Media Mayhem: The real Climategate
A spurious debate over purloined e-mails overshadows evidence that climate change is worse than we thought.
Tue, Dec 01, 2009 at 07:25 AM
There’s nothing people like more than a good fight. How else to explain that e-mails stolen from a climate research center in Great Britain warranted, in just a few days, more than 15,000 blog comments, wall-to-wall cable coverage and a front page article in the New York Times, while the most comprehensive review of actual climate change research since 2007 went virtually unnoticed?
First, allow me to tell to you what -- if you judge by the small amount of ink spilled on the subject -- shouldn’t concern us: That comprehensive review of recent studies shows that climate change is worse than scientists previously thought it would be by now. Glaciers are disappearing at record rates. Sea levels may rise seven feet by the end of the century. Storms and droughts are getting more extreme. And action needs to be taken now or we won’t be able to stabilize the climate for generations.
Hey, what’s the big deal? The real news is that the e-mails purloined from that research center show that some scientists are, well, catty. They’re not fond of people who make a living calling them liars. They support scientists who agree with them and undermine those who don’t. Sometimes they’ll go to great lengths not to share their data -- especially from critics.
There’s only one word to describe this Earth-shattering “scandal”: CLIMATEGATE!
Yes, “Climategate!” That’s what skeptics have dubbed revelations that popped up on the web Nov. 19 in the form of a link from a blog to hacked e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. No superlative was too grand to describe it.
“This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” exclaimed Patrick J. Michaels, one in a handful of climate scientists who are skeptical of human-caused climate change.
The fevered fingers of typing skeptics pounded out vindication with every keystroke. One post on WattsUpWithThat.com drew 1,574 celebratory comments at my last count. Climate Audit, the most authoritative of the skeptics’ blogs, got so busy that its operator needed to move it temporarily to a “mirror site.” And the Air Vent, the less-trafficked blog that first published some of the stolen e-mails, became a hotbed of anti-warming discussion, with at least 11 posts and nearly 2,000 comments in its first five days on the subject.
“This is a scandal with proportions that reach past all of the imaginations of a skeptics mind,” the Air Vent’s publisher, who writes under the pseudonym JeffId, declared. “... These many e-mails demonstrate that climate science is absolutely not a natural consensus but a forced one with leftist governmental goals, manipulated from the IPCC on downward to give the impression of certainty of knowledge.”
You know how it goes from there. Loud noises on the blogosphere translate into story lines for talk radio and Fox News. Then, the other cable and news stations, the national newspapers, and the wire services amplify the story.
Ever vigilant to defend the integrity of science from dismantled communists, Rush Limbaugh spent much of his week, including his entire Nov. 24 show, on “Climategate.” He reminded listeners what he’s been warning us for years: “It’s the biggest lie, the biggest scam, the biggest fraud in the history of the world.”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., rushed onto Fox to announce an investigation of agencies and scientists that “all along have been trying to hide the real, avoid the real, science about this notion of global warming.”
One little catch: Amid the maelstrom, it’s difficult to say whether anything in the climate unit’s 13 years of e-mails should change anyone’s understanding of the actual science behind climate change.
Bare-knuckled academic politics certainly is on display in the e-mails. One scientist appears to have celebrated the death of an adversarial colleague. Another tries to get an unfriendly scientist kicked out as editor of a journal.
In many cases, the scientists corresponding with each other on the e-mails come across as hunkered down against skeptics in the battle for public opinion -- plotting where to release a bit of information or how to avoid giving the skeptics ammo.
It seems that one leading scientist -- Phil Jones, the head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) -- engaged in an ill-advised effort to avoid releasing documents to the public under Great Britain’s Freedom of Information law. University officials argued that was because much of the proprietary data was acquired from third parties on the grounds that it would remain private. But Jones also appeared to want to keep the inner workings of his colleagues’ work out of the hands of skeptics. He feared they would comb over every detail to find points that could be twisted out of context for political purposes.
Now, Jones’ fears have been realized -- and then some. The hack of CRU’s emails appears to have been a sophisticated job. Using a computer in Turkey and a server in Russia, the e-mail hacker posted just over 1,300 of what must have been far, far more e-mails among CRU scientists and their colleagues around the world in 13 years. Then, the hacker posted a link to the e-mails on comments to the Air Vent and other blogs.
Skeptics’ blogs spent the next week plucking out the e-mails with nefarious-sounding wording as supposed evidence that the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change had been undermined. The phrasing that has grabbed the most attention was this sentence from a 10-year-old e-mail sent by Jones to three other scientists: “I’ve just completed Mike’s nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”
At first, glance that looks pretty deceptive. But there’s a legitimate explanation for the words “trick” and “hide.” Jones himself, as well as other scientists, explained that he was using the words colloquially, to shorthand a perfectly acceptable and publicly discussed approach to correcting a well-known glitch in a specific data set.
That explanation didn’t make it onto dozens of skeptics’ posts and comments. Nor did it move Fox News conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, who read it in measured, knowing tones before declaring:
“This is what appears to be going on behind the scenes, and literally trillions of dollars of policy decisions are being based on what these guys are telling us. ... We told you what was going on without proof because we listened to our gut. You’d never believe me, but once again here we are with yet another brand new reality.”
But there’s “new reality” and then there’s new reality. Beck didn’t talk about the real new reality, which was released the next day in the form of “the Copenhagen Diagnosis,” a review by 26 climate research scientists of peer-reviewed studies since 2007.
They found that “global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were nearly 40 percent higher than those in 1990” and that the rise in global temperatures over that time has pretty much tracked what climate scientists’ models have been saying would occur if emissions continued to rise.
They also reported that:
*The glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheets all are melting at an increasing rate.
*Sea levels have risen nearly twice as fast as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected in 2007 -- about an inch-and-half a year for the last 15 years.
*Chances are increasing that the climate system will reach “tipping points” where a cascade of changes become irreversible.
*And, finally global, emissions must peak in the next decade and must be followed by steep declines if we’re to avoid global temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius, which many scientists fear would serve as a point beyond which changes will become unmanageable.
A problem from the mainstream media’s perspective is that we’ve heard all that before, or at least something like it. According to the old journalistic saw, “when a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news."
News by that definition is less a reflection what’s important than what’s novel, which makes it susceptible to the manipulation of those who can come up with the freshest story line. And when an entire community is built up around feeding that story line to the media, the manipulations can eclipse the truth quite regularly.
The less dramatic truth about the purloined e-mails is that, in 13 years of e-mails, there was so little evidence of the manipulation of science. It seems to me that climate skeptics undermined their credibility by overstating what they’d found. The real “Climategate” is the failure of the mainstream media to discern what is true and significant from what is petty but dramatic, and the complicity of many in the media in outright lies.
That’s not to pretend that the e-mails amount to some sort of coup for those who want to see climate action. Jones’ apparent effort to skirt the Freedom of Information request and the nasty treatment by leading climatologists of colleagues who disagreed with them underscore that both diplomacy and openness are crucial in a debate that has become as political as it is scientific.
One scientist whose e-mails show up in the CRU cache predicts the controversy will blow over and ultimately vindicate him and his colleagues. That’s wishful thinking.
Regardless of its accuracy, a myth about the CRU e-mails already has been established. Fox’s David Asman encapsulates it this way: “New e-mails from global warming theorists appear to show that they have been covering up evidence that the Earth isn’t warming as much as they thought it was. In fact, it might actually be cooling a bit. Furthermore, there’s not as much evidence that man is responsible for climate change as has been claimed by Al Gore and others.”
That myth -- unsupported by the e-mails that so far have come to light -- now joins other shibboleths of climate skeptics: temperatures have dropped over the last decade; data linking carbon increases to rising temperatures has been discredited; Americans are being asked to sacrifice more than anyone else; and so on. Repeated often enough by skeptics and their friends on Fox and talk radio, they are then treated in the news media as one legitimate side in a debate -- even though the facts say otherwise.
The resulting confusion won’t stop us from dealing with climate change. Reality -- in the form of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, massive refugee problems, and other catastrophes -- will force us to respond in some fashion. Eventually. But the confusion will slow and weaken our response.
“Climategate” hasn’t created a mushroom cloud. But it has thickened the fog surrounding the debate that has caused us to wander far too slowly toward action.
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