Climategate: 5 Years Later

The damage Climategate delivered to the international negotiations on climate action cannot be overlooked. We also must be careful not to give it too much credit either.
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I am a little reluctant to remind everyone about the so-called "Climategate" incident that was sparked this day five years ago.

Many people, in the end, were embarrassed by this major attack on climate change scientists when it turned out to be nothing more than manufactured media hype. Nine independent inquiries by multiple agencies all arrived at the same conclusion that the Climategate conspiracy was nonsense.

Interestingly enough, the only inquiry that was never concluded was the failed criminal investigation by the UK police into who hacked and stole the private documents.

The fact is that a small number of words (three to be exact) found in over 20,000 pages of stolen documents were taken out of context and spun for the media. All to fit the conspiracy theories of a small band of climate deniers who will never be convinced that climate change is happening and that burning fossil fuels like coal and oil is predominantly to blame.

The damage Climategate delivered to the international negotiations on climate action cannot be overlooked. We also must be careful not to give it too much credit either, as most of the world's political leaders were laggards on the issue of climate change long before Climategate arose.

So it goes that five years ago today on a Friday afternoon, I was pinged by a friend on Skype with a link to the leaked East Anglia documents. "There goes our weekend," he said. At the time I was still the editor of DeSmogBlog and we really were out front on the battle lines (as we remain today!) when it came to tracking and exposing the less-than-good intentions of climate deniers and the fossil fuel companies propping them up.

A quick glance at the documents confirmed that I would be working late into that night with our team of researchers and writers, and through the weekend as it turned out.

While it was late in the UK where the Climategate documents originated, there were still hours left in the day for U.S. media to pick up and run with the story. The story was already fomenting on a few choice denier blogs which had somehow received the documents in advance of traditional media outlets. That initial blog push quickly turned into what can only be called a complete media frenzy. Fox News and other right-wing media first picked up the Climategate story, which quickly snowballed into wall-to-wall coverage by the likes of CNN and the New York Times.

Media ate the story up hook, line and sinker.

Sadly, if reporters had actually read the documents (or at least the important parts) many would not have been duped. But they were and the rest is history — the stolen emails and documents from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit climate scientists morphed into a trendy "-gate."

This all happened a few short weeks before the UNFCCC Copenhagen climate talks held December 7 to 18, 2009. Thousands descended on Copenhagen to pressure world leaders to sign a new global agreement on carbon reductions that would finally set in place a road map to a new economy eventually free of global warming pollution.

Instead we got essentially bupkis in Copenhagen. A watered down document called the Copenhagen Accord, littered with good intentions, but very little in the way of steadfast commitments.

Was Climategate to blame? In a way, yes and in many ways no.

Like I said, most of the world leaders were already planning not to do much more than put some lipstick on a pig, pat themselves on the back and go home to tell their nations that they deserve a green cape for their heroic efforts.

Climategate offered some good cover for those politicians looking to do nothing. Or in the case of the more obstructionist countries, like Canada, to try and throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations. Climategate emboldened the laggards.

It also enabled "skeptical" media to talk about the Copenhagen summit while also throwing into the mix the Climategate controversy and wrongly questioning whether the climate science consensus is actually real.

So here we are five years later and while the term "climate denier" has gone mainstream and something most politicians do not want to be labelled as, the spectre of Climategate still hovers over any conversation I am part of that considers the idea that the climate denial machine is dead. Five years ago, I remember some very astute people saying the same thing. But what Climategate should teach us is that in many peoples' heads there remains a very powerful seed of doubt that only needs to be watered with a little industry PR spin to sprout again.

Next year the world will try again for a global agreement on carbon reduction, this time in Paris, December 2015.

Scientists have now been telling us for more than twenty years that we must begin to significantly reduce the carbon emissions we pump into our atmosphere to avoid serious disruptions to our climate. In fact, we are already seeing evidence of what scientists have predicted in the form of rising sea levels, record temperatures, drought and more extreme weather events. Climate models are not as necessary anymore because we are now seeing those predictions in real life.

So the talks next year in Paris are even more important than the summit five years in ago in Copenhagen.

The climate deniers know this too. And like the "experts" paid by tobacco companies to discredit the link between lung cancer and cigarettes, these spin doctors also know that doubt is their product and their most powerful weapon — Climategate proved it.

So as much as we want to ignore the conspiracy theorists, the fossil industry think tanks and the right-wing Tea Party crowd, we must also recognize Climategate as a history lesson not to be forgotten.

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