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Sunday, July 25, 2010


Cooking the planet, not the books

Last year, controversy swirled around British climate researchers after leaked e-mails suggested that they had "cooked the books" on climate research by manipulating evidence, harassing opponents and suppressing dissenting opinions. The uproar triggered several investigations, all of which exonerated the scientists involved. Damage has been done, however: The furor has eroded public support for action against climate change.

Predictably, media outlets have not been as quick or as loud in correcting the record as they have been in trumpeting the alleged shortcomings of the research. Yet the record of global warming is unmistakable and the link to human behavior undeniable. That is the real story and one that everyone should understand.

Last November, someone broke into the computer system of the University of East Anglia in England and gained access to thousands of e-mails and other documents at its Climate Research Unit. The hacker then leaked the materials, triggering charges that the researchers had committed various misdeeds to make the case for global warming: Allegedly, they had obstructed attempts to share information, manipulated data and tried to silence researchers whose opinions they opposed.

The revelations led to the launch of five investigations, all of which have backed the climate researchers and rejected the criticisms of global-warming skeptics. The former head of the Climate Research Unit, Dr. Phil Jones, who temporarily resigned pending the results of the inquiry, was reinstated when a British panel concluded that "the rigor and honesty" of CRU scientists are not in doubt. A U.S. researcher, Dr. Michael Mann, who was also tarred, was exonerated when a separate investigation at his university found that he "did not engage or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scholarly activities."

The British review did acknowledge that the scientists' behavior was not above reproach; in particular, their reluctance to release data supporting their conclusions was wrong and a chart they produced was "misleading." They did not "display the proper degree of openness" required under Britain's public record laws. On one of the most damning charges — Dr. Jones' admission in an e-mail that he had used a "trick" to hide a problem with the data — the British report concluded that the procedure he used was acceptable in principle but should have been described more fully. He had argued that he was using the word in a benign sense and did not mean that he was misleading anyone.

Most significantly, there is no reason to believe that the scientists' actions undermined the credibility of the climate change studies to which they contributed. The House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee, which looked into the charges, found that there was nothing "that might undermine the conclusions" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group that includes the world's leading climate scientists and won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ascertain the degree and causes of global warming. That finding — that global warming was serious and was caused by human behavior — was echoed in a review issued earlier this month by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Other studies agree. In May, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering released an authoritative analysis that concluded that "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems."

That has not convinced the skeptics. Since one of the review panels was put together and paid for by the University of East Anglia, critics charge it was bought and biased.

What is especially troubling is the fact that increasingly the general public is skeptical about the reality and provenance of climate change. The e-mail controversy dovetailed with questions about the validity of the IPCC process after the organization was accused of exaggerating glacial melt in the Himalayas. While those specific criticisms were legitimate, the notion that they invalidated all the IPCC work was not. The overwhelming majority of scientists support its conclusions.

Plainly, climate scientists need to change the ways they do their work. They may be smug and quick to ostracize dissenters at times, but that does not make them wrong. The IPCC needs formal mechanisms to ensure that its decisions are objective and transparent. Equally important is the need to ensure that the facts are publicized. Media outlets that sensationalized this scandal eight months ago should now give equal prominence to the conclusions of the review panels.

Scientists may not have shown exemplary behavior, but they did not fundamentally alter the conclusions of their work: Climate change is real. Human beings are the primary cause.

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