ClimateGate supposedly reveals a scientific world gone corrupt, but really shows a political world gone mad.
- By Annie LowreyAnnie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.
Here is how the story now known as ClimateGate broke: On Nov. 17, an unknown person somehow gained access to a huge cache of emails and data files from the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit (CRU) and put them on the Internet. The hacker posted links to the data on prominent climate-skeptic blogs, just weeks before the Dec. 7 start of the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen. Then, the documents were distributed with the ominous preface: "We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps. We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code, and documents."
The approximately 1,000 emails and 3,000 documents purportedly showed that an elite cabal of climatologists had massaged decades of data to fool the world into believing in the myth of anthropogenic climate change. (The perpetrators offered no explanation why the scientists might want to do this. My best guess: All climatologists secretly despise GDP growth.) The scientists had apparently altered the world’s biggest record of global surface temperature readings, trashed discordant evidence, and publicly humiliated climatologists who reached differing conclusions.
Climate blogs went wild. The British press soon glommed onto the story with characteristic maniacal glee. One typical post by James Delingpole in the Daily Telegraph, for instance, read: "If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW. The conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth … has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed."
Within a day, the story caught on across the Atlantic — particularly in the right-wing press. Blogger Matt Drudge banged the drum with headlines declaring a "climate cult." Glenn Beck and other Fox News anchors devoted hours to the story. And on Thursday, two members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (one the head of right-wing outfit Pajamas Media, which sent Joe the Plumber to cover the Middle East peace process) demanded that Al Gore — whose Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth featured the work of some of the climatologists embroiled in the scandal — give his award back.
The truth, climate scientists insist, is that the data does nothing to disprove the overwhelming evidence that global warming exists and is caused by humans — evidenced in multiple data pools and corroborated by thousands of studies. Spencer Weart, a physicist who specializes in the atmosphere and wrote The Discovery of Global Warming, explains, citing glacier and polar cap readings: "Even if you threw out every study from every scientist at East Anglia, it wouldn’t change anything. There’s 15 different ways to prove without doubt that the world has gotten very warm."
Michael MacCracken, climate-change scientist and former director of the Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and now at the Climate Institute in Washington D.C., told Foreign Policy, simply, "I don’t think there is any doubt." Yesterday, Climate, among the most respected journals in the field, concurred: "Nothing in the emails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the emails."
Still, the CRU emails revealed some entirely unprofessional and possibly illegal behavior, including on the part of the CRU’s director, Phil Jones, who has been one of the world’s most influential climatologists. The East Anglia scientist asked some staff members to delete emails, which they apparently did; now there is no way to know what data or analysis they contained. He seems to have attempted to keep certain contradictory papers out of a forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (They made it in.) And the emails raise questions about the integrity of the world’s largest dataset of historical temperature numbers.
The leaking of the ClimateGate cache does mean the scientific community has some questions to answer. But its media footprint has been far greater than the evidence called for — and that has unfortunate consequences. The scandal has cast a wide spectrum of doubt on climate scientists in general, even those far removed from any accusation of wrongdoing. And it has revealed the extent to which many climate scientists already feel they are forever playing defense.
Many of the climate researchers I contacted for this story seemed so wearied by the whole thing they could barely summon the energy to explain or comment on the incident. For, more than anything, the emails evince Jones and others scientists’ almost desperate desire to keep the wagons circled — not because the science is shaky, but because they feel the field is under siege. Indeed, in the past 20 or 30 years, climate change has become not just a scientific interest, but a lightening-rod political issue.
In 1988, NASA scientist Jim Hansen published one of the first major papers modeling how hot the Earth might get, testifying on Capitol Hill and stirring debate in labs and lecture halls. By 1995, a group of scientists had started vocally dissenting from the emerging consensus on its anthropogenic causes, signing the Leipzig Declaration, which stated: "There does not exist today a general scientific consensus about the importance of greenhouse warming from rising levels of carbon dioxide. On the contrary, most scientists now accept the fact that actual observations from earth satellites show no climate warming whatsoever." (The latter point has since been proven false.) The declaration, down to its pompous name, was meant to be a political statement — and it helped turn lab-bound climate scientists into political actors on a global stage.
Later that year, the debate turned nasty when the physicist Frederick Seitz took to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to accuse other climate researchers of colluding to bolster the case for anthropogenic global warming in IPCC reports. "In my more than 60 years as a member of the American scientific community, including service as president of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society," he wrote, damningly, "I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process than the events that led to this IPCC report."
"Then, it was like the siege," says Weart, with "the scientific community rising up against him." Other scientists discredited Seitz by revealing he was on the payroll of tobacco companies while arguing against the carcinogenic effects of second-hand smoke. The dialogue never got any nicer. "In the early emails" — from the early 1990s — "I saw rather little political response," Weart says. "[The CRU scientists] were mostly busy criticizing each other. Then as you go forward, you find this increasing frustration and increasing anger as you get towards the present."
And, particularly within the past 10 years, climatologists have faced increasing harassment: constant haranguing emails and hate mail; picketing at conventions; skeptical and inquisitive calls from Capitol Hill and think tanks and blogs; repeated Freedom of Information Act requests for datasets; even death threats. In turn, "scandals" accusing various scientists of falsifying data or colluding for political reasons have ever since arisen at critical decision-making moments, such as during governmental debates on policies like cap-and-trade.
The same thing is happening now, MacCracken says, "because we’re getting close to actually doing something significant. And there’s a lot of people who seem somehow resistant to change. So if you don’t like the message then you go after the messenger. This has been going on for quite some time."
The troubling takeaway is not about the nature of climate change, the science, or the treaties, or even the scandal. It’s about the white-hot political pressure bearing down upon this small community of scientific specialists. It seems probable that Jones and his colleagues believed internecine scientific disputes might be used as a cudgel by politically motivated skeptics. His defensiveness, in such a heated and politicized milieu, seems understandable if not defensible. But ultimately, it can’t be good for anyone on Earth.