Leading article: We should know who leaked the emails on climate change

Claims that intelligence services were involved should be investigated

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The leaking of emails on climate change from the University of East Anglia last December, which suggested – though they did not prove – "a conspiracy" to suppress critical voices, dealt a serious blow to the campaign to stop global warming. At a stroke, the revelation damaged the credibility of the movement to cut carbon emissions, handing a coup to all those interested in undermining calls for concerted action to slow the rise in CO2 emissions.

Such was the furore over the content of the emails that few people seemed interested in exploring whether or not it was a coincidence that this information surfaced days before the opening of the ill-fated climate change conference in Copenhagen last December.

That has now changed. As we report today, an eminent figure in the climate field, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, has declared that the leaking of the now notorious emails was too sophisticated to have been the work of a simple hacker, and he has even suggested it may have been the work of a national intelligence service. Sir David is not claiming that he possesses hard evidence to support this assertion. Nevertheless, the lightest word of a man who held a position such as he did is heavy.

Right now, we can only speculate what countries or interests might have thought they had a stake in the release of news that was bound to help scupper the Copenhagen conference. As in those books starring the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, it may turn out that the hand of the most obvious suspect never came into contact with the smoking revolver.

China has the world's fastest rising carbon emission rates and had an obvious motive for ensuring that no binding agreement or treaty emerged from Copenhagen. But no connection has been drawn thus far between the Chinese and the release of the emails.

A Russian motive for such an action is harder to establish. Vladimir Putin's Russia – at loggerheads with the West over so many issues – was a relatively neutral player in Copenhagen and not a saboteur of the West's position on climate change. Nor should we automatically assume – if skullduggery did occur in the affair of the emails – that guilt lies necessarily at the door of those usual suspects, Russia and China. Powerful oil interests in the West, above all in the United States, had as much an interest as did Beijing in seeing Copenhagen founder.

Since then, the movement to stop global warming has suffered further public setbacks. Hot on the heels of the leaked emails followed the revelation that embarrassing errors lay in one of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concerning the rate at which Himalayan glaciers were melting. The refusal of the IPCC's chairman, Sir Rajendra Pachauri, to resign over this blunder has handed more ammunition to the climate change sceptics.

As the climate secretary Ed Miliband pointed out at the weekend, these disputes have fuelled something of a backlash against the whole climate change movement. Each side in the argument is now accusing the other of suppressing facts and "the truth", further confusing the public. In the interest of restoring some clarity to this important debate, now that the possible involvement of governments or agencies in the leaking of the climate change emails has been raised, it is vital that a real effort is made to clear up this matter.

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