World weather agencies agreed this week to enhance data-gathering significantly and allow independent scrutiny of raw figures used in assessing climate change amid charges by critics that global warming scientific data were skewed.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) made the concession after an outcry over e-mails revealing that researchers in Britain had suppressed certain data to bolster claims of global warming. Critics also said some of the manipulated data were included in a 2007 U.N. report on the subject.
Britain’s Met Office formally submitted a proposal that scientists around the world undertake the “grand challenge” of measuring land surface temperatures as often as several times a day, and it was approved in principle by about 150 officials at a WMO meeting in Antalya, Turkey.
“This effort will ensure that the datasets are completely robust and that all methods are transparent,” the Met Office said, though it added that “any such analysis does not undermine the existing independent datasets that all reflect a warming trend.”
It also said that current measurements were “fundamentally ill-conditioned to answer 21st-century questions, such as how extremes are changing, and therefore what adaptation and mitigation decisions should be taken.”
Last fall, it was revealed that thousands of e-mail messages discussing the destruction and hiding of data that did not support global warming claims had been obtained through hacking of a server used by the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain. The controversy was dubbed “climategate.”
The WMO move is the latest in the growing debate over climate change. Global warming theorists insist that man-made activities have the potential to produce devastating consequences, while skeptics say temperature increases are less alarming and not human-induced.
Scientists and other climate specialists said the WMO has wanted to enhance data collection for years, but it took a persistent campaign by opponents of the global warming science to take the issue more seriously.
“It’s interesting how they are couching it and linking it to the skeptics’ community,” said Sarah Ladislaw, senior fellow in the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There has been a big push in recent years to improve data collection to make sure we understand things better.”
Melanie Fitzpatrick, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the new measures will require additional funds, although the cost will depend on whether data will be gathered from existing temperature sensors or whether new installations are needed.
Those new resources would have to be the responsibility mainly of governments, Ms. Fitzpatrick said. Developing countries where governments cannot afford it most likely will rely on grants and other funding from the West, she added.
“There is no mechanism to enforce this,” she said in reference to measuring land surface temperatures, so “what will be driving it is the scientific community.” She also noted that those measurements will be “compared to satellite temperatures.”
Ms. Fitzpatrick and Ms. Ladislaw said it is unlikely that any new data will fundamentally dispute the conclusion of a “clear warming trend,” but it will make analyzing that trend much more precise.
The main mistake of many scientists has been that they are “reluctant to talk about uncertainty for political reasons, and the reality is that there is a great deal of uncertainty in this,” Ms. Ladislaw said.
Revelations that the 2007 report by the U.N.-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contained “mistakes” drew widespread criticism and calls for the panel’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, to resign. Claims that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 turned out to be incorrect. Some scientists say the report was meant to say 2350.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, sent a letter Thursday to Todd Stern, the Obama administration’s special envoy for climate change, scolding him for not taking the revelations seriously.
“The errors Mr. Stern dismissed as ‘typos’ are in fact serious concerns, and they should be seriously addressed by climate scientists and other officials,” wrote Mr. Sensenbrenner, who is the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
“This is straight out of the climate alarmist playbook: dismiss and ridicule any errors as trivial,” he said. “The Climategate scandal made this evident. But these concerns can’t be taken lightly. For the sake of the integrity of the science, these errors must be confronted.”
A day earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said global warming skeptics were exaggerating the U.N. report’s “shortcomings” in order to derail efforts to forge a climate change deal.
“Tell the world that you unanimously agree that climate change is a clear and present danger,” Mr. Ban told environment ministers from 130 countries meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
A U.N. conference in Copenhagen in December failed to achieve a binding deal on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Still, Mr. Ban said, it was important that the conference set a target of keeping global temperatures from rising, and established a program of climate aid to poorer nations.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said his country will hold an informal ministerial meeting on Friday to discuss how to reach a binding treaty when they meet in Cancun, Mexico, in about nine months.
Ms. Ladislaw said a global deal is unlikely unless Congress passes legislation on specific U.S. measures to curb emissions.
However, the Senate is unlikely to pass a comprehensive climate change bill this year, according to a Reuters news agency survey of 12 key Democratic and Republican senators who could hold the swing votes.
“The economy has got to be given a major boost, particularly when it comes to jobs. I think that’s going to be our focus,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat. “And if we can do something on health care this year, those two things are going to use up most of the oxygen. So it’s hard for me to see how we get to the climate issue.”