Russian computer hackers are suspected of being behind the stolen emails used by climate sceptics to discredit the science of global warming in advance of tomorrow's Copenhagen climate negotiations, the United Nations' deputy climate chief said yesterday.
"This was not a job for amateurs," said Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice-chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), referring to the theft of the emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (UEA).
The allegation comes amid a series of rows that have overshadowed the start of the Copenhagen talks, where 192 nations will attempt to negotiate a new and comprehensive treaty to counter the advance of global warming, and hold the coming rise in temperatures to C, which is regarded as the limit of what the world can safely cope with.
The conference, described by the economist Lord Stern last week as "the most important international meeting since the Second World War", is being attended by more than 100 heads of state and government.
But expectations have nosedived in recent weeks, with the outcome predicted to be little more than a political statement of intent.
Professor van Ypersele said the timing of the "Climategate" row, in the final build-up to the Copenhagen negotiations, showed that it has been deliberately engineered.
The first website posting of the emails came from a Russian computer, he added: "It's a scandal. It was probably ordered, maybe by Russian hackers receiving money for doing it."
Some of the messages stolen from the research unit's files, which date back 13 years, appear to show the head of the unit, Professor Phil Jones, obstructing attempts by climate change sceptics to obtain information.
The most damaging, from 1999, refers to his attempt to "hide the decline" shown in a record of temperatures indicated by tree-ring growth after 1960, when that diverged from the actual observed air temperatures.
With Professor Jones temporarily standing down from his position while an inquiry is carried out, the old "hide the decline" phrase has been seized on by the sceptics to imply that current world temperatures are declining. This is rejected by the scientific community, with 2009 likely to be at least the fifth hottest year ever recorded. The 10 hottest years on record have all been since 1997.
But climate sceptics, seeking anything to break the scientific consensus, have seen the stolen emails as manna from heaven. On Friday, Saudi Arabia's leading climate negotiator, Mohammad al-Sabban, said the emails suggested climate change does not have a human cause. He said the issue would have a "huge impact" on the negotiations.
Tempers are getting frayed. Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Climate Change, has branded senior Tory politicians Lord Lawson and David Davis as "climate saboteurs". And Gordon Brown referred on Friday to "behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-Earth climate sceptics". This week the Met Office will begin releasing of climate data records in a bid to draw a line under the matter.
It also emerged yesterday that computer hackers have repeatedly tried to steal files from a prominent climate change expert in Canada. Professor Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria, said: "One of the sad realities of being a scientist working in this area is you get targeted. I have had no end of nasty emails and phone calls." His office has been broken into twice and hackers have tried to break into his computer system several times during the past year. "They were trying to find any dirt they could, as they have done in the UK," said Professor Weaver, a member of the IPCC. "If they can't find 'dirt', they manufacture it from out-of-context emails or skewed statistics," he added.
Despite years spent by scientists warning of the consequences of climate change, numerous summits and massive public pressure from a growing army of campaigners, global emissions of carbon dioxide are growing so fast that the earth is on a course for a 6C increase by the end of the century, which would be disastrous for humans.
Professor Bob Watson, former head of the IPCC and Defra's chief scientific adviser, warned that a 6C rise is a realistic possibility: "If we stayed on the road of the last decade or two, we would be much more on the high emissions scenario of the IPCC and that plausibly could take us up by 6C."
He dismissed Britain's goal of getting a C deal as a pipe dream: "I think unless we've got incredibly strong action almost immediately, it is going to get close to virtually impossible to meet a C target. We cannot stop climate change. Our challenge now is to what degree we can limit it."
The eve of the summit saw Britain's biggest protest against climate change yesterday, with an estimated 40,000 taking part in "The Wave", a march organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition – representing 11 million people from 100 organisations. The marchers rallied at Parliament and demanded that the Prime Minister commit to cutting emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 and to push for a deal that will see rich nations provide a $150bn annual pot to help poor countries move to low-carbon economies.
Rich and poor nations remain divided over the carbon cuts required and the funding that developing countries need to help them cope with global warming. Once again there are arguments about the commitment of leading Western nations: an impressive-sounding US offer of 17 per cent cuts was criticised this weekend as a fraction of the 40 per cent cuts from 1990 levels that scientists claim will give humanity a chance.
On Friday, President Obama announced he would attend the last two days of the conference.
The conference at a glance
To come up with a treaty to cut carbon emissions and decide mutually agreed targets; develop low-carbon economies; preserve what is left of earth's forests; and fund costs of preparing for climate change.
To have a 50/50 chance of stopping temperatures from rising beyond C will require all emissions to start dropping by 2015 and a 40 per cent cut in emissions, against 1990 levels, by 2020.
Money – developing countries want richer nations to give billions in climate change aid annually.
Emissions – developed countries reluctant to make big cuts unless developing countries do too.
Any climate agreement will have to be formalised in a legal treaty before being adopted by the world's national governments in a complicated process that could take years.