When the predictably-named ‘Climategate‘ scandal exploded in November 2009, environmentalists braced themselves for the fallout. Rather than simply reflecting badly on the scientists concerned, there were fears that the hacked emails might dent the reputation of climate science itself. Indeed, there could be little doubt that climate change sceptics had been dealt a juicy helping of grist to their mill.
The emails, hacked on 19 November, were pounced upon immediately by the blogosphere. Here, climate change sceptics had long been a vocal force, and the bloggers wasted no time in compiling their charges. Data had been tweaked, they said, evidence manipulated, and dissenting voices suppressed. According to them, this represented ‘the nail in the coffin‘ for global warming.
It took several days for the furore to be picked up by the mainstream media. By 23 November, however, the story had been inflated from a simple case of data hacking into a full-blown scandal. James Delingpole at The Telegraph claimed that “the conspiracy between the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth… has been suddenly, brutally, and quite deliciously exposed.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, George Monbiot at The Guardian was ‘dismayed and deeply shaken‘ by the emails. He called for the resignation of Phil Jones, the scientist at the centre of proceedings and said “it’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow.”
More than a year later, although the scandal has died down and the scientists concerned have been exonerated, the level of damage exerted remains open to question. Has Climategate, as asserted in a recent Nature editorial, proven catastrophic both for the ‘reputation of climate science, and arguably… science as a whole’? And, if so, to what extent is science journalism to blame?
Phillip Stott, Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London, tends towards the view that Climategate has not had such a great impact as is commonly believed. He thinks that scientists and journalists alike may be overstating their own influence on public opinion, with politics and economics being the more critical factors in determining perception of climate change.
“While Climategate has certainly dented the public’s faith in climate science,” he says, “I believe that the main causes of the collapse of the ‘global warming’ narrative have been the political fiasco of Copenhagen and the mind-focusing of our harsh economic realities, coupled with the overhyping of the threat by the media. We have simply had one polar bear sob story too many, I fear!”
Certainly, it is difficult to draw any direct links between Climategate and public thought on the matter. While a BBC poll indicated that, between November 2009 and February 2010, public belief in global warming had dropped from 44% to 31%, this might just as well be attributable to other factors, not least to an exceptionally cold winter.
Indeed, when asked directly whether media reportage had affected their views, only 11% of respondents stated that it had made them less environmentally concerned. A counter-intuitive 16% said it had made them more so.
More likely, according to Prof. Stott, is that media coverage of climate change had simply reached saturation point. Moreover, people were finding their climate-friendly practises hard to sustain in the face of a recession. Perhaps one of the ways in which Climategate exacerbated this loss of faith was by emphasising the cloistered, priest-like way in which climate change data had been guarded. Opacity of information, and resistance to dissent, are more characteristic of an ideology than a science.
Fred Pearce, who conducted a comprehensive enquiry for The Guardian, made the point that climate change scientists had adopted a ‘siege mentality’ as a way of defending themselves from their critics. Anthropogenic global warming had become a very partisan thing – something you either believed in or you didn’t – and as such, the scientists had perhaps not been as open-minded as scientists ought to be.
The reporting, too, had been couched too much in terms of ‘for’ versus ‘against’. While some critics of environmental journalism have mourned that this for-against argument is too often skewed in the name of balance (equal weighting given to both sides of the argument, despite the fact the science of the ‘against’ side is negligible), the more salient point would seem to be that we are using such terminology at all.
Prof. Stott claims that environmental journalists too often become protagonists for a cause, “rather than remaining critical reporters. A science journalist needs to keep a much cooler head.” For him, climate science “had become too politicised, too defensive, too introverted, too dismissive of genuine criticism, and too hubristic”– and journalists had not taken it to task.
Might Climategate be an opportunity for scientists and journalists alike to make some changes? One lesson that might be taken from it is the importance of being honest about uncertainty. While science is messy, inconclusive, impartial, transparent and devoid of agenda, politics is quite the opposite. And the media, through presenting climate change as divisive and policy-driven, had colluded in misrepresenting the scientific process.
The split between the bloggers and the mainstream media is a case in point. Both sides had an agenda of sorts, be it to undermine the establishment view or to reinforce it. Ideally, reporting of such issues would be firmly evidence-based, rather than ideologically motivated – as Prof Stott puts it, “a journalist must report things as they are – not as they might personally wish them to be”.
If Climategate has highlighted this principle, then arguably it has come as a welcome scourge to an overly politicised field. The task for the media now is to think of themselves less as participants in a battle, and more as impartial critics, scrutinising climate change with a level-headed gaze.
This piece was written as part of my journalism MA