Climategate: online fake news is not new

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University of East Anglia
November 15, 2019

 

“Fake news” from email theft is old news at the UEA. Years before Hilary Clinton’s hacked emails, Brexit interventions from Russia, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Donald Trump, various WikiLeaks, there was UEA Climategate in 2009. Emails were stolen from UEA’s Climatic Research Unit and cherry picked by climate deniers to accuse climate scientists of falsifying data.

The e-mails were sensationalised by UK media, supporting climate skeptics in their ambition to cast doubt on climate scientists for a politically motivated crime, later admitted by the hacker.

The independent  investigations that followed cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing. One of the most quoted and controversial cherry-picked sentences was Phil Jones’, “I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline…”

The term “trick” pertained to a technique used to plot recent instrumental data along with reconstructed data – Mike [Mann’s] Nature paper trick.

With headlines such as “Scientists in climate cover-up told to quit” and “Scientists broke law by hiding climate data”, journalists reporting of the theft made an impact on public opinion and an already wavering Copenhagen climate policy summit.

A survey with the American public, found that of those who have heard of Climategate 53% said it caused them to have less trust in scientists and 69% said they agreed with the statement that “scientists changed their results to make global warming appear worse than it is.” Nine out of ten readers of Daily Telegraph, the Times, and The Guardian said they trusted their newspaper to tell the truth, as did two thirds of Mail and Express readers.

Even environmental journalists made their fees from stoking the furor. Although the real impact of Climategate in Copenhagen remains for debate as it was known a successor to Kyoto was not going to be agreed before the meeting began, some do believe it did damage in the UK and western media countries.

Since Climategate in 2009, records on globally warmest years have been broken, carbon emissions have continued to rise, heatwaves have increased, and arctic sea ice is declining.

Has the media learned anything about climate change reporting? The UK’s BBC is often criticised with repeatedly giving airtime to the same climate deniers but in 2018 issued guidance on climate change reporting for its journalists. Their position is now that man-made climate change exists and that there is no need for a ‘denier’ (usually one of three people) to balance the debate.

The Guardian has a public pledge to continue its environmental reporting and has made changes in language “that recognises the severity of the crisis that we are in” and its use of climate images, originating from work by Tyndall UEA PhD researchers.

In the United States, five major national newspapers including The New York Times, the Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have tripled their coverage of climate change from four years ago.

The Mail and the Mirror have changed their reporting also. Not specific to climate, but a co-benefit, the Times, a Murdoch paper, campaigns on air pollution.

Ten years on from Climategate, the public has shifted their opinion on climate change. A new survey shows that in the United States, seven out of ten believe that the climate is changing and six out of ten recognise that humans are the cause. In the United Kingdom, 80% of the public say that are now “fairly” or “very” concerned about climate change, a record high since 2008.

Despite all these changes in climate change reporting, public opinion, and the biosphere, journalists have learned nothing about fake news. While guidelines have been made for better coverage of climate change, issues like Brexit and Clinton’s hacked emails are still sensationalised and disinformation is still being spread. By doing this, the media erodes public trust in their victims and makes the public believe in fake news, impacting policymaking and democratic processes.

Climategate opened independent reviews and investigations on the scientists involved, clearing everyone of any fraud or data manipulation. The Paris Agreement would have not happened without the scrutiny that the scientists received, as quality of climate research was put beyond doubt. This was not the outcome the denialists sought, but science won in the end.