Climate change

Climategate: What happened?

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Climategate began on 17th November 2009 after emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were hacked by still unknown assailants. The hacker’s motivation was likely to change the public against climate researchers three weeks before the Copenhagen Summit.

Most of the over 20,000 illegally obtained emails were pretty mundane. However, two emails caught the global media’s attention after uploading them out-of-context to numerous climate sceptic blogs.

One of the emails read: ‘Mike’s Nature trick… hid the decline’. This quote sounds very suspicious when taken out of context. So without bothering to ask anyone who worked at the University of East Anglia or any climatologists, some of the global media decided to jump straight to accusing the researchers of fraud.

After all, fact-checking is boring, and conspiracies are fun, so some wasted no time in artificially creating the biggest scientific deception in history. Some in the media concluded that “hid the decline” meant the data showed cooling, and “Mick’s Nature trick” showed climate scientists were forging data.

However, as you can probably guess by now, these emails do not show that climate researchers were trying to take over the world like a cartoon villain. Instead, they show something far more exciting: a divergence in the thickness of tree rings.

The famous hockey stick graph was made using climate data. Recent temperature data comes from things like satellites, thermometers and ships logs. When you go back in time, you no longer have any direct temperature measurements, so instead, we rely on climate proxies. The natural world can record past climate conditions in air trapped in ice cores, the chemistry of ancient shells and tree rings.

As a tree grows, they form concentric rings. The thickness of these rings can give us some information on past climates. Trees grow more in warm years (giving us a thick ring) and less in cooler years (a thin ring). The tree ring data, called dendroclimatology, matches very well with more direct measurements like oxygen isotopes.

However, since the 1950s, there has been a divergence in tree ring data and direct temperature measurements. Even though global temperatures have shown a rapid rise throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the tree rings became narrower.

Explaining the cause of this divergence is simple when you understand that factors other than temperature, such as water availability and diseases, influences tree growth. Some possible reasons for the divergence are temperature-induced late summer drought-stress, changes in ozone concentration, and global dimming (the sun has been getting gradually dimmer since the 60s due to a natural cycle), which decreases the effectiveness of photosynthesis, causing trees to grow less.

The phrase “Mick’s Nature trick” is also easily explained. The word trick is commonly used in scientific papers as shorthand for “a clever thing to do” in statistics. If the term did mean “fraudulently manipulating data” then all these papers would be openly admitting that they are fraudulent.

The second email that was widely circulated came from Dr Trenberth: “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can’t.

Again, this may look dodgy. Even though some media presented this as evidence for the accusation that a leading climate researcher found no evidence of any global warming, the explanation is rather dull. The cooling in question refers to apparent cooling from 2008-9, which other researchers have attributed to a particularly strong La Niña that year that coincided with the nadir of a natural 11-year solar cycle.

These natural phenomena would have had a cooling effect on global temperatures as the climate system is affected by more than just carbon dioxide, resulting in 2008-9 being the coldest year in the decade. Despite this, it was still, at the time, the tenth hottest year on record.

Global warming refers to the long term warming of the entire planet over decades, so a single year that was slightly cooler than the last does not affect the overall warming trend due to human activity. 

As for Trenberth, accusations that he was trying to hide the decline is pure fabrication. Later in the same email, he refers to a paper he wrote that openly expressed the same doubts.

Climategate was the focus of the recently aired BBC conspiracy thriller ‘The Trick’, and the BBC did a great job of explaining what happened. The acting was incredible and made you feel genuinely sorry for Professor Jones and angry at the complete lack of integrity or even basic fact-checking by the media that saw the story as nothing but a gravy train.

Even though a parliamentary injury and subsequent reviews exhorted Professor Jones and his colleagues, the negative impacts of the media failings continues to be felt nearly 12 years later. The mistrust and damage caused by the emails mean that it has taken a decade for the public trust in climate researchers to recover.

With a field of study so important, that setback is very worrying as our preparedness for the impacts of climate change depends not just on the work of academics but also on people like me and you reading this.

Climategate was a well-planned attack on the science of climate change and an attempt to put into question the entire peer review system. The individuals who carried out the hack are still unknown.

What we do know is that powerful groups, like oil companies, have funnelled billions into sponsoring misleading reports that downplay or openly deny climate change. They have done this to undermine public acceptance of man-made global warming and lobby politicians to prevent environmental legislation.

The oil companies were fully aware of the effects of climate change for decades but decided to continue regardless. If any good came from Climategate, it’s that it highlighted how much control some companies have over our media and governments.

But things are improving. Public awareness of the effects of climate change and the media reporting of these effects are improving. Even newspapers like the Daily Mail and Express, which used to publish climate denialism, are now trying to report the science properly.

These changes in attitudes are partly due to the effects of global warming becoming more apparent, and the tireless work of scientists like Professor Phil Jones.

If you are interested in climate research, I would recommend Peter Hadfield’s YouTube channel Potholer54. He has made a couple of videos on the Climategate scandal and has tirelessly debunked many of the claims spread by climate sceptics.

Ultimately, it is up to all of us to make a difference, and that begins with listening to the professionals but also having the willingness to educate ourselves and make the changes that need making so we can begin to leave the planet in a better state than what we found it in.

Cover image: Vladimir Morozov/akxmedia

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