On November 19, 2009 a trove of troubling emails from British and American climate scientists was leaked online. They sparked a worldwide frenzy of coverage of what appeared to be very dubious scientific practices: a “trick” to “hide the decline”; a determination to keep contrary evidence out of the IPCC report “even if we have to redefine what the peer reviewed literature is”; the “travesty” that scientists have no idea how to explain the lack of warming, and so forth. But the story slowly faded thanks to reassuring noises from official-sounding inquiries. Looking back, scientist Judith Curry explains why the investigations that supposedly vindicated the scientists did no such thing, leading instead to a troubling closing of minds and loss of trust.
Curry quotes from a lengthy report written in the aftermath of the Climategate inquiries by economist Ross McKitrick arguing that, to the extent the inquiries bothered to inquire, they found fault with the scientists. But more often they simply averted their gaze and whitewashed the problems. She also quotes from a legal brief filed by Canadian skeptic and hockey stick slayer Steve McIntyre showing that claims that Michael Mann was exonerated by the inquiries fall apart on close inspection. In short, prominent scientists were caught doing bad things and even though the passage of time has buried the story, recent attempts to claim they were innocent all the way along fly in the face of the facts known at the time.
Curry then reflects on how the climate debates have changed over the years. Back then the fights took place over blogs; now much of it has moved to Twitter. Back then a handful of major think tanks coordinated the policy battles. Now a handful of extreme populist movements (from the Yellow Jackets to Extinction Rebellion) dominate. Skeptics tend to focus on arguments about low climate sensitivity and the lack of warming-induced extreme weather, and they quote the IPCC a lot. Alarmists talk about the climate crisis and their rhetoric has gone over the top: they decry the IPCC as too cautious and muted in its warnings.
Curry also offers personal reflections about how Climategate affected her career, including ending her formal academic one. She emerged determined to communicate and engage with skeptics, which she hadn’t done up until then. And for a while there was more openness among her colleagues to doing so. But then the forces of reaction set in and, she says, the tribalism today is worse than a decade ago. The young generation of scientists, schooled in K-12 alarmism and lured by the funding – which all goes to the alarmist side, something about which they are in denial – are increasingly activist and militant. Their reticence about demanding policy action is gone; instead heated political rhetoric has become a ticket to scientific fame and prominence.
None of these developments are good news. But Curry sees a few signs of hope. First, irrational causes eventually wear themselves out (even if it takes a long time). Second, as time goes by, it is inevitable that people will notice the failure of the crazy apocalyptic warnings of the climate doomsters, and likewise the failed promises of wealth through green Ludditism. But in the meantime a lot of damage will have been done to climate science through the activist mentality of many of its practitioners. The trust thus once lost will take a long time to recover.