Climategate brought out the worst in us

What a horrible week. I haven’t known anything like it in the time the Science Media Centre has been operating and I’ve been immersed in all things scientific.

In the week since the emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit appeared on the internet we’ve seen bloggers, newspaper columnists, letter to the editor writers all retreat to their ideological corners and lob uninformed criticism at scientists, politicians and at each other. The comment sections of some blogs have become particularly grubby places to congregate.

Suddenly balance and informed debate don’t seem to matter. Climategate may have been about truth and the manipulation of it and the emails, as the Dominion Post’s editorial today points out, do raise some very legitimate questions about the conduct of a few scientists. But what little truth has been spoken this week in the analysis of those emails has been drowned out by a cacophony of ideological blather.

One thing I’ve learnt since founding the SMC, is that ideology is dangerous when it comes to discussion of science-related issues, whether they be about immunisation, the use of 1080, putting folate in bread or climate change.

What climategate has done is embolden people to say what they really feel however irrational it makes them sound. Take the Herald columnist Jim Hopkins for instance, who yesterday wrote:

Here’s a toast to the hackers who exposed this scam. And another to the “scientists” who perpetrated it. Their dodgy “science” has proved one thing – global warming ain’t our fault. They made it up. Now, would somebody tell Nick Smith?

We’ve seen local attempts to discredit some of our top scientists by the Climate Science Coalition allied with climate change deniers in the blogosphere and in the ACT Party. It’s ironic that climategate, a story about integrity and credibility has really served to bring into question the integrity and credibility of many of those who have been publicly discussing it.

It also happened to be a week in which emissions trading legislation passed that is popular with virtually no one, least of all scientists.

Perhaps the Herald’s other columnist, John Roughan, is right when he states in the Weekend Herald today that fundamentally, we don’t care about climate change:

The public senses, I think, that either the problem is wildly over-stated or the solutions ridiculously inadequate. Either way, it is hard to take the climate change seriously.

If that’s what the public in general really “senses” well I fear we will achieve little in Copenhagen next month, little with the ETS, little to mitigate the impact of climate change in the coming years.

But frankly, I think Roughan is wrong about the public. He forgets that the leaders of the ruling party changed their position on climate change from one of outright denial of it to one of begrudging acceptance of the need to do something about it because they realised the public wouldn’t accept their previous position and grant them power. As the Swiss ambassador to New Zealand and former Kyoto Protocol negotiator for Switzerland, Dr Beat Nobs explained this week in a presentation in Wellington, our political system isn’t designed to cope with longterm solutions. Politicians don’t think 30 years out, they have no incentive to.

Climategate is a setback for those trying to explain the science of climate change because it has spread a good deal of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the science both here and abroad. Climate scientists will get over this, but as Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, writes in a letter to New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin, their attitude and approach to their work may have to change markedly:

This will blow its course soon in the conventional media without making too much difference to Copenhagen – after all, COP15 is about raw politics, not about the politics of science. But in the Internet worlds of deliberation and in the ‘mood’ of public debate about the trustworthiness of climate science, the reverberations of this episode will live on long beyond COP15. Climate scientists will have to work harder to earn the warranted trust of the public – and maybe that is no bad thing.

But this episode might signify something more in the unfolding story of climate change. This event might signal a crack that allows for processes of re-structuring scientific knowledge about climate change. It is possible that some areas of climate science has become sclerotic. It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.

It is also possible that the institutional innovation that has been the I.P.C.C. has run its course. Yes, there will be an AR5 but for what purpose? The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production – just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.


  1. Gareth Renowden

    Yes, but… Mike Hulme (I remember when he was Mick) conveniently glosses over the concerted campaign of attack against science that began with tobacco, and is culminating in efforts to derail action on climate change. Here’s a good link: Jeff Masters on manufacturing doubt. Going all post-modern on perceptions of science and its relation to the public does not — cannot — change the evidence. At some point, the disconnect between what science is telling us about the reality of climate change and the campaign to do nothing is going to lead to major cognitive dissonance for some. And that won’t be Phil Jones, Mike Mann or Jim Salinger.

    Tough times to be a climate scientist? Yes, but even tougher times for the planet…

    But then you’d expect me to say that 😉

  2. Grant Jacobs


    I’d say. Reminds me of a short blog I ought to write, but haven’t time. In the meantime I’ve resorted to a shake coughing up a chameleon. Silly post, but at least it’s well away from this fuss!

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