Leaked eMail stokes climate-change debate

Computer hackers stole and posted private eMails from a climate change research center in Britain.
Computer hackers stole and posted private eMails from a climate change research center in Britain.

Students’ Social Security numbers and other personally identifying information aren’t the only data that campus IT administrators must secure, as an embarrassing and likely politically motivated security breach last week reveals: Computer hackers have broken into a server at a well-respected climate change research center in Britain and posted hundreds of private eMail messages and documents online, stoking debate over whether some scientists have overstated the case for man-made climate change.

The University of East Anglia, in eastern England, said in a statement Nov. 21 that the hackers had entered the server and stolen data at its Climatic Research Unit, a leading global research center on climate change. The university said police are investigating the theft of the information but could not confirm if all the materials posted online are genuine.

More than a decade of correspondence between leading British and U.S. scientists is included in about 1,000 eMail messages and 3,000 documents posted on web sites following the security breach last week. A leading climate change scientist whose private eMails are included in the documents said the leaks might have been aimed at undermining next month’s global climate summit in Denmark.

Kevin Trenberth, of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Colorado, said he believes the hackers deliberately distributed only those documents that could help attempts by skeptics to undermine the scientific consensus on man-made climate change.

Trenberth, a well-respected atmospheric scientist, said it did not appear that all the documents stolen from the university had been distributed on the internet by the hackers.

The leaks were seized on by climate change skeptics, who claim the correspondence shows collusion between scientists to overstate the case for global warming–and proof that some have manipulated evidence.

“Words fail me,” Stephen McIntyre–a blogger whose climateaudit.org web site challenges popular thinking on climate change–wrote on the site following the leak of the messages.

In a telephone interview from Colorado Nov. 22, Trenberth noted the breach comes “right before the Copenhagen debate.”

“I’m sure that is not a coincidence,” said.

At least 65 world leaders will attend the Copenhagen climate summit in December as representatives of 191 nations seek agreement on a new global treaty on limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.

Trenberth, a lead author on the 2001 and 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, said he had found 102 of his own eMail messages posted online. “I personally feel violated,” he said. “I’m appalled at the very selective use of the eMails, and the fact they’ve been taken out of context.”

In one of the stolen messages, Trenberth is quoted as saying “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

He said the comment is presented by skeptics as evidence scientists can’t explain some trends that appear to contradict their stance on climate change. Trenberth explained his phrase was actually contained in a paper he wrote about the need for better monitoring of global warming to explain the anomalies–in particular, improved recording of rising sea surface temperatures.

In another eMail message posted online, and unrelated to Trenberth, the British research center’s director, Phil Jones, wrote that he had used a “trick” to “hide the decline” in a chart detailing recent global temperatures. Jones has denied manipulating evidence and insisted his comment had been misunderstood. He said in a statement Nov. 21 that he’d used the word trick colloquially, “as in a clever thing to do.”

Trenberth acknowledged that language used by some colleagues in the hacked eMails “looks awkward at best,” particularly messages that criticize climate change skeptics.

The University of East Anglica said that information published online had been selected deliberately to undermine “the strong consensus that human activity is affecting the world’s climate in ways that are potentially dangerous.”

“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 university said in a statement.


University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit

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