Was Russian secret service behind leak of climate-change emails?

FSB accused of paying hackers to discredit scientists after stolen correspondence traced to server in Siberia

The news that a leaked set of emails appeared to show senior climate scientists had manipulated data was shocking enough. Now the story has become more remarkable still.

The computer hack, said a senior member of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, was not an amateur job, but a highly sophisticated, politically motivated operation. And others went further. The guiding hand behind the leaks, the allegation went, was that of the Russian secret services.

The leaked emails, which claimed to provide evidence that the unit's head, Professor Phil Jones, colluded with colleagues to manipulate data and hide "unhelpful" research from critics of climate change science, were originally posted on a server in the Siberian city of Tomsk, at a firm called Tomcity, an internet security business.

The FSB security services, descendants of the KGB, are believed to invest significant resources in hackers, and the Tomsk office has a record of issuing statements congratulating local students on hacks aimed at anti-Russian voices, deeming them "an expression of their position as citizens, and one worthy of respect". The Kremlin has also been accused of running co-ordinated cyber attacks against websites in neighbouring countries such as Estonia, with which the Kremlin has frosty relations, although the allegations were never proved.

"It's very common for hackers in Russia to be paid for their services," Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, the vice chairman of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, said in Copenhagen at the weekend. "It's a carefully made selection of emails and documents that's not random. This is 13 years of data, and it's not a job of amateurs."

The leaked emails, Professor van Ypersele said, will fuel scepticism about climate change and may make agreement harder at Copenhagen. So the mutterings have prompted the question: why would Russia have an interest in scuppering the Copenhagen talks?

This time, if it was indeed the FSB behind the leak, it could be part of a ploy to delay negotiations or win further concessions for Moscow. Russia, along with the United States, was accused of delaying Kyoto, and the signals coming from Moscow recently have continued to dismay environmental activists.

When Ed Miliband, the Secreatary of State for Climate Change, visited Moscow this year, he had meetings with high-level Russian officials and pronounced them constructive. But others doubt that Russia has much desire to go green.

Up in the far northern reaches of Russia, there are stretches of hundreds of miles of boggy tundra; human settlements are few and far between. Often, the only inhabitants are indigenous reindeer herders, who in recent years have reported that their cyclical lifestyle is being affected by the climate: they have to wait until later in the year to migrate to winter camps, because the rivers do not freeze as early as they used to. In spring, the snow melts quickly and it becomes harder for reindeer to pull sleds.

Much of Russia's vast oil and gas reserves lie in difficult-to-access areas of the far North. One school of thought is that Russia, unlike most countries, would have little to fear from global warming, because these deposits would suddenly become much easier and cheaper to access.

It is this, goes the theory, that underlies the Kremlin's ambivalent attitudes towards global warming; they remain lukewarm on the science underpinning climate change, knowing full well that if global warming does change the world's climate, billions of dollars of natural resources will become accessible. Another motivating factor could be that Russia simply does not want to spend the vast sums of money that would be required to modernise and "greenify" Russia's ageing factories.

But global warming also brings with it a terrifying threat for Russia, the melting of permafrost, which covers so much of the country's territory. Cities in the Siberian north such as Yakutsk are built entirely on permafrost, and if this melts, are in danger of collapsing, along with railways and all other infrastructure.

But many in Russia's scientific community are deeply sceptical of the threat from global warming. And only 40 per cent of Russians believe climate change is a serious threat, a survey shows

Russia's commitments ahead of Copenhagen have been modest. In June, the President, Dmitry Medvedev, said Russia would reduce emission levels by 10 to 15 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. But what this actually means is a whopping 30 per cent rise from the present levels. Using the 1990 figures as a benchmark is a way to gain extra leeway, because emissions in Russia have tumbled since the Soviet Union collapsed and much of its polluting industrial complex went down with it.

Of course, Russia is not alone in falling short on climate commitments. But nor does it have a track record for openness for dismissal of the claims against the FSB to be straightforward. The Tomsk hackers in the message along with their leak, wrote of their hopes that the release would "give some insight into the science and the people behind it". Similar insights into the hackers themselves look extremely unlikely.

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