10 years on

I woke up on Tuesday, 17 Nov 2009 completely unaware of what was about to unfold. I tried to log in to RealClimate, but for some reason my login did not work. Neither did the admin login. I logged in to the back-end via ssh, only to be inexplicably logged out again. I did it again. No dice. I then called the hosting company and told them to take us offline until I could see what was going on. When I did get control back from the hacker (and hacker it was), there was a large uploaded file on our server, and a draft post ready to go announcing the theft of the CRU emails. And so it began.

From “One year later”, 2010.

Many people are weighing in on the 10 year anniversary of ‘Climategate’ – the Observer, a documentary on BBC4 (where I was interviewed), Mike at Newsweek – but I’ve struggled to think of something actually interesting to say.

It’s hard because even in ten years almost everything and yet nothing has changed. The social media landscape has changed beyond recognition but yet the fever swamps of dueling blogs and comment threads has just been replaced by troll farms and noise-generating disinformation machines on Facebook and Twitter. The nominally serious ‘issues’ touched on by the email theft – how robust are estimates of global temperature over the instrumental period, what does the proxy record show etc. – have all been settled in favor of the mainstream by scientists plodding along in normal science mode, incrementally improving the analyses, and yet they are still the most repeated denier talking points.

Sure, there has been some change in community awareness of how email can be weaponised, and consequently a greater separation (thankfully) between official email and more casual fare. There are better support networks for scientists caught in the “firehose of shit” than there used to be (CSLDF!). There is surely less naivety about how politicised climate science can become. But the drive of right-wing ‘think-tanks’ like CEI and the American Tradition Institute, to FOIA their way to more email-related scandal has run aground – the political appetite for more ‘revelations’ of scientists doing science and being human has apparently evaporated. Meanwhile the hacks involved have resorted to suing each other over whose hands should be in the dark money cookie jar.

There are still folks insisting that the ’emails speak for themselves’ without ever being able to articulate what they say without getting the context or timing or people totally wrong (see here for a typical recent example of absolutely certainty coupled with almost total ignorance). This is an indication that for some, ‘climategate’ has simply become a banner to be waved around on the battlefield to encourage the troops. Obviously, that has nothing to do with science, or scientific practice.

The bigger changes over the last 10 years have nothing to do with ‘issues’ in climate science either. The ‘facts on the ground’ have shifted dramatically. The warmest years on record, increasing influences of climate change on wildfires, hurricane intensity, heat waves, coastal flooding, coral bleaching, etc. have meant that outright denial of science isn’t as marketable any more as the wider conversation has moved to solutions. The issues associated with how we actually reduce emissions involve mostly a different group of people, with different (and diverse) expertise and controversies that revolve far more around theories of political change and questions of equity, than they do arcane issues in paleo-climate or weather station homogenization. Some people will continue to obsess of two-decade-old minutae which even at the time were obscure and irrelevant, but now I don’t see why anyone sane would want to even bother.

As I said more than a decade ago, no political decisions have ever been made based on 15th Century trees – not even in the 15th Century. The development of the politics of climate over the last 10 years simply underlines that.

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