Are Disclosed Climate Emails Fair Game?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 28, 2011 8:54 PM


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Last week, after a second batch of climate science emails were publicly released, I got the sense that most science and environmental reporters assigned to cover the story were holding their noses. They dutifully reported the basics, but were not inclined to treat the latest disclosures as especially newsworthy, much less as a story with new revelations or wrinkles. In fact, some, such as Damian Carrington at the Guardian, claimed the opposite, that "the real scandal" was "the failure to catch the email hacker." Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones said the hacker's identity was the "real remaining question of 'Climategate.'" Picking up on this theme, the Guardian's Leo Hickman has asked readers to help crowdsource "the hacker's profile." (More on this in a minute.) Only a few journalists (who don't work for Fox News or dismiss climate change as a hoax) have thus far dared to suggest that there is more to this story than advocacy outlets and representatives for the climate science community would lead us believe. I can count them on two fingers. There is freelancer David Appell, who writes on his blog that the latest email dump

doesn't show anything nefarious, but I think it does raise questions about how much purported unanimity has been artificially created by IPCC reports, and whether the full state of uncertainty is being communicated.

Similarly, Andy Revkin gives this perspective:

Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes. Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn't be a journalist if I answered yes.

Translation: I trust climate science but not everybody and everything associated with it. Some people have agendas that tend to skew the science. Can we all agree that this a reasonable position for a journalist to take? So why the seeming reluctance of mainstream climate reporters to look beyond the surface of these emails and acknowledge that the story is not so black and white as: Nothing in these exchanges overturns or undermines the basic findings of climate science (the earth is warming, humans are contributing, we probably want to take that more seriously, etc). I mean, if we really want to get past that simplistic angle, there's great fodder in the emails for a more substantive, nuanced discussion on the kinds of uncertainties that get seized on (and often distorted) by the more politicized climate skeptics and contrarians. But because proxies for the climate science community have declared this latest episode a no-fly zone, they effectively cede the debate over vexing climate change questions to skeptics, who are now laboriously wading through the whole file and mining it for nuggets that advance their own agendas. Instead, as I mentioned above, there seems to be more journalistic appetite for unmasking the identity of the hacker/leaker. And just to be clear, that is a legitimate line of media inquiry (who doesn't like a good mystery?). But this effort along those lines in the Guardian seems to have rubbed its readers the wrong way. Responses have ranged from outrage to sarcasm, such as this one:

I take it your next project will be to enlist help identifying anyone and everyone who has ever provided leaks to wikileaks, right?

The Wikileaks comparison was brought up by numerous readers (the Guardian has notably collaborated with Julian Assange on several occasions). But Leo Hickman (author of the help us-catch-the-email-hacker article) and a Guardian editor, each who participated in the thread, ignored the repeated mention of the Wikileaks parallels. [See update below] Readers noticed:

Leo, some of us wish you would respond to your critics who have pointed out the difference between the Guardian's enthusiastic participation in Wikileaks and its determination to out the individual responsible for this one. Could you kindly tell us your rationale?

I'd like to hear it, too. I'd also like to know why the illicitly received communications about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the confidential embassy cables of government diplomats are considered fair game (by reporters), but not the frank exchanges between climate scientists that sheds light on the inner workings of a field that informs public policy and political messaging on a host of energy and climate issues. This is not to say I condone illegal theft of government/university/industry-related communications, whether that involves international relations, military deliberations, private company practices, or scientific disagreements. But let's not pretend--especially in the media--that there is a difference between how information has been received in any of the recent high profile cases, be it Wikileaks and say, the trove of embassy cables it turned loose, or the anonymous hacker/leaker who has made public thousands of climate science emails. Journalists who turn up their noses at the latter and willfully look away aren't acting like journalists. UPDATE: I should have mentioned that I had a brief twitter exchange with Leo Hickman several days ago, related to the article of his that I discuss. He did acknowledge that there is an "interesting debate...about the moral equivalence between these two types of 'whistleblowers" but at the same time he wondered if the whistleblower was "*always* justified just because the blower feels they're justified? A chewy debate..." He also said he "didn't respond" to the Wikileaks comparisons "because it would have prob[ably] been considered off-topic" by Guardian moderators. UPDATE: For those wishing to see Leo's full responses in that twitter thread, you can start here and here, then follow the sequence on that November 26th string. Additionally, as Hickman reminds me, the Guardian conducted an exhaustive investigation of the first "Climategate" affair (which did not endear them to the proprietors of Real Climate).

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