December 18, 2009 – Nature, Harvey Leifert
The unknown hackers who stole and published e-mails on climate research from the University of East Anglia (UK) are engaged in a smear campaign to distract the public from the truth about climate change, because they don’t have the science on their side, says Michael Mann, one of the leading climate scientists whose messages were published.
Mann agreed to requests from reporters to comment on the so-called climategate in a hastily arranged press conference at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco. He said the episode has taught him that “there is no level to which the opponents of action on climate change won’t stoop in their efforts to lock progress.”
Unfortunately, said Mann, “the other side” (that is, climate change sceptics) is engaged in a well-funded and well-timed smear campaign that is sullying the reputations of scientists unfairly in the eyes of some members of the public. The timing to which he referred, just before the current climate negotiations got underway in Copenhagen, will probably have little effect there, he said.
There is plenty of legitimate controversy at Bella Centre, Mann acknowledged, naming such issues as the gulf between low-lying island nations and mid-latitude industrial nations. “Policy makers from most nations can see through this,” he said, adding that “the scientific community has spoken quite clearly.” He thought that they must be insulted at the effort to distract them through a “malicious” attempt to provoke a false controversy. Saudi Arabia is one of the few exceptions, he added; it is asserting that the e-mails undermine the case for climate change.
What lessons has Mann personally learned from climategate? Obviously, he and his colleagues will have to be more careful in future e-mails, the principal way they correspond with one another, he said, adding that this is unfortunate. Everybody – not just the climate research community – will now be more careful about what they say in e-mails. Science thrives by ideas bouncing back and forth, and circumspection will surely have a chilling effect, he said. There will be fewer passionate discussions among researchers, as they try to make every message “bulletproof,” he lamented.
There was, in fact, nothing scientifically inappropriate in the e-mails that have been released, Mann insisted, and various terms of art have been distorted. For example, a “trick,” one of the terms famously used in a message, is simply a clever approach to an issue, he said, not a nefarious effort to hide the truth.
Mann wondered aloud about the hackers and the relative lack of attention being paid to their action. “Have we really gotten to the point where it’s considered OK to break into people’s personal correspondence, sort through them and look for ways to misrepresent them, to smear them by taking their words out of context, by twisting their words? Have we really got to the point now where that is considered valid material for the public discourse?”