The weird incident of ‘climategate’

By Daniel Grossman

Hundreds of climate negotiators have flown home. Thousands of police officers have put away riot gear and returned to routine patrols. Copenhagen’s only and newly-acquired water cannon is no longer on alert. The Copenhagen Conference is over. And, around the world, exhausted scientists, activists, diplomats and members of the press, among others, ponder: what happened and why? It’s hard to find anyone among those who wanted Copenhagen to produce a tough new agreement is happy. Thomas Lovejoy–formerly the president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and Biological Diversity; and, before that, the chief biodiversity adviser to the World Bank–summed it up: “You have to look at it as modest progress at best.”

One of the strangest subplots of the conference has been nicknamed–most likely by those who want to inflate its importance–”climategate.” For those who have not heard of this kerfuffle: hundreds of emails between some of the world’s leading climate scientists were “hacked”–copied off a server at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom–and publicly posted on the Web. Most of the emails show nothing more than scientists discussing mundane technical details of research. Others show scientists displaying the unremarkable, human side of people who are all-too-often portrayed as models of dispassion. Some messages, however, portray researchers with their pocket protectors down, attempting to manipulate the peer-review process that scientists consider the underpinning of the scientific enterprise. When asked about the emails, some scientists privately acknowledge that the first thing they did when they heard about the leak was to download the set to see if it contains correspondence of theirs. Climate researchers not implicated by the emails say some messages seem to show researchers engaging in unseemly behavior; attempting to exclude findings that appeared to contradict a simple message about a warming world. That’s “very dangerous,” says Jørgen Peder Steffensen, an ice core researcher at the University of Copenhagen, who says skepticism and doubt are the foundation of scientific research. He says behavior like that uncovered in the emails is, “compromising the nature of science.”

Neither Steffensen nor other leading scientists untainted by the scandal say the stolen emails reveal anything that raises fundamental questions about the facts of global warming: that Earth’s temperature has gone up by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the last century and that humans are largely responsible. Such scientists say these conclusions, outlined in four comprehensive, multivolume reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–and supported by thousands of scientific studies–are as defensible as ever. Nonetheless, scientists and negotiators at Copenhagen were put on the defensive by people who claim the emails call into question nearly everything the IPCC has done. The negotiator from Saudi Arabia–a country ever hostile to global action in response to warming–called for an investigation into whether the scientific basis for cutting back carbon dioxide emissions was invalidated. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, was grilled about the emails by journalists. “If your credibility is under questions, why don’t you ask for an investigation?,” asked one journalist in a crowd mobbing the Indian scientist. “Our credibility is not in questions,” insisted the harried official, as he strode toward his temporary office at the conference. He added, “We are totally confident in the system under which we produce our reports.”

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Daniel Grossman records the press questioning Rajendra Kumar Pachauri. Photo by Gary Braasch.

Some scientists speculate darkly about the timing of the release of the emails–two weeks before the conference. “It looks like a planned attack to bring the IPCC process into doubt,” said Steffensen, the Danish ice-core researcher. Stephen Schneider, a Stanford Professor of climate research and a lead author of the most recent IPCC report, says even the nickname sometimes appended to the scandal–”climategate”–twists the facts. He notes that the “gate” part refers to Watergate, where Republican operatives stole Democratic Party documents. In that scandal, the operatives, not the aggrieved Democrats, got in trouble. With the climate emails, the opposite is true: attention seems focused on the documents and their owners, not the theft and who the thieves might be. Schneider has come up with his own nickname: “climate-denier-gate.” (Schneider’s own name is in some of the hacked emails, though there doesn’t appear to be anything in the contents for him to regret.)

The news is not all bad. Some people are pleased with the contents of the hacked emails and the controversy they have engendered. Patrick Michaels, for example. A senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for a free market, and the former state climatologist for Virginia, Michael has devoted much of his career denying the results of the IPCC and opposing international action to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He wrote in a December 17, 2009, Wall Street Journal op-ed that the hacked emails “have dramatically weakened the case for emissions reductions.” In a small way, the weak nature of the Copenhagen Accord produced by the conference may have borne out Michaels’ prediction.

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Daniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has reported from all seven continents including from within 800 miles of both the south and north poles. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment Living on Earth and news magazine, The World and many other international broadcasters. Among others, he has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American.

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn