Science

Climategate: Is it just a load of hot air?

By Alexey Underwood

 

As a British Social Attitudes survey suggests that public support for fighting climate change has decreased in recent years,  Alexey Underwood investigates the reasons behind the change in public opinion in the wake of Climategate 

 

 

The British public’s support for fighting climate change has waned in recent years, the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey has suggested.

The survey, conducted annually since 1983, revealed a 13 per cent increase this year in the public thinking claims about environmental threats were “exaggerated”.

Additionally, 17 per cent less of the population would be prepared to pay“much higher prices” in order to save the environment, compared to the 2000 report.

These figures are but part of a much larger picture; global scepticism about climate change is on the rise. This increase is unquestionably due in part to the Climategate scandal which shook the world of ecological science.

Climate change has often been met with scepticism and ridicule in all circles, from politics to the mainstream entertainment culture.

Some critics of the concept and its proponents have notably even gone as far as to liken it to the mythical and fantastical being, ‘Manbearpig’, which is famously “half man, half bear, and half pig”.

Needless to say, environmentalists have rarely had it easy in the 21st century, and have long been the laughingstock of modern society.

In November 2009, their plight was further worsened when the server at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was hacked into and many emails were released to the public, several weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change.

Although no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct was found, excerpts from the emails – when taken out of context – proved to be an effective smear campaign against environmental scientists.

Over 4,000 pieces of documentation proved to be rich pickings for climate sceptics who sought out and subsequently circulated seemingly incriminating quotes, including:

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

“Phil and I are likely to have to respond to more crap criticisms from the idiots in the near future.”

And, “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

Rather questionably at the time, researchers had no response to the furore, instead remaining tight-lipped on the matter and allowing the international community to stew in their indignation. Their silence arguably created an impression of guilt. The University of East Anglia even had a 3 day period between being notified of the security breach and the story reaching the press, yet they had not initiated a response of any kind.

Sceptics were given plentiful ammunition with which to fire off accusations that the evidence of the effects of climate change had been tampered with, or even fabricated, with motives of financial and political gain.

Although no concrete evidence was ever presented to support these accusations, significant questions about the peer-review process and the overall moral integrity of the scientific collective were raised.

As a consequence of this, the BSA recently found shifts in public opinion towards a sceptical stance.

However, there is second part to this dramatic tale, now known as “Climategate 2.0”.

In November 2011, yet more private emails – over 200, 000 – were stolen and published online. Yet again, this scandal occurred just before important environmental talks – this time in Dublin.

The scientific community watched on with baited breath, expecting another witch-hunt.

The researchers whose emails were leaked were quick to pre-emptively call a press conference in which they warned of the dangers of miscontextualising, and that the emails were not, in fact, a “smoking gun”.

The witch-hunt never came, and the response was, in a word, underwhelming. This was perhaps because public confidence in the theory had already been shaken in the aftermath of Climategate 2009 – so leaked emails were no longer such shocking news.

Perhaps however, it was underwhelming simply because the press no longer had interest in running yet another Climategate story. In either case, the leak was but a mere blip on the radars of public interest, and the emails dropped out of mass circulation within weeks,if not days.

It was a matter of too little, too late for the climate scientists –their silence after the leak of 2009 has seemingly caused irreparable damage to the public’s trust in them.

The public have clearly since lost interest in any subsequent leaks and the researchers’ attempts at redeeming themselves.

There are a number of lessons to learn from the Climategate fiasco. Scientific transparency in certain circles is clearly lacking, and the peer-review process itself needs to be well-reviewed. However, climate change is still a significant issue. Environmental responsibility should still be encouraged and instilled in the younger generations.

Unfortunately, unless any groundbreaking revelations are made in the near future, the likelihood of this happening is now diminished.

Great Britain, for now, is to remain a nation of sceptics in this new age of distrust and secrecy.

 

 

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