The controversy over e-mails stolen from global-warming researchers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain's University of East Anglia has become so divisive that there is even disagreement over what to call it.
Skeptics of global warming, who have long considered climate change a fraud, refer to the incident as "Climategate," with obvious intimations of scandal and cover-up. Advocates of action on warming call it "Swifthack," a reference to the 2004 character attacks on presidential candidate Senator John Kerry by the group then known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in other words, an invented scandal propagated by conservatives and the media that does nothing to change the scientific case for climate change.
The truth is that the e-mails, while unseemly, do little to change the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of man-made climate change. But they do hand a powerful political card to skeptics at the start of perhaps the most important environmental summit in history. Still don't know what to make of it? If you're struggling to untangle the details of the e-mail controversy, here are five key things you need to know:
1. How were the e-mails leaked? On Nov. 17, administrators of the website RealClimate, a blog about climate science written by top researchers, discovered that unknown hackers were attempting to upload onto the blog more than 1,000 e-mails apparently sent by and to scientists at University of East Anglia's CRU. The CRU is one of the most important climate-research centers in the world, and one of a handful of scientific agencies that keep the global temperature records used in most major climate models. Officials at East Anglia soon confirmed that electronic theft had occurred and that the e-mails were genuine. By the end of the week, they were widely available on the Internet.
In early December, the e-mail controversy was still burning up the blogosphere, as international negotiators gathered at the Copenhagen climate summit. The head of the CRU and author of several incriminating e-mails, environmental scientist Phil Jones, has stepped down temporarily from his post while University of East Anglia conducts an independent inquiry into the e-mail controversy. The investigation will be led by Muir Russell, a prominent Scottish academic and civil servant. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania State University (PSU) announced it would conduct its own inquiry into the e-mails, after PSU climatologist Michael Mann also emerged as an author of e-mails that were central to the controversy.
2. What exactly do the e-mails say? The more than 1,000 e-mails dating back some 13 years contain a range of information everything from the mundanities of climate-data collection to comments on international scientific politics to strongly worded criticisms of research by climate-change doubters. It is mainly the last point that has skeptics crying foul. In one e-mail, sent to Mann from Jones, the topic is a pair of papers that criticize the case for man-made global warming; Jones wrote that he and his colleagues would be sure to keep the papers out of consideration for the forthcoming climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is."
In another e-mail exchange, Mann and Jones discuss ways to pressure an academic journal Climate Research to stop publishing submissions from climate skeptics, with Mann suggesting that they consider encouraging colleagues not to submit papers to the journal until it changes its editorial stance. Jones also wrote repeatedly about rebuffing requests by climate skeptics for raw temperature data from CRU, and seemingly encourages his colleagues to delete e-mails concerning a Freedom of Information request for the data.
In other e-mails, scientists appear to have trouble reconciling recent temperature data with the warming expected from climate models. And overall, the correspondence evinces climate scientists' outright scorn for global-warming skeptics; in one message, Ben Santer, a researcher from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory offers presumably in jest to "beat the crap out of" a leading skeptic.