Leading article: An unwelcome distraction

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In calling for an investigation into claims that researchers at the University of East Anglia manipulated their findings in a way that strengthened the case for man-made climate change, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, is doing absolutely the right thing. The accusations have to be addressed seriously.

This is not only because they open the way for those deluded souls who still deny there is a man-made aspect to global warming to press their case with extra vigour, but because the selectively published emails threaten to undermine public trust in the good faith of climate scientists. The Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia is a leader in the field; its standards must be unimpeachable – and must be seen to be unimpeachable.

The university has set up an independent review; if the IPCC becomes involved – either jointly, or with its own investigation – so much the better. The public needs to know whether the emails are genuine and, if they are, whether they reflect mere joshing around by one or two individuals in the comfort of their own lab, or something more malign.

The timing of the dispute, of course, is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, coinciding as it does with final preparations for the Copenhagen Summit. With the EU and the Commonwealth both rightly placing climate change at the centre of their concerns, China and India announcing their own carbon-cutting measures, and President Obama deciding to go to Copenhagen, at least modest success seemed within grasp. Now a sideshow threatens to overshadow the main event.

The row has given fresh impetus to the shrill band of sceptics and their allies, the global oil behemoths. The Saudi chief negotiator was quickly out of his blocks to cite it as evidence that climate change is not caused by humans, and the risk is that momentum could be lost in other countries, which fear curbs on carbon emissions could slow development. It is vital that a controversy centred on one department, however prestigious, at one British university, is not be allowed to distract, let alone derail, the historic proceedings at Copenhagen.

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