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.
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left