Can we trust the leaked Climate Research Unit emails and code?

There has been a lot of fuss this last week regarding the leaking (or was it the stealing?) of some emails and code from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, one of the key groups involved in research relating to climate change. Sceptics of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are claiming the leaked data shows AGW to be a scam, or at least that members of the CRU, who are claimed to have critical influence over climate research and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have been cooking their data and trying to silence those who dissent from their viewpoint.

With blogs posting extracts from the emails and code, at least one site claiming to have searchable copies of the emails and the journalist George Monbiot, who believes in AGW, distancing himself from the CRU and calling for Phil Jones to be sacked it seems a lot of people are taking this data at face value. Indeed Monbiot’s piece states, with regards to the leaked emails:

I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them.

The question is why should we take it at face value? It seems to me we have the following reasons to do so:

Of course it is possible that fake emails or code snippets have been added or that some emails or code snippets have been modified by those who hacked/leaked the data concerned. However, given the confirmation of the leaked data and the authenticity of part of it, along with the level of detail involved, it seems to me that bulk of the data probably is genuine. On that basis, I am provisionally willing to treat the emails and code snippets as genuine.

The question then is what conclusions can we draw from these emails and the code? I intend to tackle this question over a series of forthcoming articles. For the remainder of this post, I’ll set out my current position.

With regards to climate research I am merely an interested layman, albeit one who believes that environmental issues are important and that humans need to be more careful about the impact they have on the ecosystems they exploit and live in. I am of the view that AGW is probably happening and is probably accounting for most of the observed rise in temperatures of the last century or so. However I have not looked in detail at the science for a long time (I last did so in the late 80s and early 90s), and I have to concede I have been accepting the “consensus” regarding this issue to a large degree on trust.

If the charges (e.g. cooking data, hiding data or suppressing critics) being laid against the CRU members named in these emails and the code are correct, then clearly a major team of scientists behind the theory of AGW cannot be trusted. Whether this means the science behind AGW as a whole cannot be trusted depends on how much reliance has been made on their work and how many other people involved have also been guilty of the alleged sharp practices.

One might ask why this matters. The answer is simple. A lot of the world’s public policy (such as Gordon Brown’s latest plans in this area) is premised on the basis that AGW is happening and is likely to have deleterious effects on humans and the other species inhabiting this planet, and that we will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to alleviate these effects.

This not just a spat between scientists, there are whole political agendas riding on this, whether it be the fossil fuel industries fighting against an agenda that would see the usage of their products curtailed, other energy suppliers (nuclear, solar, wind, etc) trying to get more support for their products or politicians seeking to exploit AGW (or AGW-scepticism) to further their own agendas. If AGW theory becomes widely disbelieved as a result of this episode, it could result in a huge change in the direction of public policy.

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