"Science and scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my administration on a wide range of issues, including...mitigation of climate change," President Barack Obama declared in a not-so-subtle dig at his predecessor soon after assuming office. "The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process. Public officials should not suppress or alter scientific technological findings."
Last week's Climategate scandal is putting Obama's promise to the test. If he wants to pass, there are two things he should do, pronto: (1) Start singing hosannas to whoever broke the scandal instead of acting like nothing has happened; and (2) Ask eco-warriors at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit next week to declare an immediate cease-fire in their war against global warming pending a complete review of the science.
Someone—a whistleblower or a hacker—got into the computers of University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in England, also known as the Hadley Research Center, and revealed reams of e-mails showing that its leading climatologists had engaged in all kinds of scientific shenanigans including manipulating data, destroying evidence that didn't support their conclusions and keeping contrarian scientists from being published in peer-reviewed journals.
The revelations are significant because the Hadley Center is no marginal outfit. It is among the most influential research organizations in the field whose work forms the basis of all official global warming reports, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body that serves as the Vatican of global warming.
One e-mail as recent as last month acknowledged that global temperatures plateaued in 1998, something that skeptics have been pointing out for years and warming warriors have been pooh-poohing. "The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment," the e-mail confessed. But instead of celebrating the good news that the planet may not ineluctably fry to a crisp, the e-mail continues with its gloom and doom, blaming an "inadequate observing system" for not picking up on the warming.
This wouldn't be such a big deal if other e-mails didn't show even worse malfeasance. "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith to hide the decline [of temperatures]," one said. To most people with normal IQs, the words "trick" and "hide" in the same sentence would suggest manipulation of data. But the brainiacs at Hadley claim that these are just standard colloquialism that scientists use to describe completely innocent operations.
Really? Then how do they explain this 2005 e-mail by Phil Jones, the director of the center, to the aforementioned Mike. "The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the U.K., I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone… We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind." The "two MMs" refers to Canadian researchers Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. And—lo and behold—when one of them asked Jones for his data, what did he do? He hid behind the data protection act. But no, there is nothing premeditated here!
Why was Jones so afraid of the two MMs? Because they had debunked Mike's—or Michael Mann of Penn State University's—infamous "hockey stick" graph that supposedly offered proof positive that humans were warming the earth. It showed that global temperatures had remained flat for a millennium only to spike sharply in the 20th century following the industrial revolution. But McIntyre and McKitrick found that the innocent "tricks" that Mann was performing on the data were so riddled with methodological errors that even the IPCC was forced to remove the graph from its official reports.
One would have thought that the hockey-stick episode would have instilled some humility in the Hadley gang, prompting them to invite ever greater scrutiny and debate of their work. That is, after all, what real scientists would do. Think again. In fact, the e-mails show that they did the exact opposite. Around the time the "two MMs" went public with their analysis in 2003, Mann urged his colleagues to blacklist Climate Research, a journal that had published research by skeptics. "I think we have to stop considering 'Climate Research' as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal," he wrote. "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit or cite papers in this journal."
This is precisely the kind of perfidy that undermines public trust in the scientific process that Obama pledged to restore. So if Obama had his priorities straight, he would end his radio silence and thank the authors of Climategate for performing a great public service. Indeed, if President Bush had been so lucky, perhaps fate would have contrived a WMDgate for him before he launched the Iraq invasion and saved him from the worst mistake of his presidency.
It is worth recalling that Bush too was relying on an international consensus—especially reports by U.N. arms inspectors—that Saddam Hussein was sitting atop stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction as a justification for war. "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," Bush said in a 2003 prewar declaration calculated to escalate the hysteria level against Saddam. After a two-year-long wild goose chase through the deserts of Iraq, Bush was finally forced to admit that Saddam no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction. But at least the phony consensus on which he based his decision was intact at the eve of the war.
However, Climategate is fast shattering the global warming consensus, and so Obama won’t have even that to hide behind should he go ahead and sign up the U.S. to cut its carbon emissions 80% below 2005 levels by 2050 at Copenhagen next week. There is zero chance right now that Congress will endorse these cuts, which will dwarf the trillion-dollar Iraq price tag. So Obama won't really be able to advance his foolish crusade, but he will lose the opportunity to protect his own integrity by joining the growing chorus of voices—some of them of global warming believers—demanding a thorough investigation of this episode. Former Chancellor Lord Lawson is asking the British government to launch a formal inquiry about it. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, is doing the same here in the U.S. Penn State is launching an investigation of Mr. Hockey Stick Mann's conduct. Calls for Phil Jones resignation are rising in England.
But the issues go beyond the misconduct of just one outfit. One of the dirty little secrets of the field revealed by the scandal is that climate scientists, though they are publicly funded, don't as a matter of routine make their raw data publicly available. This makes it exceedingly difficult for their peers to replicate their findings, subverting the scientific method at its core. Judy Curry of Georgia Tech, a stalwart in the field who is convinced that global warming is real, is exhorting her colleagues to end this incestuous tribalism and open their work to scrutiny, even of skeptics." Make all your data, metadata and codes openly available," she urges. Meanwhile, George Monbiot—the British media's alarmist-in-chief who has called global warming the "moral question of the 21st century"—is demanding a reanalysis of the climate science data.
A complete airing of the science of global warming, which is looking less and less avoidable by the day, might eventually vindicate the claims of climate warriors. Or it might not. The only thing Obama can control in this matter is which side he will support: The truth, or—what he accused his predecessor of—ideology.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a biweekly columnist at Forbes. This column first appeared at Forbes.com.