Barbarians at the gate

The scientists at the centre of "Climategate" scandal are the targets of an orchestrated smear campa

Who would be a climate scientist? You spend your life locked in a lab doing obscure statistical analyses of tree rings, and then suddenly a hidden curtain is raised and your ivory tower transforms into a hostile courtroom. Every private thought you have been foolish enough to commit to email over the past decade is put on display before a baying public. And intimidating tribunals are set up to pronounce on your alleged crimes.

Now, after some initial reluctance, even the liberal media establishment is falling over itself to get in on the act, presumably to demonstrate its great rigour and impartiality -- all paranoid conspiracists will be duly taken seriously, all climate deniers given their deserved moment in the sun. Witness the Guardian trumpeting its great "investigation" over three successive double-page spreads, though accompanied in one case by a curious comment piece, authored by one of the principal investigators (New Scientist's Fred Pearce), correctly pointing out that the hullabaloo is a non-story and changes nothing that we know about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

Then, one has to ask, why add fuel to the fire? All of us who have followed this issue for long enough -- and Pearce has an expert pedigree second to none -- know perfectly well that the scientists at the centre of the so-called Climategate scandal have for years been the targets of an orchestrated smear campaign. That is why they resisted Freedom of Information requests and bent the rules by refusing to share data: because they knew that any data shared would be picked apart and used to undermine public confidence in their work, as has indeed now happened.

We need to recognise that the denialist movement is a true grass-roots phenomenon, though this does not make it any less reactionary. But it is also supported by, and many of its ideas originate from within, conservative think tanks and powerful industrial vested interests, based mainly in the US. Still, somehow the Climategate non-story -- augmented by "Glaciergate" and "Pachaurigate" -- has grown with each repetition, so that now everyone has to pay obeisance to it, the Guardian included. For what? Scratch the surface and the sceptics have nothing to offer but distortion, innuendo and nutty alternative theories about sunspots and cosmic rays.

But maybe it's already too late. The mob has gathered; now it must be appeased. Who will be the first sacrificial victim? Perhaps Michael Mann, already hauled before a Penn State University investigative committee and ordered to produce yet another voluminous dossier of private emails. Perhaps Phil Jones, who made the awful mistake of not realising the media firestorm that was about to be unleashed and went to ground, instead of mounting a stout defence. He is now surely heading for the academic gallows. Maybe after the cathartic presentation of a successfully persecuted victim, some sanity can be restored.

I think this is a shameful episode. Having followed their work for years, I still see no reason to doubt the professional integrity of the Climatic Research Unit scientists and their US colleagues. Without their dedication, as individuals and as part of the unprecedented collaborative effort of the IPCC, we would not see the problem of global warming as clearly as we do today. Climategate may seem important now, but it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.