The phoney scandal that was Climategate

The Climategate affair, now officially at an end, wrongly besmirched the reputations of climate scientists and their work. It may have set back efforts to fight global warming by a decade. [31 July 2012 | Peter Boyer]

A Queensland open cut coal mine. PHOTO Queensland Resources Council

Let’s pause for a moment in solidarity with Bill McKibben, the US environmentalist whose unflagging, eloquent campaign to galvanise the world to act on global warming now extends over a quarter of a century.

In 1989 McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience outlining what was even then a strong scientific agreement that human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were causing an “enhanced greenhouse effect”.

As recently as three years ago McKibben might reasonably have believed he was making progress. In 2009, as the world geared up for the Copenhagen climate summit, there was some expectation of an effective, binding international agreement to replace the ageing 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

But three years is an eternity in politics. “I can say with some confidence,” McKibben writes in the current issue of Rolling Stone, “that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly — losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”

McKibben refuses to go down without a fight. In the same article (written in June) he points out that May this year was “the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average”.

He reminds us that the odds of this happening by chance are “considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe” — odds that are even greater since the end of June, the 328th consecutive warmer-than-average month.

The Copenhagen meeting’s agreed warming limit of 2C, says McKibben, will be reached when we’ve burned a further 565 billion tonnes of oil and coal, yet the world’s fossil fuel producers currently plan to extract five times that amount, easily enough to take us past 6C of warming.

To leave four-fifths of current reserves in the ground, producers would have to forgo about $27 trillion in revenue. As McKibben says, “If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet.”

We might have known. When money comes into the equation, evidence and reason fall by the wayside. When did big business ever willingly sacrifice its own vested interests for the greater good? When was a government last able to resist big business’s threats to derail the economy?

Big coal and oil money supported some of the contrarian think-tanks and blogsites that stirred up the furore over scientists’ emails hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (UK) in 2009 which helped to derail the Copenhagen summit. The two events together changed the course of the global debate.

In mid-November 2009, having downloaded the emails in several undetected raids on the CRU server, the hacker (whose identity remains a mystery) sent them to a handful of US internet sites.

After a few days absorbing the data, contrarian bloggers decided the emails revealed a conspiracy to change evidence to show greater warming than was actually the case. Special targets among the emailers were leading US climatologist Michael Mann and CRU chief Phil Jones.

When the story escaped to the mainstream media, the UK newspaper columnist James Delingpole dubbed the affair “Climategate” and nominated “Climategate heroes”, favourably comparing bloggers Steve Mosher and Steve McIntyre with Watergate’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Three government inquiries in Britain and Holland in 2010 and 2011 found no evidence in the emails of any scientific fraud. But those smelling rats, including Delingpole, simply claimed the inquiries were all a whitewash.

They may be sincere in this, engaging in what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”, by which people assess information not in terms of accuracy but how it conforms to a particular goal or personal belief system. In this case the belief is that the world isn’t affected by human carbon emissions and the goal is to spread and strengthen doubt about the science that says otherwise.

McKibben doesn’t mention Climategate, perhaps because he doesn’t want to give it any credence. But the slide in support for the painstakingly developed case for early and decisive action to cut emissions dates back to that critical time just ahead of the Copenhagen debacle.

This month Norfolk (UK) Constabulary announced the end of their inquiries to try to nail the culprit for the email raid, saying they couldn’t complete this before a statute of limitations came into force in November. Thus ended this unfortunate chapter in the climate-energy wars.

Norfolk Assistant Chief Constable Charlie Hall told a media conference the event was “a sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack” involving numerous raids by external internet hackers. He added that government or commercial interests may have been behind the affair.

This is no idle statement. The ramifications of the affair were huge. In the immediate aftermath was the failure of the Copenhagen meeting. The highly-publicised (though baseless) claims about a deliberate hoax were a blow from which climate science’s public standing is still recovering.

Not just science. Late November 2009, when Climategate was gaining traction in the blogosphere, was a critical time in Australia’s political history, when a Coalition led by Malcolm Turnbull was trying to sew up a landmark agreement with the Rudd government to put a price on carbon.

Climategate assertions gave support to those Coalition politicians opposing the Turnbull-Rudd deal and working for a Tony Abbott challenge to Turnbull’s leadership. The rest we all know about.

Securing public goodwill is a precious thing, hard won and even harder to maintain. It faces strong resistance when it involves questions as big as those posed by the climate-energy conundrum. This comes not just from political and corporate interests, but also from our own personal fears.

The whole climate mitigation effort — local, national and global — now rests on our success in rebuilding that goodwill.

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