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Human Dimensions of Global Warming

Climategate

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On Tuesday, 17 November 2009, over 1,000 emails from a 15-year period ending on 12 November 2009, were posted on a climate skeptics website. These correspondences were between climate scientists at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) located at the University of East Anglia, England and several other well-known climate scientists, including one at Penn State. How the website gained the e-mails is unclear, although they must have been accessed by a hacker or by somebody at the CRU. Right-wing bloggers immediately focused on a handful of e-mails in which the scientists: debated the merits and flaws of some work and whether it should be published; used the word “trick” to describe standard statistical adjustments; and denigrated some infamous climate change skeptics. The bloggers said that these e-mails proved that anthropogenic climate change is a conspiracy perpetrated by scientists colluding with government officials to reap financial benefits. The bloggers called the affair Climategate to suggest –– similar to the Watergate scandal –– misconduct and cover-up by climate scientists. Mainstream media and politicians jumped on these discussions to fan the flames further.

There was immediate fallout from Climategate. The deliberations at the Framework Convention’s COP15 in Copenhagen, which many people thought might produce the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, were seriously affected by the affair, with disappointing progress being made. Authorities took swift action to investigate potential wrongdoing by the scientists. In April 2010, an independent government panel cleared CRU climate scientists of any scientific misconduct. In June 2010, a Penn State investigation cleared the Penn State climate scientist of all allegations. The blogosphere is still howling for Climategate scientists to receive criminal charges and punishment.

Climategate also had longer-lasting impacts. National surveys conducted before and after Climategate showed that Climategate had a significant negative effect on public belief in climate change. These polls also showed that although most Americans still trust scientists more than other sources of climate change information, there were significant declines in that level of trust. It should be noted that this loss in trust was mostly experienced by Americans who were already doubtful or skeptical about climate change.

In the end, although there was no wrongdoing by climate scientists, the leaking of the e-mails and skillful manipulation of the blogosphere proved to be a decisive victory for deniers in the climate wars. They negatively influenced the Framework Convention process, causing it to lose momentum and perhaps permanently derail. They cast doubt on the integrity and trustworthiness of climate scientists, solidified the position of climate skeptics, pushed more doubtful individuals into the climate skeptic camp, and seriously slowed the growing momentum to take action on climate change. It remains to be seen if Climategate was the battle that turned the tide for the deniers’ side, or if it was one of the last gasps of a lost cause. The climate wars continue.