The Meaning of "Climategate" (And Its Sequel)

By Keith Kloor
Nov 23, 2011 6:01 PMNov 20, 2019 3:13 AM


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The reaction thus far to the latest release of climate science emails ("son of climategate") has played out along two tracks. Each has separate storylines. In the feverish precincts of the climate blogosphere, especially those in permanent battle mode, the response has been predictable. Anthony Watts is in full swoon and Marc Morano has turned on all his sirens and flashing lights. Meanwhile, grim faced hall monitors at message controlsites have been waving their rulers at all journalists in the vicinity. Their message: Move along, nothing to see here (just like last time!). Reporters, of course, paid no heed. But the stories have generally sounded the same theme, which is encapsulated in Richard Black's BBC headline:

Climate Emails: Storm or Yawn?

As Black noted, "what's interesting" about the emails

is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off - often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.

Yes, Black says, there is additional evidence of scientists not complying with Freedom of Information requests, but all in all, he writes, no plot to deceive the world about climate change. Well, maybe just a teensy little, according to this AP article:

Excerpts quoted on climate skeptic websites appeared to show climate scientists talking in conspiratorial tones about ways to promote their agenda and freeze out those they disagree with.

But the main point I noticed being emphasized in most of the mainstream stories I read is that nothing in the emails released this week or two years ago undermines the science showing greenhouse gases as a main contributor to climate change. Darren Samuelsohn at Politico underscores this in his piece, as does Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post, and Andy Revkin at the NYT's Dot Earth, who writes that,

as was soon clear following the last release, on Nov. 21, 2009, this has little bearing on the overall thrust of decades of research revealing a rising human influence on the global climate system, and the logic in wise policies to limit both the pace of change and its impacts.

But here's something to consider about all this business: I don't think the perpetrator (whoever has stolen and distributed these emails) believes he has provided evidence that calls into question an accumulated body of science that shows the earth is warming. What he's done is somewhat akin to pulling back the curtain on the legislative sausage-making in Washington D.C. To the uninitiated, it's ugly stuff. But power plays, insults, shouting matches, back-scratching, etc, are a way of life, whether it happens on The Office, Capitol Hill, in newsrooms, or among climate researchers in a university setting. But because there are major policy implications and intense politics associated with climate science, what should be considered normal human tendencies--such as infighting and attempts to shape an outcome--are instead viewed in a harsh light, at best, or as an indictment of a profession, at worst. Climate science will survive this latest viewing of its dirty laundry, because it is a highly reputable field with a proven track record. And because climate scientists are doing work that sheds light on issues important to us. That said, the perpetrator of "climategate" (and its sequel) has succeeded in focusing attention on the behavior and actions of a small group of scientists, who, for better or worse, are seen as representative of the climate science community. In politics, perception counts as much as reality. The same rule now applies to climate science.

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