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Hacked climate change emails–tempest in a teapot or a real storm? Paul Jay talks to Michael Brklacich

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you today from Washington. The controversy over the email leaks—or I should say stolen emails—from the climate research unit at East Anglia University in England is still raging. And if you haven’t followed the controversy, I’ll just quickly fill you in. Somebody hacked into the email system of the East Anglia University, and they uncovered a bunch of emails from Phil Jones and the climate-change research unit at the university and found two or three lines in what are thousands of emails, but these two or three lines are rather, some people think, damning. And I’ll just read them to you quickly. The first of the emails that people are talking about was dated November 1999. And Phil Jones writes, “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.” (Phillip Jones, Director of the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia in Norwich, from email dated November 1999) People are assuming that means to hide the decline in the rate of increase of global warming, which people thought from 1998 to now would continue to rise as it had in the ’90s, but apparently it’s not. Another email that’s been talked about was written after an article written by Paul Hudson of the BBC. Hudson’s article was “Whatever happened to global warming?” where he talks about the same issue: why isn’t global warming continuing over the last 11 years as people had expected it to? This email’s written by Kevin Trenberth to Michael Mann. Now, Michael Mann, if many of you may remember, is the scientist that developed the “hockey stick” theory of climate change, where for the last thousand years or so temperatures were more or less steady, and then around the time of the Industrial Revolution take a big spike up. And everybody has seen this graph that ever saw Al Gore’s film Inconvenient Truth. Anyway, Trendberth writes to Michael Mann and some other scientist in—and, again, this is after Hudson’s article “Whatever happened to global warming?” Well, Trendberth writes, “Well I have my own article on where the heck is global warming?” He goes on to tell us how temperatures in Boulder in October were much colder than expected. He says that the last two days was 30°F. The normal is 69°F. But here’s the line people are talking about. He says, “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.” (Kevin Trenberth, Head of the Climate Analysis Section, National Center for Atmospheric Research, from email dated October 2009) The serious data published in the August BAMS ’09 [Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society] supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming, but the data are surely wrong. Our observation system is inadequate. So this is what everybody’s talking about. Does this shake in any way the scientific foundations of the climate change theory? And joining us now to help us make sense of all this is Mike Brklacich. He’s a professor and chair at the Geography and Environmental Studies Department at Carleton University, and he’s the lead author of the North American Chapter by the Working Group 2 of the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] report, which was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2007. Thanks for joining us, Mike.


JAY: How do you react to these emails?

BRKLACICH: I’ll start off by saying I’d encourage people not to overreact. We’re talking about long-term changes in climate change; we’re not talking about what’s happening in the weather over the last few days, few weeks, or even last few years. So I think let’s keep that perspective in mind. The second point I guess I’d want to make in terms of why we ought not to overreact is the research that has been discussed, the hockey stick and so on, has been published as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. I’ve been involved in research now since the late 1970s, early 1980s, going on 30 years, and I cannot think of a peer-reviewed process that is more thorough than what has happened with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The important part, then, with IPCC is that it’s reviewed by the literally hundreds of people, hundreds of scientists, not just a couple of scientists that would be the normal peer-review process. I’ve never been involved in such a thorough review. So I think it’d be very hard to imagine that there would be a conspiracy theory of some sort. I just don’t understand how that many people could conspire to do the same thing at the same time over a lengthy period of time. The final point I want to make is we’re talking about climate change here, not global warming. There’s many aspects to climate, not just the temperature. And when I look at all of the different changes that are occurring in various aspects of climate, and they’re all trending the same way—. We have temperature going up. We have sea-level rise occurring at the same time. When we look at the amount of ice that covers the northern pole now, it’s on the decline. All of these things are trending in the same way. And what I liken this to is if we think about going in for your annual checkup with your doctor, and you have—say your blood pressure is a couple of points high. Liken that to temperature change. Your GP would say, “Hey, think about doing something to improve your blood pressure. Eat a bit less. Walk a bit more,” and so on. If your blood pressure is high and your cholesterol is high—so that would be now temperatures going up, as well as sea level rise—then, you know, you get a bit more of a stern warning. And then if we had a third item, your blood sugar is also high, that’s, like, the decline of the polar ice. And what happens at that point is the doctor starts shaking his finger at you and telling you that you’re going to be a stroke victim in the next not-too-many years. And so it’s not just about the temperature rising; it’s about a whole series of indicators relating to climate that are changing fast and changing faster than we’ve ever experienced before. And so for those reasons I’m very concerned about recent trends in climate change, of which temperature change is just one aspect.

JAY: I mean, the fact that one of the scientists at the middle of all of this used this word that it’s a “travesty” that we can’t deal with this data, what does this do to the discourse?

BRKLACICH: Well, again, I think let’s separate out the scientific discourse, and the public discourse as well. And I think this is very important, ’cause there’s messages that are being portrayed. Again, we’re talking about long-term trends, and certainly any of the information that I’ve seen over the last few years suggests that these trends in many factors are going in the same direction, including temperature, polar-ice cover, and so on. The other part I think that’s important here is, look, we’re talking about climate data that’s being generated from a variety of sources. The observed record is really only a couple hundred or just a little more than 100 years old, and some of the information [if] we go much further back than that is being derived indirectly from a variety of proxy sources. The other problem that’s a concern with the climate data itself is sometimes climate data become contaminated as the area surrounding the climate station changes. The important point here is, hey, we have less than a perfect record. I think we should acknowledge that. But does that mean that we throw it all out? My answer would be no, we don’t throw it all out, simply because there are so many factors that are leading in the same direction.

JAY: Does the scientific community not have to be more critical, though, with Phil Jones and his group? Let me read you something George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian. Monbiot is the author of the book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. He’s been an activist on climate change issues for many years. But he comes out quite critical of Jones. Here’s what he said: “It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. The emails extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging. I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them. Yes, the messages were obtained illegally. Yes, all of us say things in emails that would be excruciating if made public. Yes, some of the comments have been taken out of context. But there are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad. There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released, and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request. Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate skeptics, or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed. But do these revelations justify the skeptics’ claims that this is ‘the final nail in the coffin’ of global warming theory? Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence.” Monbiot is being very critical. The people I’m talking to in the climate-change scientific community sound like they’re being a bit apologetic for what Jones did. But to an outsider reading it, it sounds pretty alarming. Should the scientific community be more critical?

BRKLACICH: Well, first of all, I think the science community—the science communities (it’s not just one) analyzing, reanalyzing, and then re-analyzing is something that is second-nature to science. People very seldom publish things based on one set of observations. So I think it would be a little harsh to suggest that this information hasn’t been analyzed more than once. So that’s the first part. Is this a major blow? I wouldn’t suggest that it is a major blow. Like I said, it’s one piece of evidence. The quote that you read to me was about one or two pieces of evidence out of several hundreds of pieces of evidence that are brought into question. So, yes, come clean—that’d be my argument or my recommendation. But at the same time, I don’t think I would actually say that, you know, this is discrediting things. This sort of tactic by the climate naysayers has been used many times over, where they will latch on to one or two pieces of evidence and then run with that, I think, in a rather limited context. So, damaging, yes. Fatal blow? Overreaction.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

BRKLACICH: Take care.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Michael Brklacich is Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. Mike Brklacich's teaching and research interests reflect his long-term interests in interdisciplinary approaches for assessing relationships between human use and impacts on environmental and natural resources, and in the application of science to public policy.