ClimateSpin: Using the Stolen Emails to Cripple Policy

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The stolen email narrative is beginning to take shape, in a way that is both disingenuous and damaging, and a prime example is attached and linked here.

This article, by Stephen Hayward in the Weekly Standard, is a mash of good information and bad analysis – a strident overstatement of the case “proven” by the emails that were stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and released last month. It also seems to provide a case study for how the emails will be used to undermine action by people who are not well-informed about climate science and can be misled with a few sensible-sounding references.

It’s appropriate to acknowledge – on this and every occasion – that the emails in question, 13 years worth, contain some embarrassing excerpts. They show some of the quoted scientists to be frustrated, sometimes petty and, in a few unfortunate cases, prepared to hide data from critics.

An independent analysis of the emails, however, show that they did not, in any way, undermine the scientific foundation for our understanding of how and why the climate is changing. Even Hayward acknowledges that “Climate change is a genuine phenomenon, and there is a nontrivial risk of major consequences in the future.”

Having acknowledged that, however, he spent thousands of words arguing that the emails had inflicted a fatal blow on the science of climate change. He used the existence of the emails to argue points that are not, in fact, supported by the documents themselves.

He implied, for example, that the emails undermined the “notorious ‘hockey stick’ ” – a climate reconstruction graph that several of the email correspondents had worked on together.

This is simply not true. There is no compelling new criticism of the hockey stick in the emails. There is evidence that the scientists had debated fervently among themselves, working to ensure that they could account as far as possible for the potential problems in the reconstruction. There is evidence that they worked to withhold data from an enthsiastic critic of the “stick.”

But the emails go no further – and in dismissing this important scientific study, the Standard overlooks a huge body of independent evidence that shows that the hockey stick can be replicated by other scientists, using other information sources and other methodologies. That’s one of the most respected mechanisms for confirming a scientific theory: ensuring that results can be replicated.

In concentrating on the hockey stick, the critics are trying to pick at what they perceive to be a weak spot, and in doing so, they draw focus away from a larger body of evidence. It is a public relations sleight of hand.

The most serious charges arising from the emails is that the scientists tried to hide data – in one cases that the director of the Climatic Research Unit, Phil Jones, urged others to delete information that might be made  available through freedom of information laws in the UK. This is a very serious charge that the University of East Anglia is investigating. Jones has stepped down pending a resolution.

But, without justifying any alleged activities, it’s worth looking at the behavior of the critic from whom the scientists sought to hide data. Canadian mining official Stephen McIntyre has been a tireless critic of the scientists in question, reinterpreting their work in a way that tends to undermine their conclusions. That, too, is fair game in science – within reason.

But even since the stolen emails were released, McIntyre has shown himself capable of handling information in a way that must lead you to question his own motives – even his integrity. If he is capable in the current circumstances of removimng critical pieces of text from an email to substantially change its meaning, you could understand why the scientists would have been reticent to give him their data – to invite him to approach their carefully wrought science with the same, agenda-driven determination.

That, ultimately, is the issue here: what is the agenda of the people who stole the CRU emails? And what is the agenda of those who are so loudly criticizing the scientists as a result?

“Hacking” into the East Anglia system was not the act of some under-challenged 18-year-old. This is one of the more sophisticated computer systems in the world. Breaking in would have demanded serious expertise. And rounding up 13 years of emails from within that computer would have been a considerable additional technical burden.

Then, someone sifted through those emails, choosing to release 1,000, but aggressively highlighting just a few. This again is not the act of a youthful “hacker” indulging in a bit of harmless mischief. Someone spent a great deal of time on this project – someone who had a serious motivation to make us all doubt climate science.

There is, at this point, no proof that the people in question work for the fossil fuel industry. There are suspicious trails leading through Russia and Saudi Arabia, but no proof. There also is no proof that people like Hayward are other than credulous dupes of a decades-long campaign to make us all question climate science.

But when you look at the way this information is being used – when you read accounts like this, which allege a body of evidence which does not, in fact, exist within the email documents – you have to be suspicious.

There are lots of good reasons to address climate change, because doing so has may other benefits. Conserving energy saves money. Searchng for affordable alternatives to fossil fuels extends the supply of a finite resource. Avoiding the burning of fossil fuels promises health benefits for people around the world, and especially for those who live in crowded, polluted cities or near coal-fired electrical plants.

There are also real dividends to be had from being first in the race to develop great, green alternative technologies. You don’t have to be a climate activist to benefit from reacting to the threat of climate change.

But failing to react, especially on the strength of an agenda-driven and poorly informed argument – an argument that misinterprets or misrepresents information that was tainted from the moment it was stolen, would be a serious mistake.

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