message, Jones talks about keeping research he disagrees with out of a U.N. report, "even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

Since then, Jones has stepped down temporarily. And Pennsylvania State University is exploring whether the e-mails, some of which were written by one of its professors, Michael Mann, warrant an investigation. In an interview, Mann said he is confident that neither he nor any of the other researchers whose e-mails were pirated "did anything improper."

But recent debate -- some scientists say the Earth hasn't warmed as predicted over the past 10 years -- show that climate science is still science, with researchers drawing different lessons from the same data. The problem is that it plays out before an audience that won't wait for certainty.

Politicians say, " 'We need to reduce the uncertainty,' and I think that's contributed to a certain mind-set where [climate scientists] try to reduce the uncertainty" when they talk about their research, said Judith Curry, chair of the school of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech. "I'm a little bit worried about that political pressure," she said.

But the climate establishment -- including the U.S. government's top scientists on the subject -- say that nothing in the e-mails disproves their bedrock ideas. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are still gathering in the atmosphere and trapping more of the sun's heat, and the consequences of that will still be dire in the long run, they say.

"Our collective understanding of how the Earth is warming . . . rests on a wealth of scientific information that is very diverse and comes from multiple sources and multiple groups," said Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Regardless of what happened in one place, it doesn't undermine the totality of what we know."


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