Nature Climate Change | Climate Feedback

Are climate scientists ignoring the lessons of climategate?

Guest post by Keith Kloor

If there was one thing that most observers seemed to agree on in the aftermath of the hacking at the University of East Anglia, it was, as Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360, that the emails revealed a “bunker mentality among many of the scientists” at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.

Other metaphors have been suggested by Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech University, who has said, repeatedly, that the stolen CRU emails revealed a “tribalism” among climate scientists, and a “”">circling of the wagons strategy.”

More recently, controversies over minor errors in the 2007 assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have escalated the debate over the integrity of climate science. Meanwhile a prominent segment of the climate science community say that the waves of bad press since Climategate broke in November is much ado about nothing. For example, earlier this month, Gavin Schmidt, senior climatologist with the NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, told the New York Times:

There have always been people accusing us of being fraudulent criminals, of the I.P.C.C. being corrupt. What is new is this paranoia combined with a spell of cold weather in the United States and the ‘climategate’ release. It’s a perfect storm that has allowed the nutters to control the agenda.

Schmidt also asserts that the media is culpable. In recent posts on the Real Climate blog, which Schmidt co-founded, he has taken aim at specific media outlets and journalists. Last month, he decried the “media frenzy” over the IPCC press stories:

The coverage has contained more bad reporting, misrepresentation and confusion on the subject than we have seen in such a short time anywhere.

Curry, for her part, still believes that her colleagues are engaged in a fruitless shadowboxing exercise. In a current interview with Discover magazine, she says:

The scientists have gotten caught in these wars with the media and the skeptics. They spend so much energy trying to put them down, energy that isn’t going into uncertainty analysis and considering competing views. I don’t think the scientists have personal political agendas. I think it’s more hubris and professional ego.

Recently, there was another unauthorized disclosure of email correspondence between scientists that seems to bolster Curry’s argument. This exchange, from a listserv maintained by the National Academy of Sciences, captured scientists discussing ways to more effectively counter the attacks on their credibility from climate skeptics and conservative politicians, which Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider, in the email dialogue, likened to a “smear campaign” of “neo-McCarthyism.”

While some of the participants in the discussion talked about raising money for an advertisement in the New York Times, Schneider didn’t favor going down that path. He told the Washington Times:

They’re not going to win short-term battles playing the game against big-monied interests because they can’t beat them.

Paraphrasing Schneider, the story also reports:

He said that the “social contract” between scientists and policymakers is broken and must be reforged, and he urged colleagues to try to recruit members of Congress to take up their case. He also said the press and nongovernmental organizations must be prodded. “What I am trying to do is head off something that will be truly ugly,” Schneider said. “I don’t want to see a repeat of McCarthyesque behavior and I’m already personally very dismayed by the horrible state of this topic, in which the political debate has almost no resemblance to the scientific debate.”

Last week, Matthew Nisbet, a communications expert at American University, wrote in Slate:

The latest batch of e-mails reflects a bunker mentality among climate scientists, forged during the Bush administration and reinforced by the recent attacks on their credibility.

Nisbet argues that “urgent calls to escalate the war against climate skeptics may lead scientists and their organizations into a dangerous trap, fueling further political disagreement while risking public trust in science”. What’s more, he points to recent polling analysis by Jon Krosnick at Stanford University, which suggests that most Americans haven’t been tuning into the Climategate and the IPCC controversies. Of his latest survey, Krosnick says:

Our research shows that the negative publicity surrounding Climategate had no meaningful impact on public confidence in climate scientists. In 2008, 68 percent of our respondents said they trusted scientists completely, a lot or a moderate amount. In the 2009 survey, the number was 70 percent – up two points.

Some commentators have noted that Krosnick’s analysis only gauges public opinion through the end of November 2009. What about continuing developments in the Climategate case, as well as the recent tidal wave of press reports on the IPCC miscues? But Krosnick counters :

The scientific community is overreacting to these events. In theory, it’s possible that public regard for climate scientists has dropped sharply since our 2009 survey. But based on my 30 years of experience in this field, that’s very unlikely, because American public opinion, even on a highly publicized and frequently debated issue, changes very, very slowly. So in a two-month period, it’s unlikely that there would be a dramatic change. My guess is that relatively few Americans are aware of the media controversy or are paying attention to it, and even fewer are influenced by it.

If Krosnick is correct, then climate scientists might want to think twice before mounting a public relations offensive against their antagonists. Still, nobody expects them to sit on their hands, including Nesbit, who, in his Slate piece, advises climate scientists on how they might better use their authority:

Instead of going on the counterattack, scientists and their organizations should employ their communication capital by partnering with opinion leaders from other sectors of society and engaging with local communities through public meetings and social media. By creating a public dialogue on climate change in cities and towns across the country, they can make the issue more personally relevant without getting mired in ideological differences. In these contexts, scientists and their community partners can talk about climate change as more than just an environmental problem. They can frame the issue the issue in terms of national security, religion, public health, or economics — with emphasis on policies that would lead to societal benefits rather than sacrifice and hardship.

Back in December, just as the fiery rhetoric was ratcheting up, Mike Hulme, a professor at climate change at the University of East Anglia, struck a hopeful note in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:

If Climategate leads to greater openness and transparency in climate science, and makes it less partisan, it will have done a good thing.

So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case — at least with respect to the “partisan” aspect of the debate.


  1. Report this comment

    paulina said:


    Could you clarify what the lessons are and what’s to be learned from them?

    For example, Dr. Curry claims that public opinion of climate science and scientists was damaged by the CRU emails.

    The experts find no evidence of this. (And, indeed, it would be fascinating to know how public opinion experts could ever hope to tease out a signal from the CRU emails in the noise of misleading media about these emails.)

    Nevertheless, the media, say, the NYT, have seen no problem reporting on this (imagined) damage to public trust, to the reputation of climate science, etc., as if it had been established.

    This is a “lesson” from “climategate.”

    But what should climate scientists and others learn from this lesson?

  2. Report this comment

    Jesús Rosino said:

    I do not understand the criticism of scientists debating public relations strategies. Aren’t they allowed to defend themselves? Aren’t they allowed to communicate the science? What is wrong about denialist PR campaigns is not the campaigns themselves, but the fact that they mean to spread falsehood and confusion. In fact, I find quite incoherent critizising those discussions on communication strategies and, at the same time, joining the discussion with paternalist new suggestions.

  3. Report this comment

    Niko Jaakkola said:

    Since when did ‘a relentless rain of science and scientific dialog’ become a necessarily partisan or ‘angry’ endeavour? While the politics of climate change may fundamentally turn on a compromise between conflicting values, the issue surely won’t be resolved unless the basic facts are agreed on. Climate contrarianism should be tackled where it arises, to ensure the public debate is based on premises reflecting current scientific understanding.

    What is the best strategy? Taking paid advertisements may be a costly (and losing) battle, but widespread local engagement is hardly easy or cheap (at least in terms of time). Academics have weak incentives to undertake efforts at public outreach. The scientific institutions have to find effective, efficient ways of countering misinformation and educating the public and the media about what is (and is not) known. This informational campaign has to be brutally transparent, unbiased and objective, and remain detached from the ‘street fighting’ some discussants referred to. Finding a way to organise such a campaign efficiently and given the limited resources available should be a priority for research institutions and national academies worldwide.

  4. Report this comment

    Calum said:

    Skeptics have to do nothing when nonsense like this is presented as science.

    You miss the point, playing down such errors as being minor reveals to a growing skeptical public that scientists are in denial over their collective failings in presenting climate change.

    What ordinary people are witnessing are educated people continually acting foolishly.

  5. Report this comment

    Rick Bradford said:

    This article would make more sense if it didn’t implicitly assume that AGW theories are correct, and that the only problem is bad PR.

    That is the kind of blind arrogance which led to ClimateGate in the first place.

  6. Report this comment

    peter oneil said:

    The scientists at UEA and Nasa have only themselves to blame. Had they made their data and codes available, none of this would have happened.What could witholding this information possibly achieve,unless it had been manipulated, which we now know is the case.

  7. Report this comment

    Jenli said:

    It’s embarrassing to watch climate “scientists” (who ruled the media for years by exaggerated scenarios of desaster and very often blamed their disputants as “deniers” [remember the Holocaust] and unethical individuals) start to weep when their behaviour and parts of their science suddenly seriously is challenged. They perform the perfect prospect of the “haunted innocence”.

  8. Report this comment

    jwallen said:

    One thing I can’t rap my head around is if as the IPCC claims there are thousands and thousands of scientists studying global warming how come only one man had (and lost) the raw data. Did they all lose their raw data or is everybody ignoring the question of how could they be studying global warming if none of them have the required data? Does this mean that every supposed fact about global warming came from one man? “Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur”. …..John…..