As the UN launches an inquiry into the climate emails, Obama bids to rescue Copenhagen

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has promised to look “in detail” at the notorious “climategate” emails leaked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The commitment, made by Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, in an interview on BBC Radio 4, marks something of a reversal from his previous position, showing how the pressure on scientists created by the emails has grown rather than abated since the leak was first revealed three weeks ago.

The leak has overshadowed the Copenhagen climate talks, which start properly on Monday. Which makes it particularly striking that president Obama has said he will attend the talks at the end, when there will be real bargaining to be done and a real deal could be reached. For those who want an agreement at Copenhagen, this is the best news they have had for a while.

Mr Pachauri of the IPCC told the BBC:

We will certainly go into the whole lot and then we will take a position on it… We certainly don’t want to brush anything under the carpet. This is a serious issue and we will look into it in detail

In that statement, he was following the UEA, which this week announced its own independent review, to be headed by Sir Muir Russell, a former civil servant and principal of Glasgow University. The UEA inquiry will report by the spring of next year.

Phil Jones, the director of the CRU and the man at the heart of the controversy, is to stand aside until the review is complete.

Reactions to the climategate emails have varied widely. At the apocalyptic end of the debate, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page suggested that “science is dying”, although it was unclear as to whether astrology, necromancy or Dianetics would take its place.

At the other end of the spectrum, many of the initial reactions from environmentalists and believers in man-made global warming were dismissive. Realclimate, the climate science blog, suggested:

if cherry-picked out-of-context phrases from stolen personal emails is the only response to the weight of the scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change, then there probably isn’t much to it

Over the past week, however, many people who take the threat of climate change seriously and want to do something about it have come to acknolwedge the seriousness of the issues raised by the emails.

George Monbiot, one of the most radical of the greens, was among the first to make the point. The FT’s own Clive Crook (no relation), who is a centrist in this debate, was impressively uncompromising.

What they, and some other thoughtful commentators – including Michael Schrage in the FT and Mike Hulme in the WSJ – have pointed out, is that regardless of the actual points at issue in the debate, the emails raise troubling questions about the way science is practised. When complex, difficult and messy science implies huge practical consequences, such as the revolution in energy supplies hat would be required to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions at a level the scientists say keeps the risk to the climate at acceptable levels, then it really is very important to maintain the highest possible professional standards.

If you want to make your own mind up, you can find the emails (or at least most of them) at www.eastangliaemails.com

We will not know what the IPCC or UEA investigations conclude until it is far too late for Copenhagen, but there is no doubt that those who believe there is no need for action have been heartened, while green campaigners are disappointed. The Wall Street Journal’s point about scientists being discredited is being widely repeated. Polls have already shown the proportion of the US population that is concerned about global warming has been falling. Saudi Arabia, which has more of an interest than anyone in safeguarding the status quo and preserving the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, has been arguing that “It appears from the details . . . that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change.” Countries that are wavering between signing a deal and rejecting it will reflect on the headlines of the past month, and might well be tipped against agreement.

Given all that, it is particularly impressive that president Obama has decided to go to Copenhagen at the business end of the meeting, instead of the early pointless photo-opportunity he had previously planned. The outcome still hangs in the balance. While China and India have now joined the US, Europe and Japan in offering emissions curbs, their proposals still seem pretty modest. (They are, for example, making offers only of “voluntary” curbs, rather than legally binding limits.)

But if the talks do fail, no one will be able to say that the US president has not doing everything he could to get a deal.

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