June 8, 2011
What About Climategate?
When discussing climate change with students, it is quite common to get the question, "What about climategate?" Even if students do not ask about it, given the media and political attention paid to the episode referred to as climategate, it is something that is probably going through many students' minds. In this post, I will discuss how I deal with this question.
To start with, it is important to note that reality of climategate and the perceptions of it, while certainly different, are both important in the policy debates on climate change. Of course, in political discourse what climategate has come to represent is an assertion that climate change science is nothing more than a fraud, a hoax, a conspiracy, and even the scandal of a generation. Some climate skeptics have gone to great pains to detail how climategate shattered the notion that there is a scientific consensus that the globe is warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
So, what is the reality of climategate? For those unfamiliar with the story, in November of 2009, a computer hacker was able to access and copy thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit's server. (The Climate Research Unit is the academic home of a number of scientists involved in some important aspects of climate change science, including helping to draft reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) Climate change skeptics pounced on the emails and made an aggressive press in the media, asserting that the emails' content effectively debunked climate change science as science. In this efforts, a number of emails were held out as smoking guns.
More than the information contained in the emails, the most damaging thing about this episode to climate change science was the press's response to this so-called scandal and the inability of the scientific community to respond effectively. To put it simply, on one hand, many in the press retold and reinforced the story put out by climate skeptics (see this story in the Wall Street Journal example as an example.) On the other hand, those involved with the so-called scandal were unable to quickly answer the questions posed to them in a way that effectively defended their scientific work. (A number of media outlets have have made this point, see The Economist an an example.) Those inclined to persist in rejecting the findings of climate science or even not inclined to act on these findings have continued to point to climategate (see this report from a number of U.S. Senators as an example).
While many in the media immediately got out the story, time has passed and allowed others to fully investigate the claims of climate skeptics. In large part, these reviews have come to the conclusion that some of the scientists involved with important climate change research at the University of East Anglia were:
- Disposed to dislike some climate skeptics and their work.
- Not only trying to further science but also trying to present their work in light that would prompt political leaders to take action.
- Unwilling to be transparent with their work, including in responding to requests to share background materials with some climate skeptics.
While none of these things paint the scientists at issue in a flattering light, they are do not even come close to amounting to the scandal of a generation, fraud or even a hoax. Many news organizations, having reviewed the investigations, have tried to address prior coverage and to get the story right (see the New York Times and Newsweek for example).
For particularly eager students, I often refer them directly to these independent reports: The Guardian's investigation; the report of the House of Commons' investigation; and (while less rigorous still my personal favorite link to share with students) factcheck.org's investigation.
While I have found it tempting not to really address climategate in class because it seems somewhat of a waste of the class's time, I have come to believe that it is important to discuss this issue with students. It has a lot of lessons to offer. It certainly shows that in politics, and in this case in particular, perception is often more important than facts. Despite that there was not all much of a gate in climategate, this does nothing to stop people from giving it great weight nonetheless.
-- Brigham Daniels
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