Climate emails: Storm or yawn?

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe release, again, comes just before a UN climate summit, this time in Durban

Another year, another UN climate summit on the horizon... and another release of emails hacked from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia.

It's like 2009 all over again, minus the Copenhagen snow.

To some of climate science's regular critics, the latest release is another reason for doubt.

"Michael Mann, Phil Jones, Ben Santer, Tom Wigley, Kevin Trenberth, Keith Briffa - all your favourite Climategate characters are here, once again caught red-handed in a series of emails exaggerating the extent of Anthropogenic Global Warming, while privately admitting to one another that the evidence is nowhere near as a strong as they'd like it to be," writes James Delingpole in the UK's Telegraph.

Over at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program, has a different take.

"These leftover emails should be met with a collective yawn," she says.

"It's time to condemn the real perpetrators in this story: the hackers who stole and released university property. The hackers and their allies are resorting to desperate measures to distract the public when our focus should be on how to respond to climate change."

With more than 5,000 emails in the file (posted on a Russian server), plus assorted documents including papers relating to various Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects, there's much more here than anyone has been able to trawl through thus far.

image copyrightOther
image captionUEA's Prof Phil Jones may find some more phrases he wishes he hadn't written

Anyone, that is, apart from the person in whose hard drive they have languished for the last two years.

Because unless appearances are very, very misleading, they were hacked from UEA in the same attack that led to the 2009 posting.

Some of the emails in the new release, for example, appear to be continuations of conversations that emerged back then - you can even find the infamous "hide the decline" phrase.

Whoever hacked the documents and whoever's releasing them - code-name FOIA 2011 - leaves an intriguing clue to his or her rationale, in a file released with the hacked material.

"'One dollar can save a life' - the opposite must also be true," he/she writes.

"Poverty is a death sentence. Nations must invest $37 trillion in energy technologies by 2030 to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at sustainable levels."

One hesitates to dive into anyone else's mind on the basis of a few words (remember trying to interpret Eric Cantona's famous "when the seagulls follow the trawler" speech back in 1995?); but as far as I can see, the only logical explanation is that the writer thinks curbing grenhouse gas emissions will cost so much that the developing world will be left poverty-stricken as a result.

It's odd, because the poorest nations on the planet - through the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) bloc, the Small Island Developing States (SIDs) bloc, and the Africa Group representing the poorest continent - are calling for action louder than just about anyone else in the world.

What does FOIA 2011 know that they don't? What umbilical connection to the global poor does he/she have that governments and charities and UN agencies dealing with poverty do not?

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe majority of poor countries lobby for more, not less, action on climate change

If the emails disproved man-made climate change, he/she would have a point.

But judging from what I have read, they do not.

As with the 2009 release, there are hugely important caveats in any kind of interpretation.

We have access only to a tiny fraction of the hacked emails (FOIA 2011 claims to have 220,000 more), begging the questions of who selected these and on what basis - and whether they were tampered with before release.

With all that in mind, there is, to be sure, a list of phrases in the emails as presented to us that surely the protagonists will wish they had not committed to record, in the same way that UEA's Phil Jones admitted back in 2010 that he had written several "very awful emails".

But what's interesting is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off - often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.

"Mike, the figure you sent is very deceptive," writes Tom Wigley from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, who emerged from the 2009 bruhaha as a stickler for evidence-related communication and reprises that role here, to Penn State's Michael Mann in 2009.

"Would you agree that there is no convincing evidence for kilimanjaro (sic) glacier melt being due to recent warming (let alone man-made warming?)" asks Geoff Jenkins, ex-UK Met Office, of UEA's Phil Jones in 2004.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe IEA said trillions of dollars are needed for energy, irrespective of climate curbs

"The Mann/Jones GRL paper was truly pathetic and should never have been published," declaims Ray Bradley of the University of Massachussetts in 2003.

Robust debate? You bet.

A desire to prevent material being released through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests? Absolutely - as acknowleged, apologised for and dealt with during the 2010 inquiries into the incidents of 2009.

But a concerted plot to deceive the world?

I've yet to find it; and, judging by what he/she has highlighted, so has FOIA 2011, despite having had the unique opportunity to scour the emails for two years.

The $37 trillion figure, by the way, probably derives from the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook for 2009, released shortly before the Copenhagen summit.

If so, it's being mis-used here.

The IEA said the cumulative investment needed to meet the growth in projected energy demand by 2030 was $26 trillion.

Keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million would require an additional $10.5 trillion, they said, because of the more expensive technologies that would be needed.

In some reports, these figures were combined to form $37 trillion. But the bulk of that is to feed power to the poverty-stricken people FOIA 2011 cares so much about - nothing to do with climate change.

My guess is that several readers will have fingers poised over the "comments" button to ask "why do you call it a hack with such certainty?" (I've had a few emails already asking the same thing in reference to my news article.)

I have it from a very good source that it absolutely was a hack, not a leak by a "concerned" UEA scientist, as has been claimed in some circles.

The Norfolk Police clearly see it as a criminal act too, a spokesman telling me that "the contents [of the new release] will be of interest to our investigation which is ongoing".

Groups like UCS are, however, beginning to ask where that investigation has got to.

I have been passed information stemming from an FoI request to Norfolk Police showing that over the past 12 months, they have spent precisely £5,649.09 on the investigation.

All of that was disbursed back in February; and all but £80.05 went on "invoices for work in the last six months".

Of all the figures surrounding the current story, that is perhaps the one that most merits further interrogation.