‘We had death threats’ - Scientists say UEA climate email leak scandal has helped global warming fight
PUBLISHED: 06:30 17 November 2019 | UPDATED: 07:29 17 November 2019
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
A decade ago Norfolk was at the heart of a global scientific scandal which could have had serious implications in the fight against climate change. But those at its heart believe it was a blessing in disguise. Bethany Whymark reports.
An international environmental scandal has helped rather than hindered the fight against climate change, according to the Norfolk university where it started.
In November 2009 the University of East Anglia (UEA) found itself in the global media spotlight after emails which suggested climate change researchers had exaggerated claims about the severity of global warming were leaked from its servers.
It led to one of the most rigorous scrutiny processes in UK academic history - but despite the claims of exaggeration, the research was found to be watertight.
Now, a decade on, one of the men at the heart of the "Climategate" media storm has claimed the incident accelerated the global battle against climate change by proving the science was solid.
Asher Minns, now executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA, said: "I think it sped up the whole process of climate science being believed and seen to be valuable to society."
The scandal began after back-up servers at the UEA's Climatic Research Unit (Cru), containing thousands of emails and other documents, were attacked and breached with the resulting data mine leaked online.
Some of the emails appeared to show Cru researchers and others deviating from accepted standards to whip up a panic about climate change.
Those sceptical about climate change used the materials to question the integrity of climate science and sabotage a global climate convention in Denmark.
Once the initial media storm around the Climategate scandal died down, there was a series of internal and external investigations to verify the content and accuracy of the Cru's research, including one which was part-funded by a climate sceptic group.
All came back clean: the scientists' research was accurate.
These ran alongside a police investigation to establish how and by whom the servers had been hacked.
As Norfolk Police were approaching the three-year time limit for a charge to be brought under the Computer Misuse Act, they closed the case, saying the attack had been sophisticated and carefully orchestrated but that no one working at or affiliated with the university had been involved.
When Climategate hit, Mr Minns had been working at the Tyndall Centre at UEA for six years and was the university's envoy for UN climate summits.
Mr Minns, now the centre's executive director, said the incident caused a sudden boom in interest in climate change, pushing it out of the realm of scientific journals and into the national media spotlight.
"Universities are not the fastest moving organisations and I think it caught people unawares, not just here but particularly in climate research, because suddenly it had been catapulted into the limelight," he said.
"Climategate was climate change as politics, not as science."
Mr Minns was preparing for the imminent UN climate summit in Copenhagen when the data breach happened.
It was billed as the most important climate summit so far, where world leaders would gather to decide the crucial next steps on climate change - but it was a flop, partly because of Climategate.
"I was in Copenhagen at this two-week conference with a UEA banner over my head," Mr Minns said.
"It was a difficult conference. I don't think anyone thought an agreement was going to be reached. Climategate just added to it."
Tim Osborn was a researcher at Cru at the time its servers were hacked.
He said that, even then, it was common for climate change deniers or "contrarians" to dismantle scientific evidence to support their arguments.
"They will not just target political and economic actions against climate change, but also try to understand the science. The basic approach is not to disprove it, it is to spread uncertainty," he said.
"It didn't take long before it [Climategate] was a media storm, first nationally then globally. In general I think we were overwhelmed by the amount of coverage, but also the powerlessness to respond to it.
"The amount of time it takes to start a lie or a claim compared to the amount of time it takes to explain why it is untrue is disproportionate.
"They announced an inquiry and we took that as a positive, a chance to defend ourselves where objective people were going to be looking at the evidence.
"That calmed things down a bit from our point of view because we knew the inquiry would give us the chance to have a fair and measured evaluation."
The hack came as the US's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made its first step in the climate change battle by establishing the endangerment finding, which said a dangerous build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was causing a threat to public health. It led to the Clean Air Act, which obligates the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr Osborn said: "After the hack, a group of climate contrarians submitted a motion to the EPA for them to reconsider the finding as climate science was unreliable."
Their challenge was ultimately unsuccessful. Since Donald Trump was elected as US president in 2016 there have been rumours that his administration would try to repeal the act, but this has not yet come to pass.
Prof David Richardson, now UEA vice-chancellor, was executive dean of the science faculty - including the under-fire environmental sciences unit - at the time of Climategate.
"For the scientists whose research was being challenged, it was very stressful. Some were getting quite disturbing emails, death threats in some places," he said.
"When the Cru was set up in the 1970s they were not trying to prove the world was warming - they were just studying the climate.
"At the time [of Climategate] there were organisations who didn't like the findings that were coming out of their research.
"They wanted to find evidence that their conclusions were not just wrong, but that they had been manipulated.
"That was quite a challenge to their integrity. When you see your colleagues being accused of that, it is quite disturbing."
For UEA, an institution with a long-standing and respected tradition of climate research, the reputational risk from Climategate was huge.
Mr Richardson said: "A damaged reputation can damage not just the scientists directly involved but the wider academic community, because a narrative can begin to emerge that misleading the public is an acceptable way to do research at UEA.
"But at the time the leaders were absolutely clear that the research was strong, robust and peer-reviewed. That was fully indicated by all the inquiries that followed."
To this day the Climategate hack has not been solved. After nearly three years of investigations, the police closed the case in July 2012.
Detective Chief Superintendant Julian Gregory said: "The complex nature of this investigation means that we do not have a realistic prospect of identifying the offender or offenders and launching criminal proceedings within the time constraints imposed by law."
How Climategate shifted debate
In Mr Minns' opinion, while there was an initial set-back from Climategate and public trust to be won back, climate science ultimately benefited from the hack.
"It reinforced the science," he said. "Suddenly it was going to have to be much more transparent. It got better at explaining itself and representing itself and talking about itself to much broader audiences.
"The science was given great scrutiny. UEA had several independent inquiries into the quality of the science and there were also external inquiries that found the science to be robust.
"It was the most peer-reviewed and scrutinised science ever, pretty much."
Fast forward to December 2015, to the UN climate change summit in Paris. Here, the Paris Agreement was signed: a global pledge to keep the warming of global temperatures below 1.5C.
Mr Minns believes Climategate may have contributed to how quickly a decision was reached, and the fact the UN went for a 1.5C target when scientists had been basing their research around up to 2C of warming.
"From 2015 to 2018 there was a big push to update the science to 1.5C. At the Tyndall Centre we revised our research strategy - it is not just scientific research in isolation, it is supposed to be useful," he said.
"[Without Climategate] I don't think Copenhagen, which was a disaster, would have been brushed down and turned into something so useful and universal so quickly, because the science was shown to be so robust."
He also thinks the push for transparency and trustworthiness led more scientists, particularly climate scientists, to set up social media accounts to share their research.
"How interested the world was in climate change and climate science had been underestimated," he said.
He added: "We cannot keep up with the demand for climate knowledge. As of July 30, more than half of UK local authorities have declared a climate emergency. Many of them are now coming to us at UEA to ask what that means."
He added: "Ten years on you look at what is happening with the climate around us, and broadly there is a global acceptance that there is a climate emergency. If anything good came out of this terrible, stressful thing, it showed that we were right."
Public perceptions of climate change
In the 10 years since Climategate shook the world, the public image of climate change has altered beyond recognition.
The issue has been brought from the lab into the limelight - conversations about dietary choices, how we travel, global weather patterns and even which shampoo we buy can now be influenced by climate change.
Sir David Attenborough is among many who have adapted climate change science for the popular sphere, with blockbuster series Planet Earth and Blue Planet showing the their impact to a television audience of millions.
Over the past year climate activist group Extinction Rebellion has launched local protests around the country and wrought havoc in the capital, blaring its message to big business in the City of London and to government in Westminster.
Meanwhile the Youth Strikes for Climate which have taken place around the world, including in Norwich, have demonstrated the strength of feeling over climate change among younger generations.
But with a rising profile has come a rising backlash, with some still questioning the reliability of climate science and whether human activity is truly responsible for the changes being seen around the world.
So how have public perceptions of climate change really altered? We asked shoppers in Norwich.
Denise Janes, 77, from Swanton Morley, said: "I think things have got worse, you only have to look at what has happened at the moment. I used to live in Australia and we had bush fires, but it is worse now. The floods here are considerably worse too.
"Government are not doing enough, and not enough of us pay enough attention to what is happening."
Hannah Ings, 35, from Norwich, said: "It's scary, we try to be eco-conscious but it is hard now with young families.
"We need bigger companies and governments to support it. As one person you can only do so much, it requires action from bigger organisations."
Becky Richmond, 36, from Norwich, said: "It is scary thinking that there is nothing we can do to reverse it.
"With some people, like Donald Trump trying to leave the Paris Agreement, it's just a case of 'it's inconvenient for me so I don't want to do it'."
Mike Gidney, 56, from Milton Keynes, said: "I have always been concerned about how we treat the planet, but only recently have we realised the scale of the problem.
"The result of Sir David Attenborough highlighting it is that more people and businesses have paid attention, but there is a limit to what people are willing to do to effect change. If it will be a big inconvenience for them they are less likely to do it."
Melanie Cook, 56, from Norwich, said: "I have always been aware, but I have changed what I do more recently. I do my best to avoid plastics although it can be hard.
"I am much more aware that we are not looking after things enough for our future generations. My daughter is a geography teacher and she talks a lot about climate change. People still say 'it is not a thing' but how can you think like that?"
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