The real scandal in the hacked climate change e-mails controversy

Rupert Read
25 November 2009

It is day six of the 'scandal' over the hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, in which a thousand or so private email messages between climate scientists were hacked into and made public. According to the ostriches hoping that Copenhagen will fail, these emails demonstrate that climate-science is in serious trouble. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you need a full backgrounder on the ‘scandal’, see the University of East Anglia’s  statement, which includes a direct rebuttal of the single seemingly most-damaging e-mail, which read:

I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.

See also the Guardian’s initial coverage, and Carbon Fixated’s post on Newtongate for a brilliant historical parallel and parody of James Delingpole’s hysteria in the Telegraph.

The University of East Anglia is where I work and teach. The ‘scandal’ here has I think been gotten out of all proportion in some of the media, old and new. I have now read a good number of the 'worst' of the hacked emails. I also know a couple of the protagonists personally, and for human-interest value the hacked emails certainly do offer some tidbits. But when the dust settles, I predict that the climate-deniers will be left holding onto hardly anything here.

There is so far as I can tell at this stage no significant scientific scandal, and most importantly absolutely no reason to doubt any of the fundamentals of the science of man-made climate change here, just a few unpleasant or silly or (at worst) unwise and bad-practice emails. Scientists aren't angels; like the rest of us, they sometimes get angry with their detractors, and even work to marginalise them, and so on.

Some good that may come out of this is:

  1. For more people to realise that scientists are simply human, and that science is not holy writ, but to realise too that these facts and the poor behaviour at times of some scientists doesn't in itself cast any doubt over the central findings of their research. To doubt the greenhouse effect or to doubt major anthropogenic climate change is about as sensible as doubting anthropogenic lung cancer (The two cases are actually quite similar - both involve pollution of a finite air-system; and both have seen long-lasting and well-funded campaigns of denial. The smoking companies got away with denying anthropogenic lung cancer for a whole generation, before they were finally smoked out.)
  2. There are quite a lot of calls now for the full data-sets which the best British climate scientists base their work and their predictions on to be made fully public. That would I think be welcome, and the UEA climate-scientists should step up efforts to realise this aspiration - it would among other things dispose of the climate-sceptics' silly accusations of there being a conspiracy here, of something big being hidden.
  3. There do seem to be a few instances in the hacked emails - if these particular ones are genuine - of clearly unethical and possibly unlawful behaviour. If this hacking episode means that there is less of that in future, then that will of course be a very positive result. That is presumably why the UEA administration have now initiated an independent review, “which will address the issue of data security, an assessment of how we responded to a deluge of Freedom of Information requests, and any other relevant issues which the independent reviewer advises should be addressed.”

As a philosopher of science, it worries me to see the level of ignorance displayed by many of those who are jumping all over this leaked information as if it undermines the science around global warming. Except possibly in some literally marginal ways, it simply does not, once you understand the context of most of these emails. Furthermore, as a commenter said on my blog, “I would like to be able to inspect all e-mails ever sent or received by (a) anyone connected with the major oil companies [that funded climate-denial organisations], (b) at least a few of those who have been most vocal in their scepticism to man-made climate change.” A reasonable request…

But changes 1 through 3 are nevertheless potentially good news for science and for all of us. To find out more, the best place to go is Real Climate.

Meanwhile, several UEA and other scientists are having to change their bank accounts, their passports, etc., because the hackers thoughtlessly publicised emails with details of those things in them. Thoughtless and heartless, as well as (obviously) illegal.

As I’ve said: there are some things in the e-mails that shouldn’t be there. I think that there will need to be more apologies, before this thing is over, and some changes of future practice. But the real scandal is not what is in the emails; nor is it even the illegal and thoughtless hacking operation. The real scandal is that, as we run up to Copenhagen, much of the media and blogosphere is pre-occupied with a few minor pieces of dirty-laundry in some e-mails, when the very fate of humankind is at stake. The real scandal is that climate-change scepticism has brought us to this point, where only a few years separate us from the likely onset of runaway climate change. Respect to any climate-deniers who invest all their pension funds in seashore hotels in the Maldives… otherwise, they should step aside, and let the work of saving the future begin.

The real scandal is that the human race has neither paid enough attention to the climate scientists nor changed its (by which I mean our) way of life so that that life can go on.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData