A review of the climate science stolen email controversy, with a few lessons for the future

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Climatic Research Unit building, University of East Anglia

In “Climategate: What Really Happened?” Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones magazine provides a detailed and well-referenced lookback at “How climate science became the target of ‘the best-funded, best-organized smear campaign by the wealthiest industry that the Earth has ever known.’”

“Climategate: What Really Happened?” appears in the current issue of Mother Jones and was posted online April 21.  In this highly recommended article, reporter Kate Sheppard does, on the whole, an excellent job of telling the story of the 1000+ emails by climate scientists that were stolen from a server at the University of East Anglia in the UK and posted online in November 2009. She covers the subsequent ‘scandal’ spun up by global warming skeptics and denialists in their attempt to discredit climate science and climate scientists.

Sheppard documents (and provides extensive links to) what was said on multiple sides of the controversy. While she fundamentally comes down sympathetic to the scientists who were vilified, I would say she is less harshly judgmental about the global warming denial machine than I have been on this matter. If anything, I’d say the denialists who cherry-picked and misrepresented the emails and sought to use the controversy to throw decades of climate science into disrepute, while manipulating public opinion and the political process, may come off better than they deserve.

The article gives a good deal of ink to Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit, a dogged critic who has raised issues about the global temperature record with great persistence. It notes but does not look as closely at how ‘climategate’ played into the sheer ugliness and ignorance that is pervasive in the right-wing denial-o-sphere, from vituperative bloggers (and commenters who are generally not allowed to post on this site) to many in the current crop of politicians and partisan ideologue activists.

Sheppard notes that multiple inquests into the stolen emails have ended with climate science remaining intact. (I don’t like the term ‘climategate’, by the way, and use it only to identify this story with a term in common usage -- as Sheppard does, basically. I believe the media’s quickness to adopt and lock in on this term, which suggests that the stolen emails were a scandal story, is indicative of the intellectual superficiality and professional laziness of much of the media’s typical cover-the-controversy approach to reporting on climate science issues.)  But, she concludes: "None of the exonerations mattered: The scientists had lost control of the narrative. …"

Looking back at late 2009 she notes:

The press gave the think tanks and pundits a bully pulpit in the form of airtime and headlines—without bothering to dig into the hacked emails and figure out what the fuss was about. While journalists were quick to quote email snippets that were causing a ruckus, it wasn't until December 12—nearly a month after the initial release—that a team of Associated Press reporters finally parsed the entire set of emails and published a more accurate picture of their contents.

Still, you can't completely blame journalists, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "That's the typical arc of any story," he says. "Allegations and accusations can move more quickly through the media ecosystem than sorting out what's really true." What's more, for years, the press had become accustomed to the refrain that the "science is settled" on global warming, and that it was now time to figure out how to deal with it. The "science is settled" mantra downplayed the many uncertainties that remain about the impacts and implications of climate change and the hard-fought battles over every conclusion. So when the debates about data were laid bare, the scandal was much easier to report than the science. …

Climate Science Watch never never says “the science is settled.” Not only is it an invitation to contrarians to point to any scientific uncertainty as proof of the validity of their position, but it’s a way of speaking that shows insufficient interest in scientific research and its complexities. Generally speaking, science is not settled, policy is not settled, and both must move forward together in an ongoing relationship, in which each continues to develop and deal with difficult unanswered questions.

Kevin Trenberth (photo: NCAR)

Sheppard quotes Kevin Trenberth with reference to the next IPCC climate assessment report, due out in 2013:

[W]ith the help of new sophisticated models for actual climate processes, scientists will attempt to provide a more nuanced and realistic picture of what's to come, writes Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in a recent Nature article (PDF). But he also warns that the report could raise more questions than it answers: "[W]hile our knowledge of certain factors does increase, so does our understanding of factors we previously did not account for or even recognize." At the leading edge of climate science, he writes, displaying the limits and uncertainties of science so publicly is not without risk, so the IPCC should proceed with caution when sounding the alarm bells.

"In other disciplines, this might not matter so much, but what to do about climate change is a high-profile, politically charged issue involving winners and losers, and such results can be misused," Trenberth adds. "In fact—to offer one more prediction—I expect that they will be."

Sheppard says:

Climate scientists don't tend to be adept at politics, and most of them didn't enter the field expecting to land in the middle of a controversy over the future of industrial society. Accustomed to the slow-moving peer-review process, they were utterly unprepared to deal with the real-time, 24/7 news circus. …

If something good came of Climategate, says [Michael] Mann, it's the realization that climate scientists need a better communication and crisis-management strategy. To that end, a trio of scientists last fall formed the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, an effort to get climate researchers more directly engaged with the public by linking experts with reporters. "We have to accept much of the blame," says Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College and co-coordinator of the project. "It's not good enough to publish information in journals and expect it to get out." Nor, he says, can scientists leave the task of public communication—and of catching all the flak—to a small handful of colleagues.

Amen to that last point. Steve Schneider is no longer with us except in spirit, and a fairly small number of scientists (Hansen, Alley, MacCracken, Somerville, Trenberth, Santer, Mann, Epstein, Gleick, and others, but not enough of them) have been doing a disproportionate share of the heavy lifting at the task of communicating the implications of climate science to policymakers and the public via means that go beyond journal articles and assessment reports. Most members of the mainstream climate science community still contribute little of their knowledgeability to the public debate. It would be good to see more of them – including federal scientists who should be claiming more of their right to communicate with the public – being more skillful and creative in finding ways to act as scientist-citizens.

Still, let's remember that, for all its human imperfections and unanswered questions, the climate science community has made a heroic contribution during the past few decades, and is pressing forward with ever-advancing understanding of the Earth system, including climate change and its implications.  But, with climate change, the science community has identified and is diagnosing and characterizing a problem that must be solved in arenas other than that of scientific research. Sheppard's article on 'climategate' shows something of what the science community is up against when its findings raise issues that are perceived as a threat.

Earlier posts:

Straight talk from Kevin Trenberth on denialists, climate science communication, and climate change policy

The Importance of Science in Addressing Climate Change: Scientists’ letter to the U.S. Congress

Climate scientists form rapid response media team to counter denialist claims

Michael Mann in Washington Post op-ed: “Get the anti-science bent out of politics”

Leading US climate scientists are being subjected to a barrage of right-wing lunatic hate mail

Interview with Michael Mann on the Penn State Final Report and the war on climate scientists

Denialist Morano on scientists: “Rejoicing that their entire careers are getting pissed on”

Debunking ‘Climategate’

UK Guardian: “US Senate’s top climate sceptic accused of waging ‘McCarthyite witch-hunt’”

Sen. Inhofe inquisition seeking ways to criminalize and prosecute 17 leading climate scientists

Deep Climate investigation of denialist and “skeptic” attack on Hockey Stick temperature record

Stephen Schneider: Climate Denier Gate a case of Science as a Contact Sport

Setting the record straight on stolen e-mail: Associated Press, FactCheck.org, and other sources

Setting the record straight on stolen e-mail: Nature, AAAS, AMS, Union of Concerned Scientists

Sensenbrenner IPCC witch-hunt: Attempt to blacklist climate scientists must be rejected

Rep. Sensenbrenner projects “fascism” and “fraud” onto scientists, is rebutted at hearing

Ben Santer: Open letter to the climate science community

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