A huge pile of e-mails were stolen from a British climate laboratory and posted on the Internet last week. The correspondence shows that some climate scientists are resorting to bare-knuckle tactics to defend the orthodoxy of global warming.
In particular, a group of scientists who support the consensus view of climate change have been working together to influence what gets published in science journals.
Journals are supposed to be impartial filters that let good ideas rise to the top and bad ideas sink to the bottom. But the stolen e-mails show that a group of scientists has decided that's not working well enough. So they have resorted to strong tactics — including possible boycotts — to keep any paper they think is dubious from reaching the pages of a journal.
"In any other field [a bad paper] would just be ignored," says Gavin Schmidt at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. "The problem is the climate field has become extremely politicized, and every time some nonsense paper gets into a proper journal, it gets blown out of all proportion."
Most of the papers Schmidt and his colleagues object to challenge the mainstream view of climate science. Schmidt says they may be wrong or even deceptive, but they are still picked up by politicians, pundits and businesses who are skeptical of climate change.
But Judy Curry, an earth and atmospheric sciences professor at Georgia Tech, says this huge defensive effort, by a select group of scientists, seems to be getting out of hand. Curry is worried that it's damaging the free flow of ideas in the scientific literature.
"You do need gates, but when you've spiked the gatekeepers to keep other people out and protect certain insiders, then the gate isn't working," she says.
When Science Becomes Politics
In fact, one of the world's most celebrated climate scientists says the review system has gotten so distorted, it's even thwarting him. James Hansen at NASA's Goddard Institute argues that the consensus view of global warming actually understates the risks. In his new book, Storms of my Grandchildren, he writes that he wanted to publish a big paper critical of the consensus view, but he had "no realistic chance of publishing it in a regular scientific journal" because he assumed the reviewers would reject it to defend their centrist point of view.
That said, many of the complaints about the journal review process come from people who think mainstream science is overstating climate hazards. For example, climatologist John Christy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville accepts that global warming is happening, but he says there is a lot of uncertainty about its causes and impacts. He says he has trouble getting some of his results published.
"I've done a pretty thorough study of snowfall of the Southern Sierra mountains of California, and the Southern Sierra find no downward trend in snowfall," he says.
That's important because snowfall is forecast to decline because of global warming, and that would seriously affect California's water supply. Christy says he has tried three times to get his paper published. So far, it's been rejected, and he suspects it's because scientists are trying to stifle his message.
"Everyone from the secretary of Energy [on down] who has talked about the snowfall in the Sierra going away will not find any comfort in the fact that the trends in snowfall are essentially zero for the last hundred years," he says.
Committee Cites Other Reasons For Not Publishing
But climatologist Philip Mote at Oregon State University says Christy's paper is not being suppressed for its conclusions. He is one of the scientists who reviewed the paper, and he says the science in the paper was fine.
"To my knowledge, there's no suppression going on. It's just that it's not news," Mote says.
Mote himself published a paper four years ago showing that snowfall in the Southern Sierra hasn't diminished. In fact, he says there are about 10 papers on the subject. They are not identical to Christy's, but they reach the same broad conclusion.
"It's not controversial because it's already well known," Mote says.
Still, it's easy to see why Christy suspects deeper motivations. The stolen e-mails contain sharp personal attacks against him. He says the politics inside climate science are making life harder for him — not just in publishing papers but in getting money to do research.
Mote says dissent is important in science. He doesn't agree with everything Christy says, but says he should have a voice.
"We need people like John Christy around really looking closely and saying, 'Wait, is that true?' and publishing papers pointing things out."
Georgia Tech's Curry says the whole e-mail episode shows that climate science could use a healthy dose of sunshine. She suggests that U.S. journals do what some in Europe have started to do, which is make the peer-review process open and public rather than left to the quiet behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is evidenced in the stolen e-mails.