“Climategate” and the Road Ahead

This essay was co-authored with Kristen Sheeran.


When Bernard Madoff was caught orchestrating a Ponzi scheme that would have slackened Adam Smith’s jaw, did the right side of the political spectrum undulate in abhorrence, chastising capitalism as an abominable system with zero credibility?


When the financial sector flopped on its back in September 2008, did the right wing demand the end of the free market as we know it?


Of course not.


However, when climate-change deniers—modern-day rock stars of the right-wing—cast doubt on the internal correspondence of scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit in the UK, apparently we’re supposed to toss decades of real-deal, peer-review science down the memory hole.


In an episode that’s become known as “Climategate,” hackers pilfered emails between researchers at the Climate Research Unit that supposedly reveal scientific trickery designed to manipulate climate data and conspire to marginalize climate contrarians.


Let’s set aside the glaring contradiction that supposed law-and-order types are conspicuously uninterested in apprehending the law-breaking, email-nabbing miscreants.


And let’s also set aside the fact that the snippets from the purloined emails are being shamelessly yanked out of context and that each ostensible misdeed thus far has a logical explanation.


Climate-change skeptics have taken full advantage of the illegal act to push their pre-cooked conclusions that human-caused global warming is a farce.


They have re-opened their well-worn playbook, creating a pseudo-controversy that has wedged open a window through which global-warming deniers have rammed themselves with abandon.


They’ve launched a wave of propaganda that has resulted in a new round of “balance as bias” whereby those who doubt anthropogenic global warming—a tiny fraction of the scientific community and their allies in the political sphere—are pitted head-to-head against the rest of the scientific community who, based on sound scientific inquiry that has passed through the peer-review scientific process, state correctly that global warming is occurring and that humans are likely at the root of it. Such “balance” is biased in favor of those who do not have science on their side.


“Climategate” has provided the political oxygen for climate-change skeptics on life support.


Rejuvenated global-warming deniers have used this strategic space to peddle two myths. First, they’ve argued that global warming is not happening and if it is, humans have not caused it.


This claim conveniently ignores that fact that the Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Science, the American Geophysical Union and other mainstream scientific organizations have asserted that the email theft is distorting a debate that’s long been settled.


According to the World Meteorological Organization, the current decade is the hottest since temperatures began to be recorded in the mid-19th century. The earth is warming and humanity is almost assuredly a major protagonist in the unfolding climate drama.


Second, the ever-opportunistic global-warming skeptics have argued that addressing global warming will savage the economy. Yet, the overwhelming evidence from the peer–reviewed economics literature supports immediate and aggressive emissions reduction as a sound insurance policy against the enormous costs of inaction.


Reputable studies agree that investing 1-3% of global GDP each year in energy efficiency, avoided deforestation, and the conversion of energy systems to renewables should keep global warming to less than 2°C and minimize the risks of potentially catastrophic climate damages.


This investment at the national level, though large, is still less than what countries like the US and China currently spend on their militaries. 


And current legislative proposals to curb greenhouse gas pollution in the US aimed at far less ambitious targets carry much lower price tags. The Waxman-Markey bill, for example, will have a negligible impact on the economy as whole, and it will provide a modest net benefit to the lowest income American households.


The disjuncture between the “Climategate”-induced, pundit-driven discourse in the United States and the political discussion in Copenhagen was startling.


While skeptics are getting disproportionate attention in the United States, no one was debating the science in Copenhagen.


Rather, the consensus was that millions of people worldwide are already suffering from the impacts of climate change, the survival of island nations and low-lying cities is at stake, and that time is running out to prevent catastrophic climate events like the melting of the polar ice-sheets, rising sea levels that flood coastal cities, major disruptions to food and water supplies, and massive species extinction.


Was the so-called Copenhagen Accord an ideal outcome? Absolutely not.


The accord is more of a statement of intention than a firm mandate for action, more aspirational than inspirational. It is designed to save face rather than save the planet. 


The agreement encourages the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas polluters to curb their emissions and to assist developing nations with adaptation programs and with purchasing more clean-energy technologies. However, the accord is not binding and lacks clear, enforceable goals, not to mention the urgency the situation demands.


Clearly those who signed onto the accord—including President Obama—are punting accountability down the road.  But it could have been worse. The accord at least suggests a multilateral solution to the climate crisis and recognizes the greater responsibility of developed countries for solving the problem.


While delegates in Copenhagen did not waste time debating well-established global-warming science, that doesn’t mean the peddlers of global-warming denial are irrelevant.


Skeptics know they don’t have to win the argument. They only need to muddy the waters of public dialogue. Doubt is their product and science-by-petition—rather than peer-review science—is their method.


And the skeptics didn’t have to stall the battle in Copenhagen to win the war they are fighting. All eyes are now on the US to see if we can pass meaningful climate legislation. This is more important than any accord passed in Copenhagen. The legislation stands little chance of passage in the US Senate without public support. And many Americans are looking for any excuse the climate skeptics can provide them to shirk their responsibilities.


With the future of our climate system hanging in the balance, the world simply cannot afford more “Climategate”-like distractions.



Jules Boykoff is an associate professor of political science at Pacific University. He was an invited speaker at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 2006 and research he co-authored on “balance as bias” was included in Al Gore’s film and book “An Inconvenient Truth.”


Kristen Sheeran is executive director of the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, a nationwide group of economists based in Portland that is focused on environmental policy. She is co-author of Saving Kyoto: An Insider’s Guide to the Kyoto Protocol. She just returned from Copenhagen where she participated in climate negotiations.


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