The Truth About the ClimateGate

Hacked e-mails have compromised scientists—but not the science itself.

Few of us would escape with reputations intact if our e-mail were made public, and the scientists ensnared in "climategate" are no exception. Writing "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years … to hide the decline" makes Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, who typed that in 1999, look as if he is pulling a fast one to conceal a trend toward global cooling. And when another scientist wrote that "I can't see either of these papers being in the next I.P.C.C. report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow—even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" it looks like a blatant attempt to censor opposing views.

Those of you who know I consider the science of anthropogenic global warming solid probably expect me to explain that the hacked e-mails don't mean what they seem, and that, even if they did, it would not undercut the multiple lines of evidence showing that greenhouse-gas emissions are causing climate change. All true. But first I have to say that the e-mails reveal two tendencies that have set back attempts to show the public and policymakers that climate change is real and serious.

Many of the e-mails refer to attempts to evade requests from critics for raw data, some of which comes from national meteorological offices that, when they sent Jones the data, required confidentiality for hardly more reason than "we can, so let's." Really, all climate data "needs to be publicly available and well documented," Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, a leading researcher on the climate-hurricane link, wrote in an open letter to climate scientists. This includes "how the data were treated and manipulated, what assumptions were made in assembling the data sets, and what data [were] omitted and why." To be sure, most of the data, and even the computer codes used to analyze them, have been freely available for years (not buried in Al Gore's backyard). But all the data and methodology should be in the public domain. Yes, critics will cherry-pick and play "gotcha," as they have with the e-mails, but the science of climate change is robust enough to withstand that.

Other e-mails reflect the ugly politicization of climate science, which is unending. Climate scientists have been subject to harassment and character assassination (Google "Ben Santer" and "Wall Street Journal" to see what I mean), and just last week, Rep. James Sensenbrenner accused the researchers of "scientific fascism" and, with GOP colleagues, made the stunningly stupid demand that the EPA therefore stop regulating greenhouse emissions. It may be human nature to respond in kind; in one e-mail, a scientist wishes he could beat up a leading denier. But the scientists should be bigger than the know-nothings. Rather than "circl[ing] the wagons," as Curry put it, respond to misinformation with physics, data, and analysis as, for instance, the RealClimate blog does.

Especially since the science—paleoclimate data, heating in the stratosphere relative to the troposphere, and other fingerprints of manmade climate change—is so compelling. Take the two papers by climate skeptics that triggered that "redefine the peer-reviewed literature" e-mail. Both were cited and discussed in the IPCC report—and have now been shown to be riddled with errors. Science worked as it should, good research crowding out bad.

Climategate has tarnished the image of climate research, but hasn't undermined its substance. At the risk of invoking the silver-lining cliché, maybe climategate will spur scientists to change how they conduct their research and engage with critics.