What Can We Really Learn from "Climategate"?

by: Heather on 11/24/2009
Posted in: Climate Change

The recent Climategate scandal broke nearly a week ago - the online release of hundreds of private emails and documents which were illegally accessed through a security breach of servers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. Reaction to the emails has been mixed. At one extreme, climate deniers assert that their very existence places the "final nails into the coffin" of climate science. At the opposite end of the spectrum, climate scientists dismiss the furore as "instances of cherry-picked and poorly-worded "gotcha" phrases pulled out of context" , and not reflective of the "weight of scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change".

Whatever you choose to think about the brouhaha (and even George Monbiot recognizes its potential to further the interests of climate sceptics), there are secondary issues that deserve our attention. The release of these emails on the eve of the Copenhagen Climate Summit seems coldly calculated to cause maximum embarrassment at a critical juncture - a classic smokescreen technique most frequently employed by opponents who find themselves backed into a corner without a valid argument. As Professor Phil Jones, Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, who finds himself at the centre of the controversy, points out, "the facts speak for themselves; there is no need for anyone to manipulate them".

One of the most concerning aspects of the situation to my mind is the spectre of backlash which it raises. Writing for The Guardian, Mark Lynas suggests that in response to this situation, climate activists must start tempering and watering down their message:

We have to start accentuating the positive, rather than constantly invoking apocalypse. Getting off fossil fuels is a necessity, but that does not mean that people's lives must be made harder or more austere. Forget all the "war economy" analogies, locally grown jam and appeals to save old clothes. Our message needs to be a forward-looking one of hope, prosperity and technological progress.

We also have to stop trying to make people feel guilty. No, flying isn't analogous to child abuse. Polar bears won't drop from the sky. Constantly accusing normal people of immoral behaviour is perhaps a way to get noticed, but not a clever way to win converts. And the normal people in question, upset at being accused of killing babies every time they step onto Ryanair, will be very susceptible to the first conspiracy theorist who whispers in their ear: "Don't worry, it's not true."

While I agree that hysteria is a bad idea, whichever side of the debate you're on, I believe that the seriousness of the climate situation is such that our message needs to be strong and uncompromising. Climate change is a clear threat to the future of my children, their children, and their children's children. That reality just can't be sugar-coated. And the time to act on climate change is now.

For a full range of ideas on how to address the climate crisis, check out Guy Dauncey's The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming.

The Climate Challenge


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