Dr. Michael Mann's hockey stick, which started the climate fracas. Image credit: UCAR.edu
If you go back through my past coverage of the hacked email scandal known dubiously as Climate-Gate, you'll notice that I repeatedly and vehemently refer to the happening as a non-event. Because that's what it should have been -- a big nothing. Proof that some scientists can be jerks to people who make their professional lives miserable, and proof that opposition to their work had forced others to be overly defensive. But after the media clumsily handled the proceedings, the ever-eager climate denial community sunk its teeth in, and opportunistic politicians pounced, it became an event. ClimateGate became spectacle -- and that's precisely what Mother Jones writer Kate Sheppard reveals in her recent piece, Climategate: What Really Happened?, which is probably the most comprehensive piece of reportage to appear on the subject yet. Reading back through the blow-by-blow account of the entire debacle does give us some fresh reasons to be mad about the whole thing -- for starters, in all the hubbub over whether or not climate scientists were amassing a global conspiracy or using 'tricks' to hide data (long, long debunked), it's worth remember that the one guy who actually committed a real crime has barely even been pursued.
I guess it's easy to forget that there was an actual hacker (or team of hackers) who broke into the Climate Research Unit and stole emails -- and tried to do the same at a number of other climate labs around the world -- but nobody ever really makes much of a fuss about that. Also, as always, it's frustrating to see that the skeptics and their political allies treat climate science as little more than a game that they can beat if they move their chess pieces in the right places.
The whole account also serves as another reminder of how activist our media environment has become -- climate denial blogs swiftly ran the story, sure, but Fox News quickly pushed it out the gate too, treating the event as ammunition for fighting an ideological battle as opposed to something that should require, you know, investigating or something. Subsequently, less conservative mainstream media outlets then used the anti-climate charge as the framework for their stories.
I like the bit where Sheppard examines the media role in the whole affair -- top climate voices repeatedly called for more and better media coverage to debunk the misleading elements of the narrative, and attempted to shame those that didn't step up. But again, this is just another example of what an unfair disadvantage good reporters have in participating in the narrative of current events -- Sheppard notes that a reasonable assessment of the emails was published by the AP a full month after the story broke, and that many outlets, along with the climate scientists themselves, were largely left bewildered in the interim.
Climate-Gate is a good example of how a minor event can be used to create a spectacle that serves the interests of powerful corporate and political parties, and elevated into conventional wisdom-approved talking point from there. Science has nothing to do with why we're still talking about it.
More on Climate-Gate
Calm Down Over ' Climate Gate ': 6 Points for a Level-Headed Discussion
" ClimateGate " Scientists Cleared Yet Again, Story Ignored by Media Yet Again
And " Climate Gate " Will Henceforth Be Known As . . .