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Climategate: What Really Happened?

How climate science became the target of "the best-funded, best-organized smear campaign by the wealthiest industry that the Earth has ever known."

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

By the end of December, the Copenhagen climate talks had ended in a frustrating standoff between the US and China, with no major agreements about worldwide greenhouse gas regulations.

Many of the think tanks that seized upon the scandal in weeks that followed were the same anti-regulation, oil-coated outlets that have been promoting climate change denial for years. The Cato Institute, which has received funding from oil giants Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, was a key player—Cato senior fellow Patrick Michaels got prime real estate in the New York Times, on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, and on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. In a January 2010 newsletter, Cato boasted that its senior fellow was at the "center of the 'Climategate' controversy."

Meanwhile, CEI, which has also enjoyed Koch and ExxonMobil funding, trotted out Horner at every opportunity: In May 2010, he wrote about what he called "green thuggery" at the National Review's website. In July 2010, Michaels was back in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages accusing scientists of "ugly pressure tactics" and "professional misconduct, data manipulation and jiggering of both the scientific literature and climatic data."

The story unleashed darker forces, as well. Mann's inbox was flooded with messages, the most civil of which called him a "fraud." Some contained death threats. Images of Mann and other scientists were posted on neo-Nazi sites. The CRU's Jones temporarily stepped down from his post; he later said he contemplated suicide.

 

Don't Believe the Hype?

AMERICAN SKEPTICISM about the danger of global warming was already on the rise when Climategate hit the news in 2009, but the story made independents (and some Democrats) far more likely to answer yes to the question: Do the media exaggerate the seriousness of climate change?

Republican, Democrats, Independents

 

A YEAR AND A HALF LATER, the question of who stole the emails and released them has never been answered. Mosher and other climate skeptics maintain that it was likely an inside job, carried out by someone at the University of East Anglia who wanted problematic science exposed. The CRU, on the other hand, maintains that it was the work of someone outside of the university—a "very professional job," says Trevor Davies, pro-vice chancellor for research at East Anglia and the former head of the CRU.

Meanwhile, the university hasn't disclosed the evidence for its assertion, nor has the Norfolk Constabulary, the local police department responsible for the official ongoing investigation. McIntyre says British counterterrorism officers have contacted him and other bloggers about the case, but as far as he knows, nothing has ever come of the inquiry.

It's clear that the hacker was at least familiar with the climate-science debate; he knew enough to search through the hacked emails using keywords like "Mann," "hockey stick," and "Phil Jones" and to sort them accordingly. A source close to the CRU explains that the unit's security wasn't very tight—its server is separate from the rest of the university's.

That said, the cybersecurity experts I talked to noted that a hack like this would have required some sophisticated skills. Once the hacker breached the server, he still would have had to find his way into the system administrator's account, a feat that could have required special software to access the password. Then, in order to remain anonymous when posting the emails online, he would have had to scan the internet for nonsecure servers to work from—this would have allowed him to cover his own IP address. The hacker also used servers in multiple countries, making it even more difficult to trace his whereabouts.

It later became clear that CRU was not the only target. In the fall of 2009, unknown parties posing as network technicians attempted to break into the office of a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. There were also attempts to gain access to servers at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. According to a source within the institution, there were also unsuccessful attempts to breach the server at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. A US diplomatic cable that WikiLeaks released in late 2010 also revealed "evidence of an attempt to gain unauthorized entry to computer systems" belonging to the State Department's climate bureau in 2009. The cable warned that "as negotiations on the subject of climate change continue, it is probable intrusion attempts such as this will persist."

 

SO DID THE SCIENTISTS DO something more diabolical than gripe about critics and fret over how their research would be interpreted? Not according to seven separate inquiries on the subject, each of which found that the researchers' work was not in question—though several concluded that their behavior was. An independent probe organized by the University of East Anglia (PDF) found that some had turned down "reasonable requests for information" and had, at times, been "unhelpful and defensive." It noted "a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness."

But none of the exonerations mattered: The scientists had lost control of the narrative. The percentage of people who believe that the world is warming has fallen 14 points from its 2008 high, according to polling (PDF). Gallup's annual poll in 2010 found that 48 percent of Americans said they believe that fears of global warming "are generally exaggerated"—the highest figure since pollsters began asking that question in 1997.

Most significant, however, has been the long-term hardening of the political divide on the issue. In 1997, the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who believed in climate change was nearly the same—47 percent and 46 percent, respectively. By March 2010, 66 percent of Democrats and only 31 percent of Republicans agreed that global warming was already occurring. Half of the new House GOP members flatly deny that the planet is warming, and only four say they accept the science of climate change.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the new head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (PDF), last fall outlined plans to hold hearings on the "Politicization of Science," focused largely on Climategate. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the new chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has already said that he plans to look into "the global warming or global freezing." The vice chairman of the same committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), has accused climate scientists of a "massive international scientific fraud (PDF)." Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has subpoenaed (PDF) records from Mann's time at the University of Virginia in an attempt to prove that he committed "fraud." Congressional Republicans are also using Climategate as fodder in their fight to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

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