The world of climate science — climate change, global warming — has changed radically in the last two months. On the night of November 19, a compressed archive containing emails and files from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) leaked and was quickly disseminated throughout the world. This archive was made available on an FTP server in Siberia, and mysterious comments were posted on several blogs pointing to the file. This leak, and the scandals that followed, quickly became known as Climategate, and the contents of the compressed archive as the Climategate files.
Steven Mosher and Thomas Fuller were among the very first to notice the files. Mosher called the world’s attention to them in a comment on the Blackboard, Lucia Liljegren’s blog. Climategate: The CRUtape Letters is the first book covering the files and other documents uncovered during the first weeks of the scandal.
Even on first look, it was clear the Climategate files told a fantastic and fascinating story of professional conflicts, probable scientific misconduct, and possibly even crimes committed by some of the scientists most closely associated with the theory that human emissions of “greenhouse gases” — primarily carbon dioxide, along with methane and some others — were leading to significant climate change.
This theory of anthropogenic global warming, or AGW, became the basis for claims of a climate crisis that must be solved. The UN chartered a nongovernmental organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to assess the scientific evidence and determine if climate change posed a risk to mankind.
At the same time, ex-U.S. Vice President Al Gore became an independent filmmaker. His documentary An Inconvenient Truth, with its dire predictions of rising sea levels, melting ice caps, disappearing glaciers, and general catastrophe, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Gore and the IPCC shared a Nobel Peace Prize. The science, we were told, was settled.
While this was going on, a small, ad hoc group of scientists and interested laypeople, the “global warming skeptics,” were examining the work on which the IPCC reports were based.
Steven McIntyre of the Climate Audit blog was trying to replicate the IPCC conclusions and having little success. Methods turned out to be flawed and faulty, raw data wasn’t even available through a Freedom of Information Act request, and there seemed to be a haunting similarity to the reasons offered by different research groups. The data McIntyre could obtain suggested that there were serious technical flaws in some of the work on which the AGW theory seemed to depend, but those papers proved hard to publish. Processes changed, and editors seemed to be working to avoid publishing what should have been significant research.
Other researchers, who weren’t necessarily skeptical of global warming in itself, complained that dissenting scientific views were being suppressed. Roger Pielke Sr., then of Colorado State University, resigned from editing a section of the IPCC report and from the IPCC working group over this.
To skeptics, this seemed to add up to some kind of conspiracy or collusion, which took on political color as AGW was increasingly identified with the political left and the skeptical position with the political right. And the notion that there was some kind of conspiracy was widely derided as a paranoid conservative fantasy.
The Climategate files opened up what was happening behind the scenes, and it turned out there was no paranoid fantasy: they really were out to get you.