Climategate – 2pm on 19 November 2009

Ten years ago today, at 2pm in the afternoon on Thursday 19 November 2009, I received a circular email from the deputy-head of my School at the University of East Anglia.  It read:

“There seems to have been a targeted attack on certain people within CRU [Climatic Research Unit].  The material has now been taken down from the site (they were placed onto someone else’s web site by hacking into that too).  A number of measures are being taken to increase security, one of which will be that most passwords will have to be changed at some point in the next 24 hours.  When your password stops working, it can be changed via: [URL redacted].  Don’t change it until your current password stops working.”

Alastair Grant (2009)

I was at a meeting in Denmark at the time and I found it a curious incident, but it rang no immediate alarm bells for me.  My diary entries for that Thursday and Friday made no mention of it.  I arrived back in Norwich on Saturday morning and enjoyed the weekend at home.  My daughter was waiting to hear back from universities she had applied to, so we had other things to think about. 

On Monday morning (the 23rd) I travelled down to London and the Institute of Economic Affairs to participate in a public debate about climate change economics with Fred Singer, Sam Fankhauser and Nigel Lawson.  My diary for the day included the comment, “The CRU story emerges a couple of times”. 

The following day “the CRU story” was unavoidable. 

That Tuesday The Guardian newspaper ran a full inside double spread by George Monbiot, in which he called upon Phil Jones, the Director of CRU, to resign.  My diary entry that day included:

“Although he [Monbiot] defends the climate change narrative as being robust to this latest twist … others castigate UEA for being naïve and incompetent in their handling of the case.  Mike Hanlon at The Daily Mail is asking UEA ‘Why not just release the data?’  I agree with him and through he wants me to comment I lie low.  Given the damage this has done, I think this will be a signature moment”

Mike Hulme (personal diary, 23 November 2009)

By now I was in Oxford for various meetings and that Tuesday morning I had a previously arranged breakfast appointment with Jerry Ravetz at the Old Bank Hotel on High Street.  It was a fortuitous coincidence.  Jerry and I had met previously a couple of times to discuss how his idea of post-normal science applied to climate change, but now we had a real live case in front of us. 

We spent an hour discuss the CRU emails – the nomenclature of ‘Climategate’ had not yet stuck – and we agreed to write a joint essay on the controversy for publication in a major media outlet.  This is what a week later appeared on the BBC website as a Viewpoint commentary ‘Show your working: what ClimateGate means’

This essay is well worth reading from the perspective of 2019. 

Jerry and I used the controversy to point out the changing relationship between science and society, a movement that we felt at the time climate science and scientists had been slow to recognise: “Unsettling as this may be for scientists, the combination of ‘post-normal science’ and an internet-driven democratisation of knowledge demands a new professional and public ethos in science.” 

We also pointed out “It is also possible that the institutional innovation that has been the IPCC has now largely run its course” and instead called for a Citizen’s Panel on Climate Change, a full decade ahead of Extinction Rebellion’s call for a citizen’s assembly on climate change.

The publication of this commentary on the BBC website was resisted by UEA.  As I recorded at the time in my diary, “[the UEA Press Office] were very twitchy about my BBC piece and would rather me not run it”.  And it generated diverse reactions from other public commentators at the time.  Again as my diary at the time recorded, “John Schellnhuber accuses me of being naïve” and “in all this there are some who still think ‘the science’ can act as our guide … Stern, Pachauri, etc. are not shy of coming forward”.

The controversy that is now known as Climategate resonated through the science and politics of climate change in the weeks and months ahead.  Twelve months after the release of the emails, on 16 November 2010, I wrote an anniversary commentary for The Guardian newspaper ‘The year climate science was redefined’.  Here I reflected further on the lessons of Climategate and wrote about a new climate pragmatism which needed to take account of wider changes taking place in society:

“These three changes are reflective of much larger cultural and political struggles regarding knowledge and power in the contemporary world which will become more salient during the next decade: the challenges to the norms of science coming from deep social and digital connectivity; the struggle to establish the appropriate cultural authority for science; and the struggles to bring democratic accountability to emergent international and global forms of governance. The shifts we are seeing around climate change are therefore symptomatic of these wider struggles.”

Hulme (2010)

And then three years later I wrote a longer retrospective essay on Climategate for my 2013 book ‘Exploring Climate Change Through Science and in Society’.  In this essay I explored what had been the consequences of Climategate for climate science, for policy development and for public understandings of climate change.  I concluded the essay with the observation,

“If … one understands that science only ‘works’ because it continually evolves norms and practices which can be rhetorically defended in public and its knowledge therefore becomes powerful through beliefs and behaviours, then Climategate should be seen as a creative episode.” 

Hulme (2013:263-264)

And now, a full decade later Climategate has been put back in the public eye in a TV documentary length treatment of the controversy from Red Sky productions, ‘Climategate: science of a scandal’, directed by Steve O’Hagan and first broadcast by BBC4 on 14 November 2019. 

I was interviewed at length for this documentary, although the director used only a one tiny sound bite from me in the broadcast version.  I know this is frequently the case with such filming, although it may also be that the narrative of Climategate that I offered did not fit O’Hagan’s script. 

The significance of Climategate was never about whether or not the world was warming, nor about whether climate scientists were involved in an elaborate conspiracy or even any deliberate deception through questionable practices.  Too many of the retrospectives on the 10th anniversary of Climategate have focused on those questions, including for example Tim Osborn’s active Twitter feed.

No.  The significance of Climategate, as Jerry and I wrote at the time, was that it challenged a particular public view of what science was and revealed how scientists—climate scientists especially given the huge stakes–needed to conduct themselves in a rapidly changing public space.   In our BBC essay from 1 December 2009, we concluded:

“A more open and a better understood science process will mean more trusted science, and will increase the chances of both ‘good science’ and ‘good policy’.  ‘Show your working’ is the imperative given to scientists when preparing for publication to peers.  There, it refers to techniques.  Now, with the public as partner in the creation and implementation of scientific knowledge in the policy domain, the injunction has a new and enhanced meaning.”

Hulme and Ravetz (2009)

The long story of climate change, from the latter decades of the twentieth century through to the present moment, is a story of developing scientific knowledge of the climate system and its changes.  But far more importantly it is an ongoing story of the changing relationship between three things: scientific knowledge, public understandings of science and political appropriation of scientific knowledge for policy development. 

The Climategate controversy which broke in November 2009 will remain a crucial moment in this story.

Mike Hulme, 2pm on Thursday 19 November 2019