The Climategate scandal broke in November 2009 just before the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen. Hundreds of hacked emails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University were leaked. The emails raised doubt about the strength of scientific evidence for manmade climate, and the mainstream media lapped it up.
And now, just in time to derail the climate talks at Durban, the sceptics have struck again with a fresh batch of leaked emails. Following the Australian parliament’s recent passage of the carbon tax, local sceptics (see here, for example) have stepped up their campaign to get their message out, and this new leak gives them ample ammunition. But does it have to be this way?
Whistleblowers and leakers help maintain a transparent and accountable society, and, provided there is a compelling public interest at stake, illegal procurement shouldn’t preclude availability. In this case the disclosed emails depict four scientists misrepresenting data, withholding other data and even attempting to destroy material subject to a freedom of information request. These actions represent a clear dereliction of the scientific method, and a repudiation of their social responsibility. Given the social and economic costs of pursuing a strategy to mitigate the effects on climate change, it is crucial that our policy is based on the best available data. For this reason, the availability of this leaked information is key.
Still, despite the leaks in 2009, the consensus on climate change within the scientific community didn’t shift. Six committees (the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the UK Science Assessment Panel, the UK National Science Foundation, Pennsylvania State University, an Independent Climate Change Email Review body and the US Environmental Protection Agency) launched investigations into the affair. Despite criticising the lack of transparency surrounding the data, the scientific consensus about manmade global warming remains unchanged. The case for climate change contains hundreds of different threads of evidence and argument, and these emails addressed only a handful of those. In short, little of our current understanding of climate science was affected by these emails.
The timing is crucial. These sorts of committees take time to assess all the available evidence, and by the time they had returned their findings on the East Anglia emails, the Copenhagen negotiations were over.
Did the Climategate saga weaken the Copenhagen Accord? It’s hard to say for sure — but we were left with an agreement with no legally binding obligations, one that set us down the road to a 4°C increase over the industrial average, twice what the IPCC propounds as necessary for "avoiding dangerous climate change".
While the scientists were unconvinced by the leaks, the public fallout from the scandal was much more severe.
A report from the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication suggests that Climategate "deepened and perhaps solidified the prior observed declines in public beliefs that global warming is happening, human caused, and of serious concern", as well as eroding public trust in the scientific community. Other factors, such as the revelation that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Report included an incorrect and improperly sourced claim that the Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by 2035, and periodic bouts of colder weather, exacerbated this.
How can we explain this vast discrepancy of opinion between the scientific community and the general public? A study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that during the Copenhagen Summit media coverage tended to under-report climate science itself. Analysing more than 400 print media articles from 12 countries, the study found that articles on the actual science of climate change represented less than 10 per cent of all surveyed reportage, and nearly 80 per cent of the articles mentioned devoted less than 10 per cent of column space to climate science. Our news media shape our understanding of the world, and without reconciling the Climategate revelations with the views of climate scientists themselves, the argument for taking climate change seriously took a serious hit.
Fast-forward to 22 November 2011 and all of a sudden another tranche of 5000 hacked emails (hand-picked from a total of 220,000) are available on a Russian server. As with the Wikileaks cables, without an exhaustive analysis of all the emails it is difficult to know which emails contain the most important revelations.
Most of the major climate sceptic blog sites excitedly venerating these emails have reduced the data down to a few key quotes, such as:
"What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation? They’ll kill us probably."
"The results for 400ppm [parts per million carbon in the atmosphere]stabilisation look odd in many cases … As it stands we’ll have to delete the results from the paper if it is to be published."
"I find myself in the strange position of being very skeptical of the quality of all present reconstructions, yet sounding like a pro-greenhouse zealot here!"
Viewed alone these quotes hint towards some damning conclusions, just as the Climategate emails did. However when viewed in their proper context, as here, most of the quotes lose their controversial edge.
Still, considering the impact of the emails leaked before Cophenhagen, the threat must be taken seriously, especially with the Durban talks underway. I spoke about this to Richard Dent, a climate change communication and policy consultant with the Climate Communications Forum. He argued that despite the lack of concrete scientific evidence refuting climate change, the two sets of email leaks demonstrate where the media’s loyalties sit right now — with the corporations that continue to dominate our lives and constrain us from tackling climate change.
The media shapes our understanding and our response to social and environmental issues. When events such as these email leaks are actively sensationalised rather than assessed in relation to established scientific data the impetus to act is lost. Environmental advocates need to arm themselves with more than just sound science — they have to brace themselves for the inevitable strike and learn to play the media as well as, or better than, the denial industry.
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