November 15, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climategate: Some reflections

Ten years ago (it seems like yesterday), I was doing relatively pedestrian research on how people talked about climate change. Then, one morning I woke up to the news that emails by climate scientists had been hacked and were being used to cast doubt on the credibility of climate science and the integrity of climate scientists. This was what came to be known as ‘climategate’. (A nice summary has just appeared on JSTOR Daily)

Intrigued by this, I spent the next month, indeed Christmas, to look through some of the things people said online about (climate) science and (climate) scientists. I was pretty appalled by what I saw. My article about all this was published at the beginning of 2010 around the time that various inquiries exonerated the scientists whose emails had been hacked.

Framing science as religion

I found that so-called ‘climate sceptics’ used personal, decontextualized, intentionally misinterpreted emails to frame climate science as a religion, cult or conspiracy, man-made climate change as a hoax, and climate scientists (and activists who trusted them) as dishonest, secretive and out for the money. To be more precise – they were framed as (confirmed, true) believers, zealots, prophets, apostles, wizards, warlocks, gurus, false priests, high priests, unchallengeable priesthood, clerics, acolytes, adherents, evangelists, and even “the converted, man-made global warming illuminati”.

What does such a framing do? As Svoboda said in 2012, based on a more detailed study: “Calling global warming a ‘religion’ effectively neutralizes appeals to ‘the scientific consensus’.” (Svoboda, 2012) This meant that the concept of scientific consensus gradually turned from a positive into a negative one and still struggles with its meaning today.

Interestingly, I also found that this metaphorical framing of science as religion became a way of dismissing other traditional notions of theory, knowledge, truth, evidence, and certainty, setting the scene and indeed writing the playbook for the post-truth and post-expert era in which we now live.

Paradoxical framing

And finally, I found that things became really paradoxical during climategate.

While formerly climate sceptics cited uncertainty in order to cast doubt on climate science, they now invoked certainty to challenge it (saying for example that “The Global Warming religion is as virulent and insidious as all mind-bending cults of absolute certitude”).

While in the past they might have said that inaction was the right thing because there was not enough of a scientific consensus, they now said that there was too much of it and inaction was therefore still the right cause of action.

While using rather weak evidence to question the foundations of climate policy, they asked for more and more evidence in an infinitely regressing and paralysing search for solid foundations on which to base policy.

And finally, while evoking some norms of ‘real science’, such as objectivity, falsification and the accumulation of evidence, climate sceptics did not apply these norms to their own endeavour.

Ten years on

Now I am sitting here, yet again, reflecting on what people say about science and about climate change. Lots of things have changed in a decade, most noticeably ‘the weather’. There are more floods, more wildfires, more droughts, more melting, more warming and heating…..more extreme weather events.

Something else has changed. There is now somebody who has the courage to say what one should have said ten years ago, namely that people should ‘unite behind science’ and should ‘demand leaders to take responsibility’ – and that is Greta Thunberg. Her clear words and actions, such as starting school climate strikes, are beginning to change the climate around climate, and even the language we use. “Climate strike” was chosen as word of the year 2019 by Collins Dictionary! Our visual language too has changed and Ed Hawkins’ famous warming stripes have replaced Michael Mann’s strangely controversial hockey stick.

At the time of climategate, various grassroots movements emerged trying to change the political climate about the climate, but they were not as loud and creative perhaps as the current movements, one of which calls itself provocatively ‘Extinction rebellion’.

We have to see whether these new voices will, in the end, be heard, or whether an increasingly nationalist political landscape will make that impossible.

We can see the old, tried and tested framing reappearing. An article in The Times recently had the title “Behind Science’s Mask Extinction Rebellion is a Doomsday Cult” and an article in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed: “Extinction Rebellion is a primeval, anti-capitalist cult”. Here, science is not directly framed as a cult but those using science to advocate for political change are, something that has been going on for as long as environmental and climate change have been political issues.

This framing now competes with younger and louder voices and with a climate that is starting to speak its own, rather devastating, language. It might be that the science as religion and conspiracy framing will be drowned out fairly soon.

Image: Pixabay: Tim Hill: Millennium Bridge Castleford, floods 2019



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