The writer O. Henry had an eye for the satirical, often mixing humor with some perverse characteristic of human behavior. One of my favorites of his short stories is “The Ransom of Red Chief,” in which kidnappers haul off a very precocious juvenile only to have their ransom demands rebuffed by the child’s parents. After many rounds of negotiations, each with a reduced ransom demand preceded by some prank by the child, the criminals finally agree to pay the parents to take the delinquent back. Recent events surrounding the climate science debate are equally ironic.

Delicious Dichotomy

O. Henry would have appreciated the grand theater leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference that is in progress as I write this editorial. First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared on December 8 with its “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gas emissions pose a health hazard, thereby giving the Obama Administration the legal authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate those emissions. The release of the finding was clearly timed to give President Obama some stature in the Copenhagen talks, but it doubles as putting Congress on notice that he has options if a legislative approach isn’t forthcoming.

Coinciding with the EPA’s announcement was the mounting fallout from Climategate (details below), which has further poisoned relationships between those who believe the “science is settled” on anthropogenic carbon emissions exacerbating global temperature rise and those who don’t. The late November revelation that pro-warming scientists stifled peer review of reports and “fudged” the raw temperature data for years has trashed the reputation of the UK’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University, and the fallout of the revelation is likely to spread to the U.S.

Hacker Heaven

Hackers posted a thousand emails and 2,000 other reports taken from the CRU on the Internet for the world to read on November 20. In thumbing through the emails, I found a number of them quite revealing. In one, Kevin Trenberth, a lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, admitted that it’s a “travesty” and that “The fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment.” That email went on to say, “and consideration of geoengineering [is] quite hopeless as we will never be able to tell if it is successful or not!” (1255550975.txt Wed Oct.14, 2009). This is the same Trenberth who testified in Congress two years ago that the evidence for man-made warming is “unequivocal.” There are many more similar emails posted that discuss how the data sets were tweaked to obtain better results and discussions about how to bar skeptics from publishing contrarian studies in prestigious journals. The discussions about how the data must be wrong because of the current lack of warming are especially enlightening.

Trenberth’s problem is that his precious computer model that predicts gloom and doom for the earth with rising concentrations of CO2 cannot be validated against recent temperature trends, as he admits in these emails. Remember Al Gore’s hyperbole in 2007, the year he received his Nobel Peace Prize: “We have just 10 years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tailspin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics, and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.” The difference between Gore and Trenberth: Gore doesn’t doubt the data.

Why Is This Ambient Data So Important?

The historic temperature data backbone of the IPCC model that ostensibly predicts earth-warming trends is the ambient data collected by the CRU and NASA. Both of these data sets have been systematically shielded from true peer review for a number of years in spite of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by scientists both here in the U.S. and in the UK. As one of my college computer programming instructors used to say, “garbage in/garbage out.” It now appears, from those hacked emails, that CRU scientists didn’t like the garbage the computer models predicted and “shopped” data sets until the right results were achieved. And now, in one of the most jaw-dropping results of Climategate, other than the self-incriminating emails, is the revelation that the never-peer-reviewed raw temperature data from CRU is long lost and never to be recovered. The timing of this revelation is a crushing blow to the CRU, as evidenced by the suspension of the center’s director.

The problem faced by CRU and NASA climate scientists is that the IPCC climate model cannot be validated against temperatures over the past 20 years and therefore can’t be trusted to predict temperatures over the next 20 years. Global carbon emissions increased 26% over the past decade; yet, according to MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen, “There has been no [surface-measured] warming since 1997 and no statistically significant warming since 1995.” Former NASA senior scientist for climate studies Roy Spencer also noted, “According to satellite data, global warming stopped about 10 years ago and there’s no way to know whether it’s happening now.”

Trouble Brewing for NASA

I expect that Climategate will inevitably cross the pond and soon embroil NASA in the CRU data controversy. Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) filed a FOIA request with NASA over two years ago requesting the agency’s raw climate data. Although required by law to respond within 20 days of the request, NASA has refused to honor the request. The cynic in me is saying the NASA data is probably no better than the CRU data.

NASA has already made multiple corrections in its temperature calculation routines over the past few years. You may remember when, a few years ago, NASA declared that 1998 was the hottest year on record? When pressured to reveal how the agency reached that conclusion, NASA refused to discuss the details, yet revisited the data and, surprise: 1934, not 1998, was the warmest year on record. Subsequently, NASA again changed its calculation scheme and concluded that 1998 and 2006 are tied for first, with 1934 a close second. There are a host of scientists who would like to study NASA’s raw data and calculation methods, yet NASA continues to stonewall the request.

Let’s face it, NASA does not have a stellar track record when it comes to admitting its mistakes (the Challenger shuttle design debacle comes to mind). The CEI has given the agency until the end of this year to comply with its FOIA request or the institute has promised to file suit to compel the data release. Cynically, I expect that when the data is finally released, a robust peer review will reveal the same sort of data manipulation found in East Anglia’s data sets, further tarnishing NASA’s reputation, perhaps beyond repair.

What’s Next on the Agenda?

If the basic science related to man’s contribution to a warming planet is based on flawed fundamental science, a conscious circumventing of the peer review process, political expediency, and refusing to release the fundamental data used by a computer program that has yet to replicate actual ambient temperatures, then it’s time to pause, take a breath, and regroup. It seems that the entire scientific establishment has lost sight of the final objective: solid science that decision-makers can base trillion-dollar decisions on. Obviously, we aren’t there yet.

If this were a criminal court that requires a jury to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused would go free because the cops lost or won’t produce the evidence. If the threat is to the entire world, then all the data collected is the property of every human being on the earth. Parochial interests must be set aside, and CRU and NASA must come clean and release the historic temperature data sets and other data used by the IPCC. Failure to do so will only further erode the public’s confidence in the findings of science.

If the CRU and NASA historic temperature data sets are FUBAR, then the IPCC report conclusions are just more “garbage out” and can be safely ignored. Censor the scientists, and let’s go about our business. On the other hand, suppose those climate scientists predicting gloom and doom are actually right, but for all the wrong reasons. Their failure to play by the rules of scientific inquiry may end up doing even greater harm to our planet. O. Henry would appreciate the irony.

—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is COAL POWER’s editor-in-chief.