Representatives from 192 countries gathered this week in Copenhagen to search for common ground on global warming. But the debate in the media was about thousands of leaked emails from scientists that suggest data was knowingly fudged. New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin not only wrote about the emails, but was in fact the subject of some of them.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, the United Nations Climate Summit kicked off in Copenhagen. Billed as the biggest environmental meeting in history, the aim of its thousands of delegates is to seal a worldwide deal to head off dangerous global warming. But that was before they had to contend with – this:
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, a global investigation into what’s being called Climategate, hacked emails that some say call into question the very science behind global warming.
BOB GARFIELD: The emails, spanning the last decade, were written by scientists based at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the U.K. In some, they discussed tricks to fudge temperature records, and in another, a scientist wishes he could beat up a leading climate change denier. And they also suppressed inconvenient information. This was fuel for the decades-old debate that has been heating up faster than the planet.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Global warming skeptics say those emails suggest that scientists may have worked together to manipulate global warming data. Defenders say those emails are being used out of context.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Revkin, environment reporter for The New York Times, himself cited in about fourteen of those thousand emails - as a reporter, not a participant – says the skeptics’ conspiracy theories are wrong and that the case for the role we humans play in the warming of the planet is rock solid. However, he says there are legitimate grounds for debate over when, or whether, we need to prepare for utter catastrophe.
ANDREW REVKIN: If you are a foe of restrictions on greenhouses gasses, you can find plenty of real science out there to support your contention. The rate of sea level rise in this century is still largely undetermined. It could be disastrous; it could be five feet. There was just a new study out of Antarctica saying that’s entirely plausible, but there’s no way to characterize the probability of it. And also, a lot of the understanding of past climate trends relies on data sources that are complicated. There weren't thermometers around hundreds of places around the world before 150 years ago, so you rely on tree rings and temperatures in holes drilled in the Arctic tundra and the temperature of the sea.
BOB GARFIELD: And, as we shall see, those data sometimes conflict. But let's get to that in a moment, and come now to the question of the emails. How did they become public and what’s the response been?
ANDREW REVKIN: Well, the University of East Anglia has announced an inquiry into how they became public. They describe this as a criminal breach. There are people who describe it as a heroic whistleblower. [LAUGHS] What they contain is thousands of not just emails but documents, including raw computer code, a programmer’s years-long log of his laments of dealing with these confusing data sets and scientists talking to each other about pending papers. And some of the statements, on their face, are pretty suspect. Hide the decline, one email said, about someone trying to pull together a graph showing warming. They cut out a certain data set because it kind of went the other way. Many of the scientists involved have already posted lengthy explanations on the blog called RealClimate.org. But there’s still stuff in there, for sure, that reveals sort of the ugly underbelly of science.
BOB GARFIELD: In one case, scientists put together a graph of temperature trends, and part of the graph derived from tree ring data and part derived from thermometer measurements and part was kind of lopped off because it suggested that for one important period temperatures were going down, not up. Using nominal facts, assembling them artfully to tell a larger lie, is that not what this graph represents?
ANDREW REVKIN: I can't make that judgment. No one has dived into the data underlying these graphs, except the peer reviewers when the papers were published. I have to wait for the inquiry to be completed before I can make some kind of determination.
BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside outright fraud and fudging data, this email traffic and the logs that you referred to certainly demonstrate that the scientists involved were contemptuous and frustrated by their various critics. Is that fair to say?
ANDREW REVKIN: Oh yeah. Many of them, I think, have had this kind of frustration brewing in them for many years. These date from the '90s. I mean, there are some that date from a few weeks ago. [LAUGHS] So it’s a 13-year saga written in emails that they assumed [LAUGHS] at the time would never be public. And it’s sort of like Being John Malkovich. You’re inside the brain of the climate science community watching this turbulent era play out.
BOB GARFIELD: Your name came up in a whole mess of the material. Tell me how you figured into this.
ANDREW REVKIN: As far as I can tell, my name is either on or in about fourteen of these thousand or so emails. And, to my mind, what’s said in them is simply a reporter inquiring of sources about pending papers, about what do they think about a competitor’s paper. They're the reporting process. And, frankly, if I came across any batch of a thousand emails spanning the period from 1996 to now and they didn't have my name in them, then I would be worried because that would mean I'm not really doing my job. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, you discussed with your editors how you could report on this subject, since you’re part of the story.
ANDREW REVKIN: We disclosed in the stories that I wrote that I was mentioned in some of the emails. You know, we've put it all out there. In these times, transparency is unavoidable. If you’re not engaged in an open conversation with the outside world, you’re at the very least in peril of being misconstrued. Transparency and the interactivity is a responsibility now. This is just as true for a journalist as for a, a scientist.
BOB GARFIELD: Andy, thank you very much.
ANDREW REVKIN: It’s my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Science writer Andrew Revkin covers climate change for The New York Times.