Hacker Leaks Thousands Of Climate Change Emails
NEAL CONAN, host:
And we're gonna turn now to NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. President Obama travels to Copenhagen next week to work on an agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. Much of the world's scientific community agrees that the planet is warming and that human activity is responsible for at least part of that. But there are skeptics.
The already politically charged controversy took on a new dimension in what some have dubbed Climategate. An unknown hacker posted scores of emails and documents from one of the world's premier climate research centers on the Internet, and they suggest that mainstream scientists tried quash research that challenge their views on global warming. And today that controversy reached Capitol Hill.
And Richard Harris is here with us in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on, as always, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS: Pleased to be here.
CONAN: And first of all, what are these emails about?
HARRIS: Well, there are thousands of them. And they are largely mundane science discussions. But there are a number of emails that have attracted a lot of attention, some that are - the talk about that some of these scientists were so concerned about science that they didn't like being published that they were trying to figure out if there was some way they could pressure journals not to publish some of these - some of this research.
Their explanation was it was bad research, and they didn't want it to be out in published literature where then people could hold it up and say, ah, but this paper says that global warming isn't real. And so it was sort of an attempt at an early intervention, but obviously it raises very serious questions about whether - what's appropriate for the give and take in the world of science.
CONAN: And again, the give and take in the world of science, normally if a paper is published and people disagree with it, it sorts of sink without a trace.
HARRIS: That's right. And it does not happen in this case but it's such a politicized bit of science, the climate science. The vast majority of scientists do think this is a very real concern that humans are largely responsible for it. But there's a real market for doubt because there are very powerful interests. The fossil fuel industry basically does not want to have to change the world, which essentially would be required if you, you know, accept what the majority of scientists say.
CONAN: Well, now people have had to, I assume, take another look at this research, which might have been stifled or suppressed. And does it look any better given a second glance?
RUDIN: No, actually. Today on Capitol Hill, John Holdren, who is the president's science adviser, said, you know, he had one of the emails in there and he basically trashed one of these papers and he said, I still think it was bad science and I looked at it and I'm standing behind my belief that that was not good science.
And so that's not - the real issue is really - has now arisen. And I think this may very well have been the intention of whoever leaked these emails, was to sow new doubt and to say, aha, look, these guys were maneuvering behind the scenes. And so�
CONAN: And so doubtful of their own position they were quashing the opposition.
HARRIS: Yeah. And also there are occasions where - where they were, you know, maybe manipulating their own data. Now, scientists manipulate data all the time. That can have a negative connotation or can just mean, you know, that's how you make sense of data is you manipulate it. So it is an open question from these emails whether the manipulation is appropriate.
And again, John Holdren, the president's science advisor, says that's something that's' worth looking into. Let's see what these guys were talking about in terms of manipulating their data and seeing if that was legitimate or illegitimate data manipulation.
CONAN: So a lot of this is about the procedures at these journals where these papers are published, the politics of these journals and there's, well, there's scientific - there's internal arguments in every field, even in radio, I've heard talk.
HARRIS: Yes, I guess that's true. And clearly there are scientists who were out there who are considered sort of either serious skeptics or quasi-skeptics who have complained to me about the fact that they have a really hard time getting stuff published in literature. And they think, you know, it's hard to separate out how much is it just their sort of personality stuff going on here, they're sort of an on the outside, you know, et cetera�
CONAN: It's also access - if that can't papers published, they can't get papers to funds.
HARRIS: That's right. That also can be a repercussion of this as well. And that's a serious concern.
CONAN: And as this came up on Capitol Hill today and there's going to be more on this when you do a story tonight for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and we're keeping you from his editing machine, giving me dirty looks, but anyway, as this came up on Capitol Hill, clearly there you see the politicization side of this.
HARRIS: Absolutely. And already there are several calls for congressional investigations into this. And people, as expected, as predicted, some people who are sort of skeptical about climate change and the legislation that's designed to deal with climate change are saying, see, maybe we don't actually have to take this pain. Maybe it's all a fraud and we don't have to worry about it. And there were some very strong words exchanged on Capitol Hill about, you know, about this, and a lot of doubt. I mean, fundamentally, congressmen, like the rest of us, don't understand the science very thoroughly, and they have to trust the messenger. And I think what they're seeing here is this is casting doubt on the messenger and it leaves them a little bit confused about what to do.
CONAN: And take the pain, because if you're going to reduce carbon emissions, well, that has economic impact.
HARRIS: Absolutely, it does. It's a - I mean, basically what you're talking about is ultimately phasing out fossil fuels - globally, which is a very difficult thing to consider. On the other hand, you are also producing new industries that are clean energy industries. So there are winners and losers. And of course, the potential losers are fighting like heck not to lose, and that's sort of the source of the pain here.
CONAN: We're talking about what's been dubbed Climategate with NOPR science correspondent Richard Harris. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this all plays into the controversy that's going to be developing when the president goes to Copenhagen and tries to - well, I think everybody has agreed ahead of time there's not going to a new agreement coming out of Copenhagen.
HARRIS: There will not be a formal, legally binding agreement. The hope is that there will be some sort of political agreement out of Copenhagen. And I must say that these emails were sort of - given the timing of the release of these emails, you have to wonder whether it was designed to screw up some of the discussions in Copenhagen.
But I think the national academies of science from around the world do accept the reality of global warming. So this is - so I would be surprised if the emails have huge impact on Copenhagen. But yeah, there are many, many huge issues that are going to be confronted in Copenhagen about figuring out how - what's equitable around the world, to think about how to start phasing out fossil fuels.
CONAN: And you see preemptive strikes for major developing nations today, issued a statement saying we don't - we're not going to along with cutting this in half by 2050 and other proposals like that. You see, well, it was interesting, the leader of China, the president of China, agreeing to go to this meeting when it didn't look like he was going to go. President Obama, at some point there were questions about whether he would attend. And now the prime minister of Canada, one day after saying he wasn't going to go, says he is going to go.
Yes, well, it's, it is a - a lot of maneuvering going on. I think there's going to be high drama over the next couple of weeks at this meeting. And I think there are really serious issues that I think are not going to get resolved in Copenhagen. They've already promised to continue these conversations in 2010. But you know, it's hard - if you don't even agree about what the shape of an agreement should be, and they don't have an agreement about that, it's hard to see how you're really going to in a year's time come up with a legally binding agreement.
CONAN: Getting back to the discussion that was on Capitol Hill today, and that was partly about all of these different issues, but in any case, does this break down strictly party lines?
HARRIS: Very much on party lines, not entirely. But it break downs partly on geographical lines too because the coal states are very concerned about what this means for their economies. Because obviously if you are serious about doing something about climate change, you either have to stop burning coal entirely or you have make it much, much more expensive �cause you can burn it but then you have to capture the carbon dioxide and bury it before it's released.
HARRIS: Exactly. So it's partly geographic, but it's also very heavily partisan.
CONAN: And there is also a lot of oil-producing states as well.
HARRIS: That's true. Coal turns out to be a much bigger problem than oil. But -and that's where the focus is now. But yes, that absolutely comes in as well. And some of the oil-producing states are very upset about anything to upset their business.
CONAN: But if you're opposed to the idea that manmade activities have caused global warming, why do you then go to the trouble of subsidizing things like alternative energies, wind turbines, all that sort of thing?
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, you basically - I mean, there are other reasons - you can still say it's a good idea.
CONAN: Freedom for foreign oil.
HARRIS: Freedom from foreign oil. We also are hearing about green jobs. And obviously if you're producing a whole new generation of wind and solar industries in this country, and let's not forget efficiency, which is a very economical way to save energy, is get people to insulate their homes and so on, then all of a sudden you're creating new businesses of people who go in and install installation and, you know, sell more efficient to appliances, etcetera, etcetera.
So there's a lot of, you know - in fact, some of these bills, the president rarely talks about climate change. He mostly talks about green jobs and energy security.
CONAN: And as you come up on this issue, the Climategate debate on Capitol Hill - obviously the Democrats, who for the most part support the consensus agreement that, yes, the world is warming, and yes, human activity is a significant part of that - well, are they going to have, support, inquiries, Congressional investigations, into these emails? And what happens next?
HARRIS: I think you can't just turn your back on this and say it never happened. So I think there will have to be some investigations. There are already some getting underway. Maybe Congress is not the ideal organization to investigate this, because it obviously gets into the technical weeds extremely quickly. But the question is how to pick a group of scientists to investigate that will come back with a trusted answer.
CONAN: Richard Harris, thanks very much. We thank you for taking time away from your editing for tonight's story.
HARRIS: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris with us today in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, by the way, he will be back on this problem as the president prepares for that climate summit in Copenhagen. He'll help us assemble a climate change reading list, what we should read to really understand this issue. If you have suggestions on that point, you can email us now - firstname.lastname@example.org is our email address.
So Richard Harris, we'll see you here again tomorrow. Rebecca Roberts will be in this chair for that conversation. I will be in Jacksonville, Florida, visiting with our member station there, WJCT.
So I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.