‘The Trick’: What Did Climategate Mean?

Tonight, the BBC broadcast ‘The Trick’, their commissioned TV drama of the 2009 Climategate affair. The drama focused on the relationship between Professor Phil Jones and his wife Ruth, and the handling of the controversy by Phil’s employer – the University of East Anglia – in the days and months after the unauthorised release of the Climatic Research Unit emails.

I have previously posted a short account of events in the days after 17 November 2009, when the emails were first made public, drawing upon my diary from the time and emails sent and received by me from that time. I have also previously remarked on how ‘The Trick’, indeed how any dramatic reconstruction of any historical events, imputes a particular meaning to the past. The central narrative of ‘The Trick’s’ interpretation of the Climategate affair would seem to be that it caused a decade to be lost in the search for policy solutions to address the risks of a changing climate. I don’t think this is so, climate policy was on the wrong track long before Climategate, although it is at least a claim worth debating.

What was lamentable however in ‘The Trick’ was the exaggerated description of the impacts of future climate change put into the mouth of Phil Jones by script writer Owen Sheers. This account, spoken ‘by Phil’ (around 01:05:00 into the drama) as he is coached ahead of his House of Commons Select Committee hearing, bears little resemblance to the considered science of climate impact analysis assessed by past (2009) or forthcoming (2021/22) reports from the IPCC. Playing so fast and loose with the truth of what scientists are projecting about the future impacts of climate change is deeply ironic given how central Sheers makes the defence of climatological ‘truth’ to his interpretation of Climategate.

Two weeks after the emails went public in 2009, Jerry Ravetz and I wrote an essay for the BBC, “‘Show Your Working’: What Climategate Means”. I would encourage you to read this essay for a different interpretation of the significance of Climategate — and one that was written at the time while the controversy was still live — to that offered by Sheers in ‘The Trick’.

Mike Hulme, 18 October 2021