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Cloud of controversy hangs over Copenhagen summit

Last updated on: December 05, 2009 22:30 IST

A 'climategate' controversy has been un-Earthed on the eve of Copenhagen summit. Sheela Bhatt reports:

India's negotiators on climate change have been plunged into confusion at the eleventh hour as the critical countdown to the controversial Copenhagen summit begins on Sunday. 

It is now confirmed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend the meeting on December 18-19. All top leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, are expected to attend the summit.

A controversy -- described as climategate -- has broken out regarding the authenticity of the data provided by the prestigious East Anglia University of the United Kingdom that formed the basis of the United Nations report on climate change.

The Republicans in the US have raised a war cry that unless and until the cloud of controversy lifts – and they are inclined to lend credence to it – the US should not make any commitments at the forthcoming international negotiations on climate change.

The Republicans argue that the UN Commission's report on climate could well be based on manipulated data and there has to be total clarity about the actual dimensions of the climate change crisis confronting the world community.

They say that is quite possible that the crisis is being projected in an exaggerated fashion.

Their intention may likely be to hamstring President Obama from taking the centrestage in the international diplomacy on the topic of climate change.

Unsurprisingly, the question arises as to the circumstances in which the controversy has erupted. The pro-vice-chancellor of the East Anglia University, Professor Trevor Davies, has alleged that this will be "the latest example of a sustained and, in some instances, a vexatious campaign which may have been designed to distract from reasoned debate about the nature of the urgent action which world governments must consider to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change".

It will be recalled that the former US vice-president Al Gore and the UN commission on climate change (headed by R K Pachuri of India) were awarded the Nobel Prize for their outstanding work based on the data provided largely by the East Anglia University.

On November 17, a substantial file including over 1000 emails either sent from or sent to members of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, was downloaded on the RealClimate website, along with meteorological station data used for research by CRU into the rate of the Earth's warming, particularly over the past 150 years, and other material.

A police investigation is currently underway into the source of the theft.

Professor Phil Jones, Director of the CRU, announced on December 1 that he was standing aside as director until the completion of an Independent Review that East Anglia University has ordered.

Highly respected British educationist Sir Muir Russel will conduct the review.

Prof Davies has affirmed, "There is nothing in the stolen material which indicates that peer-reviewed publications by CRU, and others, on the nature of global warming and related climate change are not of the highest-quality of scientific investigation and interpretation."

Undoubtedly, East Anglia enjoys world reputation as one of the most outstanding centres of research on environment issues. Prof. Davies affirmed, "No record has been deleted, altered, or otherwise dealt with in any fashion with the intent of preventing the disclosure of all, or any part, of the requested information. Where information has not been disclosed, we have done so in accordance with the provisions of the relevant legislation and have so informed the requester."

Sir Muir has been given the mandate to examine the hacked e-mail exchanges, other relevant e-mail exchanges and any other information held at CRU to determine whether there is any evidence of the manipulation or suppression of data which is at odds with acceptable scientific practice and may therefore call into question any of the research outcomes.

Interestingly, Prof. Jones has been quite forthright in linking the controversy to the Copenhagen summit. He said in a statement, "One has to wonder if it is a coincidence that this email correspondence has been stolen and published at this time. This may be a concerted attempt to put a question mark over the science of climate change in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks."

While the controversy is still unfolding and it is difficult to sit on judgment about claims and counter-claims, what emerges is that there are too many lobbies at work in the US which do not want any progress on climate negotiations that would oblige the US to make substantial reduction in greenhouse gases. The Indian negotiators will be hard-pressed when the goal posts seem to be perpetually getting shifted.

The raging controversy in the West only goes to underscore the inadvisability of India diluting its longstanding position on the issue at the present fluid stage.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi