When President Barack Obama arrives in Copenhagen today to join other world leaders in trying to cobble together a new agreement on combating climate change, his footsteps will be dogged by prominent climate-change skeptics, charging that it's all a sham.
As proof, the skeptics point to stolen e-mails that appear to raise questions about the scientific basis of global warming. The e-mails show that, in the words of Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, all the top climate experts are "cooking the science."
Meanwhile, those top climate experts — plus such organizations as the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Association and thousands of other scientists — say the e-mails don't show anything of the sort. Global warming is real, they say, and the e-mails show only that sometimes scientists can be as big a bunch of jerks as anyone else.
The scandal began when computer hackers stole thousands of e-mails and attachments, dating from 1996 to 2009, from the University of East Anglia in England. Then they posted some of the e-mails online just before the start of the Copenhagen conference, where 192 nations would be working on a treaty to reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases worldwide.
The hackers targeted East Anglia because its Climate Research Center has played a key role in global warming science published by the United Nation's Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. No one knows yet who the hackers were, although some reports have pointed the finger at the Russian secret service.
Since then, multiple investigations have been launched, two of the scientists involved have received death threats and more than one skeptic has proposed filing criminal charges — against the scientists, not the hackers.
For critics like Inhofe — whose biggest campaign contributor has long been the oil industry — the scandal provides yet another reason to oppose the carbon cap-and-trade legislation that has been approved by the House but awaits action in the Senate. The Senate also can thwart any treaty that Obama may negotiate while in Copenhagen, since under the Constitution the Senate must ratify all treaties.
However, Obama so far has been able to go around Congress: striking a deal with automakers to cut emissions, for instance, and announcing that the Environmental Protection Agency will classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
In Copenhagen, Obama will promise that the United States will reduce its greenhouse gases by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 — even though former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urged him to stay home and ditch the emission cuts, because what's in the e-mails "calls into question the proposals being pushed in Copenhagen."
The e-mails do include some heated discussions about the uses of scientific data and the lack of equipment to measure everything. There are debates about what data should be released to skeptics who have filed public records requests, and derisive comments about those skeptics, including crude jokes about beating them up or hiring the Mafia to take them out.
One e-mail mentions using a "trick" to make a set of data work in a way desired by the scientist, and climate skeptics have highlighted that e-mail as Exhibit One — although the "trick" involves using actual temperature readings to supplement other records.
"These e-mails show a pattern of suppression, manipulation and secrecy that was inspired by ideology, condescension and profit," U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said last week during a House committee hearing that focused on the controversy.
"The e-mails do nothing to undermine the very strong scientific consensus . . . that tells us the earth is warming, that warming is largely a result of human activity," replied climate scientist Jane Lubchenco, who heads up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
After all, Lubchenco and other scientists point out, the global temperature is still warming — so much so that the World Meteorological Organization just announced that this has been the warmest decade on record.
"There are many lines of evidence in physical and biological systems that show changes or trends in temperature occurring over the past 150 years," Virginia Burkett, chief scientist of the global change research program of the U.S. Geological Survey, said in an interview.
Arctic sea ice is still melting, animal migration patterns are moving northward and the sea level continues rising, she pointed out. Alaska officials say three villages there are being forced to move to higher ground and another 100 are in imminent danger.
Those signs of a warming world aren't affected by anything in those stolen e-mails, scientists say.
"What I can judge is that the coral reefs I study around the world are suffering from repeated thermal shocks that is clearly related to warming oceans," Florida Institute of Technology professor Rob van Woesik said in an e-mail to the Times.
Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, who is in Copenhagen with a group of business leaders trying to promote green jobs for Florida, said she has heard little talk about Climategate there.
As far as she's concerned, the stolen e-mails don't mean much, despite her city's heavy investment in solar, biomass and other alternatives to fossil fuels, because "all of these things are good ideas even without the greenhouse gas reductions they create. So whether some scientists had an e-mail conversation about a data set that revealed a bias is frankly irrelevant."
Scientists have known since the 1950s that greenhouse gases were on the rise and that they would lead to the world getting hotter. By the middle of this decade, such prestigious groups as the National Academies of Science were saying the evidence for climate change was overwhelming.
"If you're getting any kind of message from just one research group, then it's okay to be skeptical," said Asbury "Abby" Sallenger, former chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Coastal Geology and the author of Island in a Storm: A Rising Sea, a Vanishing Coast, and a Nineteenth-Century Disaster That Warns of a Warmer World. "But if you get many different research groups coming at it from very different angles and they come up with similar conclusions, then it's hard to deny."
This story includes information from the Associated Press.