Email hackers way off the mark

The editorial is, of course, referring to the recently hacked emails (more than a thousand) purporting to show what the climate change skeptics call “climategate” (a supposed international conspiracy to hide the truth about global cooling).

“There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the (medieval warming period)’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.” — Editorial from www.realclimate.org

The editorial is, of course, referring to the recently hacked emails (more than a thousand) purporting to show what the climate change skeptics call “climategate” (a supposed international conspiracy to hide the truth about global cooling). Actually, the emails don’t show much of anything. What is revealing though, is the spin that the skeptics have been trying to put on them, so let’s take a closer look at a couple of the more popular ones.

The first is the “trick” and “hidden” email: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Sounds pretty damning, until you look at what they were originally referring to. The researchers were using “proxy” measurements of temperatures that have extended over hundreds or even thousands of years. Proxies include information from ancient tree rings, ice cores, corals, and lake sediments. In this way, they can compare today’s climate to the climate of the past. However, the data from the proxies that the researchers were using in this particular case ended in 1981, so they looked a round for the next best thing and found . . . hmm, thermometer records (that’ll do the “trick”).

As for “hid(ing) the decline”, this refers to a phenomenon that Keith Briffa and others had written about in various scientific journals in the late 1990’s, where certain boreal tree species were not reflecting recent global warming in their tree ring densities (though other non-boreal species like the bristlecone pine were).

So this time they applied the “trick” of using thermometer records to “hide” the decline . . . and they did let the world know about it in the scientific journals. Other researchers thought that maybe they should have stuck to bristlecone pines. But the real message is that they shouldn’t have used the word “hide”, since email hackers obviously don’t read scientific journals and they probably can’t tell the difference between a bristlecone pine and a trembling aspen.

The second email contains the following: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” This refers to the slight plateau of global temperatures in the last 10 years (though every single year of this century has been warmer than any year of the past century — except 1998’s massive El Nino year — and the first half of 2009 turned out to be the fifth warmest on record).

The author, Kevin Trenberth, is obviously a little ticked off regarding our scientific ignorance on the matter, but the email hackers have taken this to be another top-secret admission from the Bolshevik overlords.

However, if they simply looked into the matter, they might have discovered that Trenberth wrote much the same thing in the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (2009, 1: 19-27): “. . . why isn’t the temperature continuing to go up?” and “. . . surely we have an adequate system to track (what is going on)? Well, it seems the answer is no, we do not. But we should!” Trenberth then goes on to look at all the pertinent issues: a dip in solar activity (but it’s not enough to fully explain things); more clouds reflecting more heat into space (still not enough); the oceans acting as heat sinks (possibly, but we don’t know for sure). So there you go, folks: science can give us lots of shiny plastic toys, but it still doesn’t know absolutely everything about Mother Nature. That’s why we have to use statistics. That’s why the notion of insurance applies not just to cars and houses, but also to decent climates for growing food.

In the meantime, the director of the centre where the hacked emails originated has voluntarily stepped aside until a formal inquiry into the matter is completed. Now we’ll have a chance to see who’s at fault: the scientists who didn’t change their passwords often enough, or the hackers who don’t read scientific journals.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to wyddfa23@telus.net