Key global warming believer surrenders: Climategate catastrophic

New Scientist writer Fred Pearce, whose global warming articles I debunked in Air Con, appears to be running the white flag up the pole.

In an article for Rajendra Pachauri’s climate unit at Yale, Pearce writes:

The media blizzard that has descended on climate science since the hacking of hundreds of e-mails held on the webmail server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, is set to become a case study — in public relations disasters, in the folly of incontinent electronic communication, in the shortcomings of peer review, and, very probably, in “how not to save the world.”

The e-mails, dating from the mid-1990s to early November this year, first surfaced online on Nov. 20. Within hours they were being described by a columnist in one national British newspaper, the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming,” adding for good measure that “this scandal could well be the greatest in modern science.”

Follow that. Well, the world’s media did.

Pearce laments how the leaked emails story gained legs so fast, intimating that Phil Jones being taken by surprise by a call from New Zealand may have been part of the problem:

These days, scientists need rules of engagement for what to do when outsiders come calling, whether those outsiders are Greenpeace activists or investigative journalists or trouble-making climate skeptics.

…But this saga has now gone far beyond discussion of the content of the e-mails. The failure of the University of East Anglia to respond substantially to the avalanche of invective from climate skeptics has been a PR disaster that undermined the reputation of science as well as the institution itself. One angry media insider says: “Their response will be taught in university communications courses. Because I’m going to make sure it is.” The university’s failure for a full fortnight to put up a single scientist to defend Phil Jones amounted to cruelty.

During this silence, many things happened that otherwise might not.

For one thing, in Britain, the liberal media had no idea what to do. The London-based Guardian began by holding its nose, quoting the hysterical coverage among skeptic blogs and hoping the affair would go away. The equally liberal-minded Channel 4 TV news held up to ridicule the inability of a Fox News presenter to pronounce East Anglia (he hesitantly settled on “Angila”) and signed off.

Then the notably combative environmental writer George Monbiot declared in the Guardian that Jones should resign. That was a smoking gun for greens and liberals everywhere. What did Monbiot know? Still the university remained silent.

Viewers of the BBC watched a crashing of gears. For several years most of its coverage of climate change has been based on the scientific consensus that warming is real and that mankind is to blame. Did that still hold? The editors no longer knew for sure. Fearing for their impartiality, they abruptly reverted to the journalists’ default. Equal time (or close to it) for the skeptics.

Much the same happened in the United States, with seasoned experts like Andrew Revkin at the New York Times feeling unwilling to defend people whose employers were leaving them to hang in the breeze.

Everyone was running for cover. Even environmental campaigners kept quiet – ostensibly because it was up to scientists to defend their own, but equally because they were unnerved by Monbiot and others apparently siding with the skeptics.

Welcome to reality, Fred. The emails and documents were, and remain, an utter scandal. Indefensible. It is only when people revert to their default climate science setting – the end justifies the means – that they can push aside the immorality and illegality in the emails and sweep it back under the carpet. For believers in the news media – and there are many – Climategate is a wake up call that their own credibility is on the line.

“We don’t know how this will play out,” says Ben Stewart, media director at Greenpeace UK. “It’s not as if the Pentagon or the Chinese government will change their position as a result of these e-mails. The damage is being done in newsrooms.” And the fallout from the newsrooms could well influence how the public and legislators back home receive whatever deal is reached in Copenhagen and what will happen to the climate legislation now before the U.S. Senate.

Indeed, newsrooms around the world have started to realize they were cast in the role of “useful idiots” by the global warming movement. Once that realization dawned, the possibility of full trust being restored receded.

Pearce, of course, maintains the content of the leaked emails is not serious, and that belief in AGW must continue. Nonetheless, he concedes the writing may be on the wall:

I have been speaking to a PR operator for one of the world’s leading environmental organizations. Most unusually, he didn’t want to be quoted. But his message is clear. The facts of the e-mails barely matter any more. It has always been hard to persuade the public that invisible gases could somehow warm the planet, and that they had to make sacrifices to prevent that from happening. It seemed, on the verge of Copenhagen, as if that might be about to be achieved.

But he says all that ended on Nov. 20. “The e-mails represented a seminal moment in the climate debate of the last five years, and it was a moment that broke decisively against us. I think the CRU leak is nothing less than catastrophic.”