The chief lesson of Climategate: the depths of our naivety

“There continues to be a scientific debate about the reality, causes and uncertainties of climate change that is conducted through the conventional mechanisms of peer-reviewed publication of results, but this has been paralleled by a more vociferous, more polarised debate in the blogosphere and in popular books. In this the  protagonists tend to be divided between those who believe that climate is changing and that human activities are contributing strongly to it, and those that are sceptical of this view. This strand of debate has been more passionate, more rhetorical, highly political and one in which each side frequently doubts the motives and impugns the honesty of the other, a conflict that has fuelled many of the views expressed in the released CRU emails, and one that has also been dramatically fuelled by them. It is difficult at the moment to predict whether and how the necessary cooler, rigorous scientific debate and the vital public policy interface will develop, or the effect that it will have on scientific publication or peer review…” ICCER Report page 42

When two tribes go to war

Following the release of Independent Climate Change Email Review (ICCER) report the majority of mainstream media is catching on to the fact that “Climategate” was indeed a faux scandal. The irony is that the denial movement claims scientists are manufacturing the crisis of global warming, when in reality it is “they” that manufactured “Climategate”.

Indeed, if we ever need to study a perfect example of manufacturing a controversy, then Climategate stands as the example par excellence.

In a nutshell Climategate was this: hackers broke into the University of East Anglia’s computer network to steal data from the CRU in November 2009. Email correspondence between scientists were quote mined in order to imply they where up to no good. It is clear this was timed to destabilise the Copenhagen conference. A “perfect storm” of misinformation was created, generated and fanned by the denial blogosphere and “skeptical” journalists in the media (Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun, FOX news, the guys at WUWT etc.).

Subsequent independent inquiries have found scientists acted with honesty and integrity, and that the science supporting global warming is sound.

And so it ends.


Climategate will live on as a powerful myth for conspiracy theorists who see sinister motives in the workings of government, science and “greens”. The blogging war will continue for a long time, with “deniers” and “alarmists” locked into perpetual conflict.

Our “two tribes” will forever be hostile to each other.

One thing we have learned is that the “deniers” will stop at nothing, using every dirty trick in the book to discredit the science and scientists.

It is a “street fight”: let’s acknowledge just how tough a fight it is, regroup and become better at countering the tactics.

But is this all Climategate has to teach us?

I believe Climategate has taught us an even bigger lesson.

The depths of our naivety.

Who is to blame for this mess? Not who you think…

“The interface between science and public policy is a crucial one in matters of great public importance such as climate change. The IPCC was set up to provide just such an interface. Its job was to draw on and synthesise the diverse strands that contribute to modern climate science (see paragraph 6) and to make this accessible to the public, policymakers and other stakeholders in a way that is comprehensible and that does justice to underlying uncertainties. The importance of this process is underlined by the potential magnitude of the economic and social consequences of governmental decisions in the domain of global climate change…” – ICCER Report page

Climategate was damaging not to only climate science, but to the institution of science.

The finger-pointing began in November of last year and will continue. Obviously the denial movement shares a large percentage of the blame. Fingers have been pointed at the media and rightly so. Some have even cast blame on the shoulders of the scientists themselves.

However I have to ask one question that I don’t think anyone else has asked: “Just how naive were we?”

Did we really think presenting the facts of climate change and “debunking” the deniers is all we have to do to shape both public opinion and policy?

The failure of Copenhagen and the continued existence and effectiveness of the “denial machine” are but symptoms of the resistance to the sweeping changes our societies will need to undertake in response to a changed climate. Because any response to climate change is a civilisational challenge.

It’s a bigger reconstruction effort than building New Orleans after Katrina. It’s a larger undertaking than the Marshal Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War. It’s a greater technology challenge than the Manhattan Project that built “the bomb” or the cumulative effort it took to build the Internet.

It’s all of this effort combined and multiplied.

The actions of all sovereign nations, corporate entities and civil society institutions will need to align themselves to the single goal of mitigating and adapting to global warming. Nations, industries and individuals will have to sacrifice some of their self-interest for the “good of the planet” and “civilisation”, abstract concepts that many people don’t share.

When did a species – not just a society – ever do this? When you stop to think about it seriously, one is struck by the enormity of what we are being asked to do in response to climate change.

So who is to blame?

We are.

There are precedents: we should have anticipated this all along

A recent poll on MSNBC (and yes I accept just how unscientific these things are) asked if the results of the ICCER were “fair”, with the majority saying “No”.

So far respondents to the poll have made the following statements:

No. The e-mails clearly evidence collusion, hiding & falsifying of data, & lack of openness, all hallmarks of scientific scamming & lying.

It is all guess work based on theory without any absolutes to build on.

It is all guess work based on theory without any absolutes to build on.

I don’t think they fabricated data, but they revealed a deep set bias that likely colours their research and conclusions.

I believe in environmental responsibility, but think that whole global warming and climate change theory is a money making scam by those who have a vested interest in selling carbon credits ie. Al Gore, most of our Congress and Senate, and certain companies like GE which just happens to own MSNBC. During the 70s and 80s they were predicting another ice age due to the rising carbon levels, now we are going to melt. It is the politics of fear in pursuit of the almighty dollar and nothing more.

As explained by Wikipedia, since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, world balance does not exist. Saying that the USA and USSR super-powers kept the world in check. What? So now many are getting behind this Global Governance concept. I started looking through the internet for Global Governance information. In the following video done on a study of Global Governance, you will notice, at the first, a famous name on it. The name keeps popping up in common with Global Governance. George Soros.That is right, the billionaire, George Soros. Obama sent $2 BILL of our tax dollars to Brazil for Petrobas along w/Soro’s 9 Billion. You libs and dems out there had best get a clue. You have put the ENEMY WITHIN in OUR White House. You’re fools at best. This guy’s entire background is Muslim/Marxist and he is dismantling our country just as fast as he can because unless he gets the illegal vote, which is why he’ll push amnesty, he’s OUT but we need to get him OUT sooner.

We can chide the writers of these comments as fools or shills for the oil companies, but to be frank we should have known that such responses were likely.

I’ve frequently made a connection between creationism and climate change denial, as both movements share similar tactics. Nearly 50% of Americans reject evolution in favour of Creationism.

As it’s been noted earlier we know many scientific theories are subject to fierce resistance if they are felt to threaten the world view of entrenched elites. We’ve known this since the days of Copernicus.

And yet in tackling global warming we did no analysis or planning of the cultural, societal and philosophical objections to change.

We failed to take into account human nature, real politick and the power of vested corporate and political interests.

We’re being asked to undertake a civilisation change: stop being naive about the challenges

“If we search for the roots of climate denial it soon becomes apparent that they lie in the reaction of American conservatism to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the threat of the ‘red menace’ receded, the energy conservatives had put into opposing communism sought other outlets. Islamism had for some time been building as a threat, as it seemed to challenge the achievements of the West and the inevitable march of its influence. But there was an internal enemy too. Since the 1970s ‘neo-conservatism’ had set itself against the influence of the ‘new class’ of liberal intellectuals who had betrayed the Western tradition with a sustained critique of its assumptions and achievements. Feminism, multi-culturalism and anti-colonialism not only sought to correct injustices, but uncovered oppressive structures buried deep within the foundations of Western civilisation…” – Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the last twenty years of climate change “activism” is the belief that simply stating the scientific evidence would convince six billion (plus) people of the need to put aside the habits, comforts and luxuries of the past would be a relatively simple ask.

“Just go green! Don’t drive, take the bus! Don’t consume so much! Close down your coal fired generators!”

Because that is exactly what we are asking our societies to do.

Think of the vested political, economic, military, social and cultural interests that need to be subjected to a paradigm shift in attitude.

Industries such as oil and mining (especially coal mining) will need to be phased out. Multi-billion dollar companies will have to surrender their futures, give up market share and hand over “their business” to competitors. When has that happened before in a planned fashion on a global scale?

I can’t think of a single example.

Did we really think these industries wouldn’t fight tooth-and-nail to the death? That is why they are funding the denial industry. It is for them a fight to the death.

Consumers will most likely have to pay higher prices for energy, gas and other consumer goods. Governments will need to invest billions in infrastructure. New taxes will need to be raised. Thus, we are asking ordinary citizens to change their lives and surrender more of their earnings. If they are in an industry such as mining to change their careers.

Should we not be surprised that a healthy percentage would prefer to deny climate change so that they may continue to enjoy the perks of their lifestyles?

Countries such as the United States, Japan, China, India would need to sacrifice the concept of unlimited growth. They would have to surrender some of their power. The governance structures that need to be erected in order manage the transition of our civilisation to a “no carbon” future will see countries sacrifice some of their self-interest for not only their own good, but for that of their neighbours and rivals.

We need to undertake a planned “industrial revolution” in order to avoid the worst possible outcomes of climate change. Switching our entire civilisation from one source of energy (fossil fuels) to another (renewable) within a relatively short time frame (measured in decades, when such changes take generations) is an incredible undertaking.

At no point in the history of our species has this happened.

Our societies have grown from being a collection of warring tribes, to that of warring kingdoms and empires to warring nation states.

Again I have to ask, just how easy did we think it would be?

It is this naivety on behalf of many – scientists, activists, journalists and people such as myself – that is partly to blame. It was an innocent mistake, but a mistake it was.

We blithely assumed it was an easy task.

We trusted reason. We trusted the facts would wind the argument. We trusted governments and we trusted scientists to fix it.

But our species is irrational, short-sighted, tribal, aggressive and expansionary.

So who is to blame?

Again, we are.

We have fallen victim to a kind of monism: because the evidence for global warming is so clear, therefore the policy responses must be readily translatable into action.

Moving from A to B, and then C seemed relatively simple.

Societies do not plan their evolution, it plays out over centuries.

Global warming means we have to plan on a planetary and civilisational level: again, how easy did we think this was going to be?

The responsibility of the scientific community and the need for a global communications initiative

“The scientific literature is relatively opaque to non-specialists. Scientific understanding that is transmitted into the public domain must be comprehensible to non-specialists, make appropriate and not excessive claims, and include careful statements of the uncertainties surrounding that understanding…” ICCER Report page 40

“Therefore, the Review would urge all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand; and to be open in providing the information that will enable the debate, wherever it occurs, to be conducted objectively. That said, a key issue is how scientists should be supported to explain their position, and how a public space can be created where these debates can be conducted on appropriate terms….” ICCER Report page 42

Scientists are being asked to be become “better educators”.

But this only prompts another question: how is this going to happen?   This has been a fierce debate within the “alarmist” (those that accept the science) community as to just how responsible scientists are for this, and how they could become more effective communicators.

We also need to ask the question “Is this their job??   In one sense the science community have already achieved this: the IPCC as a body has done an incredible job of synthesising the science of global warming and producing information for policy makers around the world.

Thus I’ve come to the belief that we need a body of similar scope and ambition to the IPCC that will help educate the public. And yes, in saying this I understand just how complex it would be to establish such an initiative. So I’m speculating, thinking “big”.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic.

The IPCC materials are publicly available, but they are not easily digestible. They are intended for a specific audience, and are a masterful synthesis of the science. However they are not readily accessible to a lay audience, let alone people without access to the Internet.

The IPCC materials target an elite audience.

It has taken me months to read them, understand and educate myself on the basics of the science. And I have access to the internet, the benefit of a post-graduate education and the time to devote to this interest. How does my opportunity compare to the average farmer in China? Or the slum dweller living on Jo’Burg?

We need to broaden the audience of the IPCC from policy makers to a global scale.

The scientists can’t do it alone, it needs to be part of a broader initiative.  The remit of the IPCC could be broadened. It could be a multidisciplinary body comprising not just scientist but sociologists, historians, psychologists, communications experts and politicians that would examine communications strategies for the various demographics and “audiences”.

Perhaps they could be the source of information tailor-made to a global audience: books, films, YouTube videos, podcasts, pamphlets…

In order to “save the world” we must “educate the world”.

[1] I appreciate that there has been some criticism of the IPCC in its failure to include other disciplines. Perhaps it is time to broaden its role and function.

16 thoughts on “The chief lesson of Climategate: the depths of our naivety

  1. adelady says:

    I’m not so sure about the naivety. Remember the success around ozone and acid rain. Scientists described the problems, governments around the world took the necessary action. A win! Two wins!

    Scientists and the rest of us might also have swallowed the economics Koolaid. If you just read the texts and theories, and that’s where scientists start in unfamiliar territory, you’d think, Aha! Entrepreneurs and large investors will see a great new opportunity opening up and they’ll rush, in hordes, to get a whole new swag of profits. But that’s not how it works.

    So-called entrepreneurs áre rarely innovative or original, let alone risk-takers in new fields. (The well publicised exceptions are just that, exceptions.) By and large they either stick to what they know or persuade governments to hand over public utilities because, they *say*, they can run them more efficiently. No. They just latch onto a guaranteed revenue stream with a captive consumer base. Not much entrepreneurship there.

    Try reading some John Ralston Saul. It’s a bit depressing at times. But his approach provides food for further thought.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      I agree, as I drafted this I was thinking about the Montreal Treaty (and acid rain) as a good counter-arguments as to what I was arguing.

      The question is “what happened”, as we have seen to have forgotten some valuable lessons. Industries made changes, adopted new standards and methods of production, but the manufacturers that used CFCs where relatively speaking, small and lacking political leverage. Oil and energy are a different case.

      RE Saul, I read him some time ago and dismissed, however I’m coming round to thinking about what he has to say.

  2. JG says:

    There’s a useful article on the journalism FAIL concerning the various Climategate exonerations in the current Columbia Journalism Review:

  3. manuelg says:

    China and India have an out-sized stake in the population of future generations. When they begin to act accordingly, the real work can being.

    [Not chiding them for doing not doing more now. They have to balance development now with the environmental needs of the future generations later, because development now is a huge component of the foundation for greater quality of life of their future generations. It is very easy for me to argue for austerity for the majority of China and India so emissions can be cut, while I have the benefit of a comfortable standard of living, paid for in past emissions.]

  4. manuelg says:

    Sorry, for the mangled English.

    Life does not begin at conception. Life does not begin at the second trimester. Life begins after the second cup of coffee. 😉

  5. JG says:

    China and India have an out-sized stake in the population of future generations. When they begin to act accordingly, the real work can being.

    China, to give it credit, has taken one very significant step toward reducing AGW: because of its policy of curbing reproduction rates, there are (I believe I have this figure right) about a billion fewer human beings on the planet today than there might have been. The carbon footprint of a billion human beings is enormous.

    Indian made a similar attempt a couple of decades ago, but it was far less effective and very substantially less humane (and more politically corrupted).

  6. John r t says:

    re ¨…are manufacturing the crisis …¨

    Advocacy is not part of science. Crisis-manufacturing is the problem.

    When ´experts´ become advocates, in law for instance, their witness is degraded; here is a result of decades of special pleading. Government employees, contractors and subsidy-begging industries whose financial interests lead them to recruit researchers have created a genuine crisis. Atmospheric sciences suffer, not because of emails and FOI requests, but because some advocates stepped away from protocols. Then they tried to hide the evidence. Climate ´scientists´ are in crisis mode.

    Earth´s atmosphere will continue to change. Life will continue to evolve, continue to adapt. Change is constant, inevitable. Man-made crises are useful for some, but damaging to most persons.

    re hackers The source of the emails has not been indentified. What evidence of hacking can you provide?

    • Ian Pulsford says:

      Before you attack alternative energy industries as “subsidy-begging” you should attack the long established subsidies on old energy industries and industries that use them, such as transport. Those sectors don’t need to “beg” we’ve been subsidising them for decades.

  7. klem says:

    “Consumers will most likely have to pay higher prices for energy, gas and other consumer goods. ”

    Yea so? This is part of the carbon pricing myth. People beleive that if energy is more expensive, the planet will somehow be saved. However, if there is a price on carbon, and it is rising, it increases the cost of energy. So initially it will affect the price of fuel and those who are relatively poor will need to conserve, the relatively wealthy will not notice. But energy costs are built into the price and cost of everything. If the price of energy rises, this means that everything will increase in price incrementally. What this amounts to is simply an inflationary pressure, all one needs to do is get a raise and everything is covered. You can continue to drive your SUV and it’s business as usual. No need to conserve anything; every time the cost of living goes up due to rising fuel costs, people get a raise. There is nothing new here; this is simply the way we have always lived.

    When it’s distilled down, the end result is a new carbon commodity market will have been created, that’s it. A small group of organizations and people will become wealthy from the market. Wow.

    Way to save the planet.

    • Ian Pulsford says:

      It will take a concerted effort. If you leave it to the market alone then you might get just the result you outlined. Read about how Sweden has reduced its percentage of energy derived from oil from about 77% in the 70s to about 32% in 2005 in response to the 70’s oil crisis.

  8. JG says:

    Atmospheric sciences suffer, not because of emails and FOI requests, but because some advocates stepped away from protocols.


  9. JG says:

    When it’s distilled down, the end result is a new carbon commodity market will have been created, that’s it. A small group of organizations and people will become wealthy from the market. Wow.


  10. […] The Independent Climate Change email Review which reported last week  made interesting comments on the communication of science and the role of scientists in this. Mike at Watching the Deniers has written a thoughtful article on lessons we can draw from this report on this and other matters. It’s well worth a read – I recommend it (see The chief lesson of Climategate: the depths of our naivety). […]

  11. Fred Read says:

    How come Phil Jones got to chose his own papers for the so-called “independent” Oxburgh enquiries?

    Do they think we are stupid?

  12. alamin says:

    This is very intresting, You are a very skilled blogger. I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post.

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