Dec. 4, 2009 — -- Henry Stimson, secretary of war under Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously said, "Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail."
He would never last in the rough-and-tumble world of climate politics. The heat is still rising over the hacked e-mails from scientists at the University of East Anglia in Britain, in which scientists argue -- at times rudely -- over research on civilization's effect on the world's temperatures.
Political conservatives say the e-mails, in the words of blogger Michelle Malkin, "promise to be the global warming scandal of the century," proving that scientists were trying to exaggerate their findings and quiet their critics.
Liberals say the files only show honest debate among experts, and that the truth remains that human industry is warming the global climate. There are more than 1,000 e-mails, some dating back to 1999, that were taken -- some say stolen -- from the university's computer system and posted widely on the Internet.
Today, the head of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra K. Pachauri, said the issue was serious and the I.P.C.C. would be looking into it in detail. Phil Jones, head of the climate unit at East Anglia, stepped aside temporarily this week pending an investigation there.
"We will certainly go into the whole lot and then we will take a position on it," Pachauri said in an interview with the BBC. "We certainly don't want to brush anything under the carpet."
The controversy has erupted just as world leaders are converging on Copenhagen for a major summit on what actions to take on climate. President Obama has said he will attend; the White House said today he would be there for the conclusion, in the hope that there will be an international agreement.
Was the appearance of the hacked e-mails conveniently timed to steal attention from the Copenhagen conference? There's no saying, since the hacker or hackers have not been identified, but many of the outed scientists say they are outraged.
"Imagine someone going through all the e-mails you've ever sent, said Michael Mann of Penn State University, "looking for a single word or phrase that could be twisted."
"They don't have the science on their side so they've engaged in what can only be seen as an eleventh-hour smear campaign," said Mann in an interview with ABC News.
"You call it 'Climategate'; I call it 'E-mail-theft-gate,'" said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate environment committee which she chairs. "Whatever it is, the main issue is: Are we facing global warming or are we not? I'm looking at these e-mails that, even though they were stolen, are now out in the public."
Her Republican counterpart on the committee, ranking member Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, called for an investigation of what he called scientists inventing a crisis.
"I certainly don't condone the manner in which these e-mails were released; however, now that they are in the public domain, lawmakers have an obligation to determine the extent to which the so-called 'consensus' of global warming, formed with billions of taxpayer dollars, was contrived in the biased minds of the world's leading climate scientists," said Inhofe in a statement.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a former chairman of the House Science Committee, said a lot is at stake. He said Congress is being asked "to make major changes in American society in energy use and on how much the out of pocket cost is to every person in this country as a result of this debate. And we in Congress better get it right.
"The scientists may be able to change their story and do more research on it, but once Congress passes a law, it will be as difficult to repeal the consequences of that law as putting milk back into the cow," Sensenbrenner said.
Many scientists insist the e-mail scandal does nothing to the consensus that the world has a climate problem, and that solutions are overdue.
Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California -- who turns up in some of the e-mails -- posted an "open letter" defending his colleagues.
"We are now faced with powerful 'forces of unreason,'" he wrote, "forces that (at least to date) have been unsuccessful in challenging scientific findings of a warming Earth, and a 'discernible human influence' on global climate. These forces of unreason are now shifting the focus of their attention to the scientists themselves. They seek to discredit, to skew the truth, to misrepresent. They seek to destroy scientific careers rather than to improve our understanding of the nature and causes of climate change."
Meanwhile, temperatures in North America declined slightly in 2008, though they rose elsewhere. Today, in a newly-released study, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was a one-time phenomenon that does not negate the warming problem -- but even they were on the defensive in the way they worded their explanation.
"Our work shows that there can be cold periods, but that does not mean the end of global warming," said NOAA's Judith Perlwitz, lead author of the study. "The recent coolness was caused by transitory natural factors that temporarily masked the human-caused signal."