Saturday, 28 November 2009

Lessons from the climate change email scandal

Last friday, it emerged that "hundreds of private emails and documents allegedly exchanged between some of the world's leading climate scientists during the past 13 years have been stolen by hackers and leaked online."

According to the report in the Guardian, "computer files were apparently accessed earlier this week from servers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, a world-renowned centre focused on the study of natural and anthropogenic climate change." Climate change skeptics immediately leapt upon the emails as proof "that some of the climatologists colluded in manipulating data to support the widely held view that climate change is real, and is being largely caused by the actions of mankind."

Since then, the Daily Mail has led the way with a barrage of stories [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and editorials [1, 2, 3, 4] on the subject. Nick Griffin made a speech in the European parliament where he claimed that the story of climate change "is designed to provide the excuse for the political project of the globalists to replace national democracy with New World Order global governance." Conspiracy sites such as have also taken the story as proof of the evil machinations of the New World Order.

Away from the world of hysteria and reaction, George Monbiot writes in the Guardian how he is "dismayed and deeply shaken" by the emails. However, he has not made a grand and unfounded leap of faith towards global conspiracy;
But do these revelations justify the sceptics' claims that this is "the final nail in the coffin" of global warming theory? Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence. To bury man-made climate change, a far wider conspiracy would have to be revealed.
However, as he states on his blog, "pretending that this isn't a real crisis isn't going to make it go away." Questions have been raised by the hacking, and they deserve more than "an attempt to justify the emails with technicalities." The fact remains that these emails have called into question the integrity of several scientists involved in climate change research. Moreover, even though it is but a few individual scientists, and it is likely they were acting under pressure given the power of the denial lobby in popular discourse, it has made damaged the trust people have in science. For the sake of transparency, a meaningless buzzword in politics but vital to scientific integrity, there needs to be a serious investigation into the matter and those guilty of manipulating data (if indeed that occurred) need to face the consequences.

At the same time, though, some perspective is needed. Fascists and tinfoil-hatters will no longer be the only ones claiming that global warming is part of "a globalist common purpose to tax and control us," and to "hand over billions to the third world" as part of an "anti-Western guilt trip scenario." Genuine, radical environmental activists need to act to demonstrate that this is nonsense.

Of course, there is little doubt that the state and corporations are trying to profit from climate change. But, as I wrote in On climate change, class, and capitalism, this is because it is inherent in their design to put short-term gains before long-term consequences;
In a capitalist society, then, anybody who takes the threat of climate change seriously will quickly be weeded out. Not because there’s a conscious effort to destroy the environment, but because that’s how the system operates. A rival who is unconcerned with long-term environmental effects will quickly undercut the profits of the environmentally conscious capitalist, thus undermining their position and their ability to make such decisions. This is why only those “green” measures that generate short-term profit are acted upon, and addressing the core issue with any seriousness is quickly sidelined.
What it should not be seen as is "proof" that "global warming is a con." It is proof of the short term self-interest of the state and capital, and that the integrity of a few individual scientists is in question. Nothing more. The fact remains that we face an ongoing global food crisis and struggle for natural resources in the present, with the potential of global catastrophe [1, 2, 3, 4] in the future.

Indeed, taxation and "green" profit will do nothing to stave off this threat. Any movement to roll back the danger of climate change must be based in an opposition to the cycle of consumption, profit, and destruction that feeds capitalism. That, not a denial of basic facts in favour of conspiracy, is the real lesson offered by what the Mail calls "climategate."