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December 2009 printable subscriber newsletter

Ecologist

27th November, 2009

In this month's newsletter we look at the implications of a plan to privatise Indonesia's coastline; we ask whether fossil carbon and tree carbon are equivalent; examine whether the Arctic will become more dangerous as it melts; and wonder whether evolution has anything to offer environmentalists. To download, scroll to the bottom of the page...

Make no mistake: the emails from the University of East Anglia climate scientists which were obtained from a hacked server and posted onto the internet in November paint a shocking picture.

The emails reveal the private conversations of scientists who commanded universal respect amongst environmentalists, politicians and journalists. And they're not pretty...

The headline revelations have been well bandied-about in the mainstream press. In one particularly shocking email, Professor Phil Jones, director of the Climate Research Unit at UEA, tells his US counterpart Professor Michael E Mann that he will try to block the inclusion of a controversial scientific paper in the forthcoming IPCC report, 'even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is'.

In another, perhaps even more disturbing exchange, Professor Jones claims that he will delete an unfavourable temperature record from his computer rather than risk it being made public through a Freedom of Information request - the kind of obfuscation that was more usually associated with the early years of the Bush administration.

The fall-out has been extensive: climate sceptic Lord Lawson has called for a public enquiry; US 'shock-jocks' such as Glenn Beck have salivated over the details in lengthy broadcasts; and environmental commentator George Monbiot used his Guardian column to call for Professor Jones' resignation (which was refused).

The defence mounted has been weak at best: Monbiot resorted to satire in his usually rigorous column; the UEA press office has been at best slow to respond, and scientists writing on the 'Real Climate' blog site - a much-visited forum for climate science updates - dwelt on the fact that the hacking was illegal, and argued, with reference to one particuarly controversial email, that scientists use the word 'trick' all the time to mean 'a good way to deal with a problem'. Really?

Let's be clear what this does and doesn't mean. No, it doesn't invalidate the science that underpins our approach to tackling climate change, which has been verified by dozens of independent research establishments across the globe.

Neither should it have any real impact on the Copenhagen negotiations, which, even if they succeed, will set targets based on very conservative science at any rate.

But what is does do is to serve as a reminder that science is a business, and is subject to exactly the same pressures and compromises that any business faces.

Many of the emails deal with reputational issues, which have a direct bearing on the likelihood of scientists to receive funding for their work. Some deal directly with the problems of finding funding; others hint at the political difficulties with maintaining a scientific neutrality when dealing with an issue that is so emotionally charged.

But to acknowledge this is not to forgive it. Had these emails been hacked from the accounts of prominent climate sceptics, the Ecologist would have been amongst the first to highlight their nefarious content. Our standards must cut both ways.

Mark Anslow,
Editor

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