When the ‘Climategate’ scandal broke in December 2009, following the hacking and online publication of thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia’s internal servers, many environmentalists must have had their heads in their hands.
Most were quick to realise that the emails did almost nothing to challenge the science of climate change, nor did they suggest that our infant policies and regulations to reduce greenhouse gases were misguided.
But Climategate was hugely damaging for other reasons: it tarnished the reputation of climate scientists the world over, regardless of their professional opinions and papers; it delivered a tremendous shock to the foundations of public belief in man-made global warming; and it offered a battery of ammunition to the conspiracy theorists and outright climate change deniers.
What has been sorely needed since then is an in-depth, dispassionate investigation into exactly what the leaked emails discussed, and what they implied. We now have that investigation, in the form of Fred Pearce’s new book, The Climate Files.
Anyone who read Pearce’s lengthy analyses of the leaked emails published on the Guardian website last winter must have realised that he was working himself up to a book, but few could have anticipated that he would weave such disjointed fragments of information as those that were dug out of the UEA servers into such an impressive analysis of climate science.
Unlike the official investigations into Climategate, which have dealt exclusively with issues of scientific misconduct and accusations that Freedom of Information requests were dealt with unlawfully, Pearce looks at what everyone really wanted to know about the emails: do they suggest that the science of climate change is less certain that we thought?
Environmentalists will find themselves swallowing hard at many points of the book. Elements of climate science that had once been thought of as axiomatic, such as the iconic ‘hockey-stick’ graph that starred in Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and modern temperature data series derived from ground-based thermometers, take a battering. Pearce is quick to defend the UEA scientists and their international colleagues when he sees them being unfairly slandered, but is equally excoriating in his criticism of their methods when he discovers them acting petulantly, covertly or outside the traditions and methods of science.
Pearce’s brilliant last chapter, ‘Saving the Science’, should be read by everyone on the planet. In just a few hundred words, he sets out what we know almost for certain about climate change, what we’re reasonably sure about, and where we’re just guesstimating. These grey areas in our knowledge, he argues, are not an excuse to relax our attitude towards climate change – they are all the more reason to act quickly, decisively, and with a sound and open discussion of the science.