A year ago at this time, while policymakers and journalists (including myself) were gearing up for the Copenhagen Climate Summit, a story began percolating in the blogosphere about a voluminous trove of stolen emails sent between prominent climate scientists. The emails purportedly contained evidence that climate scientists had fudged temperature data and interfered in reviews of studies that did not adhere to mainstream views of manmade climate change. As numerous investigations have found, the scientists involved in the emails did not commit scientific fraud, and the emails' scientific significance was negligible.
The dustup that came to be known by many as "climategate" did not weaken or overturn any part of the scientific consensus on climate change - that global warming is very likely due in large part to increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities. However, it drastically altered discussions of climate science during the past year. It has had a lasting impact on how climate scientists approach their work, how the media covers climate science, and how policy makers view the reliability of climate science research.
Climategate almost immediately caused climate scientists to lose control of the media narrative, and put them on the defensive for much of the year. Prior to climategate, the narrative had evolved into one that focused more on what society should do to slow and halt climate change, rather than on questions about the fundamentals of climate science. Almost instantaneously, many in the press switched into "cover the conflict" mode, with stories portraying climate scientists as scheming to rig scientific data and prevent the publication of dissenting opinions from the scientific literature.
"The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming", read one particularly egregious headline in the UK Telegraph.
The coverage reflected several converging factors. First, journalists love conflict, and are about as attracted to stories that involve the potential toppling of conventional wisdom as a weather geek is to Doppler radar imagery. Most reporters were ill-equipped to read and interpret the approximately 1,000 emails that had been released and analyze them for their scientific significance.
Instead, many resorted to quoting phrases out of context, such as one scientist's now infamous use of the word "trick" to describe a research technique. As the author of the blog ClimateSight stated: "How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy."
The situation was compounded by a reflexively defensive scientific establishment that immediately appealed to its authority - the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had won the Nobel Peace Prize, after all - rather than promising thorough investigations into possible wrongdoing and acknowledging any scientific errors that may have been made.
For many climate scientists, late 2009 and most of 2010 was filled with soul-searching, frustration, and depression.
The public ridicule that was unleashed against some researchers, most especially Phil Jones, the head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, where the email hack took place, was debilitating. At one point Jones, the one who had used the word "trick" to describe a temperature analysis method, says he faced numerous threats of violence from critics and even considered suicide. According to Nature magazine:
He received some 200 abusive or threatening e-mails, the most troubling of which targeted him and his family. "Someone, somewhere, will hunt you down," read one. "You are now blacklisted," read another. "Expect us at your door to say hello."
At last, however, efforts to learn the lessons of the past year are now taking place, particularly within the scientific community. Scientists realize they need to be more open with their data and methods, and there is now a global effort underway to create the first open-source record of global surface temperatures. Scientists say they must also be more willing to publicly address challenges to their research, and engage both proactively and defensively with the media and the public.
There have been encouraging signs of progress during the past two weeks, when the American Geophysical Union announced a renewed push to connect climate scientists with journalists who are seeking answers to questions about climate science, and dozens of climate researchers launched a new (non AGU-sponsored) initiative to form a "rapid response network" to enter the news cycle and dispel scientific disinformation before it becomes ingrained in conventional wisdom.
In addition, in the new issue of the journal Science, a group of prominent climate scholars published a letter calling for the formation of a climate science education group that would foster a more climate-literate public through various forms of communication.
"The initiative must make concerted efforts to provide people, organizations, and governments with critical information, to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation and deception. In doing so, it will have to overcome psychological and cultural barriers to learning and engagement," the letter states.
Finally, what at first might appear to be a foreboding development for climate science - the election of numerous lawmakers who outright deny the existence of manmade climate change, and the related prospect of congressional investigations into climategate and how climate science is conducted and funded - actually constitutes another opportunity for climate science communication.
As outgoing South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis told witnesses at a climate science hearing last week, "I'd encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress," he said.
"Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach."
Climate scientists' new public stance might best be described as akin to President Obama's rallying call to campaign workers during his 2008 campaign for the White House: "Fired Up.. Ready to Go!" That's major improvement from the past year, when it seemed that the dominant mode of public engagement was more along the lines of, "D-Fence.. D-Fence.. D-Fence!"
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.