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Climategate: Why it matters

The scandal we see and the scandal we don't

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Analysis Reading the Climategate archive is a bit like discovering that Professional Wrestling is rigged. You mean, it is? Really?

The archive - a carefully curated 160MB collection of source code, emails and other documents from the internal network of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia - provides grim confirmation for critics of climate science. But it also raises far more troubling questions.

Perhaps the real scandal is the dependence of media and politicians on their academics' work - an ask-no-questions approach that saw them surrender much of their power, and ultimately authority. This doesn't absolve the CRU crew of the charges, but might put it into a better context.

After a week of scrutiny of the emails, attention is now turning to the programming source code. Three quarters of the material released is the work of the academics, much of which they had jealously guarded. This includes a version of the world's most cited and respected temperature record - HADCRUT - and a number of surveys which featured prominently in the reports of the UN's climate change panel, the IPCC. The actors here shaped the UN reports, and ultimately - because no politician dare contradict the 'science' - shaped global policy.

The allegations over the past week are fourfold: that climate scientists controlled the publishing process to discredit opposing views and further their own theory; they manipulated data to make recent temperature trends look anomalous; they withheld and destroyed data they should have released as good scientific practice, and they were generally beastly about people who criticised their work. (You’ll note that one of these is far less serious than the others.)

But why should this be a surprise?

The secretive Jones is no secret

The secretive approach of CRU director Jones and his colleagues, particularly in the paleoclimatology field, is not a secret. Distinguished scientists have testified to this throughout from the early 1990s onwards. A report specifically commissioned four years ago by Congress, the Wegman Report, identified many of the failings discussed in the past week.

Failings are understandable, climatology is in its infancy, and the man-made greenhouse gas theory is a recent development. However no action was taken. A little like Goldman Sachs, the group that includes the CRU Crew was deemed to be too important to fail - or even have the semblance of fallibility.

A lightning recap of what CRU is, and what role it plays, helps bring the puzzle out of the shadows.

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