Saturday, April 6, 2013
I've only recently heard of the "Climategate" scandal. Whenever I'd be looking at an online news article that had something about global warming and allowed people to comment on it, a surprisingly large amount of people would bring up the word "Climategate." Usually, they would juxtapose the mentioning of Climategate with some bold, unfounded statement such as "Global warming is a hoax." I wondered if this scandal would provide enough evidence to show that climate scientists were truly conspiring amongst themselves to try to convince the public that climate change was occurring when it was not. Being an innocent, naive college kid, I always believe that our government is wonderful and never lies to the public. As history has shown, this is not often the case.
I found a hard time believing Climategate because I thought it was simply impossible for all (or at least the vast majority) of incredibly smart climate researchers to participate in such a conspiracy. I also had my doubts that the Earth wasn't clearly warming. I wore sweats throughout elementary and middle school, and although I upped my style to shorts/jeans/khakis, the spinning image of me in sweats was implanted in many of my fellow high school students that I knew in middle school. As such, I was voted "most likely to wear sweats" in the Garfield High School yearbook. This winter, I've only worn shorts. If that's not incontrovertible evidence for global warming, I don't know what is.
The Climategate scandal began in November of 2009 when a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia was hacked externally. This hacker then copied thousands of emails and computer files and sent them to a variety of locations on the Internet. These emails eventually fell into the hands of climate change skeptics/deniers and became a popular subject for these people to blog about. In response to the content the emails, these people asserted that climate scientists manipulated data and attempted to suppress critics of climate change. These accusations of scientific conspiracy were rejected by the CRU, with the CRU claiming that the emails were taken out of context.
On December 7, 2009, there was an international climate change conference in Copenhagen geared towards solutions to mitigating climate change. Conveniently enough, these emails had reached the mainstream media at this time. In response to news of the conspiracy, The American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) all stated their support for the scientific consensus on climate change.
The emails were reviewed by eight committees and were found to have no evidence of any fraudulent activity. Climate change skeptics, however, looked at certain emails (which were filtered by the hacker) and sought to provide evidence to the public of climate scientists saying things that contradicted with their opinions as made public or admitting that global warming was indeed a big fat conspiracy. These skeptics focused on a couple specific quotes that would seem to provide evidence of a conspiracy; one phrase that was used in particularly was "the fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't." This sentence was taken out of context, as it was part of a discussion on monitoring energy flows involved in short-term climate variability. Regardless, skeptics jumped on these phrases and disseminated the idea of a massive conspiracy to the public.
The responses to these inquiries varied sharply along political lines. Many Republicans (most notably Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner) argued that these emails provided clear evidence of data manipulation and suppression by scientists in order for them to achieve their own ideological and economic goals. Many democrats and scientists affiliated with the Obama administration agreed with the results of the inquiries and held that these emails were completely taken out of context and didn't do anything to undermine the "very strong scientific consensus" that the Earth is warming due to the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.
Climate skeptics suddenly became climate celebrities due to Climategate. There are always people who think some governmental conspiracy is going on, but these emails were taken as a golden ticket for skeptics to prove to the public that global warming was a big fat hoax. These accusations by skeptics were shot down by Nature, The Telegraph, FactCheck, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and a bunch of other high profile magazines, newspapers, and disseminators of scientific and political information to the public. Regardless, the rumors of wrongdoing were so widespread by this point that climate scientists received numerous email threats - in some cases, death threats - in the wake of the hacking.
These hackings did nothing to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change, but they did undermine the public opinion. One of my favorite quotes applicable to this situation comes from Newsweek journalist Sharon Bagley, who stated, "one of the strongest, most-repeated findings in the psychology of belief is that once people have been told X, especially if X is shocking, if they are later told, 'No, we were wrong about X,' most people still believe in X." When I see comments on global warming articles that say that climate change is a lie and cite Climategate as an example, I regard it as the tendency for people to distrust their government, and, to be completely honest, a method of venting against the current Obama administration. In the end, Climategate was nothing more than people, most notably high-profile climate skeptics, jumping at the opportunity to take these emails out of context and spread their ideas to the public while accusing scientists of conspiring to do the same thing.
There are lots of misunderstandings in life. When my brother was really young, he took a big gulp of Henry Weinhard's thinking that it was Martinelli's non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider and spit it right out in disgust... it was pretty memorable. I have doubts over climate change skeptics truly 'misunderstanding' the emails; I think there is more evidence to support the notion that the emails had no wrongdoing than the contrary. I do, however, think there is a misunderstanding in the public. Global warming is hard to accurately communicate to the public because it is such a complex topic. In my experience, I have found that many people's opinions of climate change stem from the simple, largely unfounded claims that circulate throughout our politics and culture, such as claims that 'Climategate proves global warming is a hoax' or 'Hurricane Sandy proves that climate change is occurring.' It may not lead to as much economic success for news companies trying to gain prominence in our society, but an emphasis should be placed on accurate, full, and, dare I say, less concrete articles about climate change.
Thanks for reading,