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Release of UEA climate emails unlikely to create storm

A new set of emails and documents from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia won’t derail climate science as it did in 2009, Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of UEA, told reporters.

The 2009 theft of the emails from the unit, dubbed Climategate, sparked controversy over whether the group of researchers had committed scientific fraud.

But speaking at a media briefing on 23 November, Acton said the current batch of emails was unlikely to make the same public impact, “particularly [given that] these really are cherry-picked emails, chosen for being inflammatory, out of 29,000”.

The files, which include over 5,000 emails, have been posted on an anonymous server in Russia. Acton said the university had yet to confirm the authenticity of all the emails, but it appeared there had been no fresh security breach.

“These emails have the appearance of having been held back after the theft of data and emails in 2009 to be released at a time designed to cause maximum disruption to the imminent international climate talks,” said a university statement.

As in 2009, UEA said, the release appeared to be a carefully-timed attempt to reignite controversy over the science behind climate change ahead of the next round of international climate negotiations that starts in Durban, South Africa, on 28 November.

Phil Jones, the former head of climate unit at the centre of the affair, told reporters that three inquiries into the first leak as well as recent findings from the independent Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group showed that the group’s climate science stood up to scrutiny.

However, Acton acknowledged that the university had had its “knuckles rapped” over its slowness in releasing data and its response to Freedom of Information requests, and had changed its procedures accordingly.

“The message that we should proactively be making data available is very clear,” he said.

Jones said the affair had affected the way he conducted research, and had consumed valuable research time.

Since the 2009 leak he had become more careful with his correspondence and felt unable to engage in the discussions of collaborative science in the same way, he said: “Now I read the emails before I send them.”

Acton added that many US scientists found it “extraordinary” that UK researchers were legally obliged to make public not just data but pre-publication discussions.

This was an issue being discussed with the Information Commissioner and might be brought before Parliament, he said: “I’m hoping that in the interests of British science there will be some adjustments made.”

The UEA vice-chancellor said he hoped the new release might shed more light on the perpetrators than the victim, as although police had been “assiduous” they had made no progress on finding those who hacked the university.