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.

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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.
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.