Looking back at 2009, it was one of the most consequential years in climate and not in a good way.
The climate talks in Copenhagen that year were supposed to yield comprehensive climate accords. Instead, they ended in a puddle of failure only to be slightly redeemed six years later in Paris. One of the contributing factors to the discord in Copenhagen was Climategate, an email hack that unleashed a wave of climate denial and stunted political progress.
The order of operations surrounding Climategate will sound depressingly familiar. A hacker stole and dumped a decade’s worth of emails sent between fairly prominent (if not internationally famous) climate scientists into the public eye. Bad faith operators combed through them, quoted select portions largely out of context, and the right-wing media ecosystem amplified it, forcing a debate on ethics in climate science and whether climate change was even happening.
Republicans in the US seized on the manufactured scandal and weaponized it to pursue their policy goals of, well, stopping good climate policy. None other than America's current Vice President Mike Pence, then chairman of the House Republican Conference, said the US shouldn’t commit to a climate agreement in “the midst of an academic scandal and questionable science revealed in ‘Climategate.’”
Scientists received death threats, the American public’s understanding of climate science plummeted, and any appetite for a fight to get a good climate deal done dissipated as did efforts to pass climate legislation in the US.
And of course, in the end, the scientists won, at least in the sense that they were vindicated. The differences in models and methods scientists were arguing over email about in the early 2000s have, perhaps not surprisingly, been resolved.. Climate change is, in fact, happening. Subsequent efforts by climate deniers and right-wing groups that specialise in sowing doubt by trying to get scientists’ emails through public records requests and weaponize them have largely failed because there’s simply not that much interesting going on, let alone anything to hide.
Today’s climate discourse is arguably more healthy as well. Concern about climate change in the US has rebounded from the post-Climategate nadir to its highest level. Yes, a tiny corner of the internet (and an unfortunately large and influential portion of Republican elected officials) continue to argue that it’s fake, and there are still large entrenched interests trying to subvert climate action. But many Democrats are putting forward ambitious plans to address climate change, and a good chunk of the electorate in the US is debating how to finally start solving it, as many lawmakers are around the world. The curve of emissions cuts needed today is much steeper than it was in 2009 given the lost decade of action (and indeed a decade that has seen carbon pollution reach new highs globally).
And yet the negative legacy of Climategate is still very much part of our culture today. It’s impossible to look at the culture wars like Gamergate or the 2016 US election discussion around Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails and not see elements of Climategate in them. That’s not to say the 2009 hack inspired them. The history of weaponizing private information and the ability of the right-wing media to contort people’s words began well before the climate science email theft. But Climategate is one of the first high-profile examples of that playbook in the digital age.
To mark the 10 year anniversary of Climategate as well as the crucial international climate conference going on now, we spoke with Gavin Schmidt, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). We chatted about his experience as a researcher affected by Climategate and what’s he’s learned in the intervening decade. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Brian Kahn: What was it like at the time the stolen emails were released and what’s happened since?
Gavin Schmidt: Suddenly in the space of a week, a decade’s worth of minutia was dug up from the graveyard of emails and thrust into the public eye without any context or kind of sense of historical progression. There were lots of people commenting on this stuff that got everything wrong.
There was literally 12 years, 13 years of stuff that was squeezed into five minutes. And so everything seemed like it was a much bigger thing, that was all connected when really it wasn’t. You have this massive elevation of a ridiculously trivial issue.
There were inquiries investigating supposed misconduct. These people did the investigation – it was like “nothing,” “nothing,” “nothing.”
And so you know a decade later, things that were disinterred by Climategate have now been buried beneath the hundreds of other studies that show exactly the same basic understanding of the climate.
Kahn: What did the email hack exploit at the time?
Schmidt: They exploited the fact that nobody knew who any of these people were or what we did or how any of this works. A lot of it was coming from this point of view that is quite common, that science doesn’t involve any subjective stuff and is purely objective. Well, that’s not true. For any kind of complex analysis, you have to decide how to deal with this uncertainty or that problem.
The notion you can’t make judgement calls or that any judgement calls suspect because you’re a bad person is antithetical to how science works. The problem was that Climategate brought up 10 years of people working out how to react to these things and dumped it all out to once.
[I]n the political arena, if you can direct the fire hose of shit to a small number of individuals, it can be overwhelming
People’s claims to be championing openness and transparency had a great deal of resonance. All of these supposed claims about the need for openness and transparency, they’re just smokescreens for not liking the result. So it’s not as if GISS has been less attacked by the people that want to attack us in the subsequent decade.
Kahn: Does Climategate have a legacy?
Schmidt: Climategate was a very successful scandal. Right. You know, it was covered by a lot of mainstream outlets, it got on TV, it led to inquiries and questions in the House [of Representatives] and all the rest of it. So as scandals go, it was quite effective.
Climategate seemed to be about something bigger because of the Copenhagen talks coming and the bench for who could get useful context from was very thin because almost anybody who you could get useful complex from was involved in the emails themselves. The thing that’s changed in the last 10 years is that the bench is now much deeper. If you need independent quotes or independent context on anything that happens in climate science, there’s one thousand people you could ask who would all give you a very reasonable result.
Kahn: I hear you on that, but do you feel like in some ways that Climategate was kind of this prototypical example of what can happen when private information is made public through hacks?
Schmidt: The answer is yes. What Climategate and GamerGate and Pizzagate and all of these things have shown is that in the political arena, if you can direct the fire hose of shit to a small number of individuals, it can be overwhelming. And when you couple that with misogyny and racism and anti-Semitism, not only can it be overwhelming, it can be extremely psychologically damaging.
But is it the case that Climategate was the training point? No.
Kahn: What kind of lessons of people who are hacked or dealing with disinformation today can learn from you and scientists who dealt with Climategate 10 years ago?
Schmidt: The first thing – and I think the most important thing – that one has to say is that this, too, will pass. You know, it’s so overwhelming and you think, “oh my God” and everything. And, look, it will pass, and you will be fine at the end. And a corollary to that is, “don’t rush, don’t panic.” Don’t start writing things in the heat of how you’re feeling right now. You know what? It can wait. The third piece of advice is, you are not alone. This is not the first time this has happened.