What was Climategate? The Norfolk scientific scandal at the heart of new BBC drama

Jason Watkins starring as UEA Professor Philip Jones in The Trick.

Jason Watkins starring as UEA scientist Professor Philip Jones in The Trick. - Credit: BBC/Vox Pictures

BBC's new drama The Trick — telling the story of Climategate, a scientific scandal with Norfolk at its centre — is airing tonight.

The show tells the story of how scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) faced accusations from around the world of exaggerating the severity of global warming after emails and documents were leaked. 

What was Climategate?

In November 2009, a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the UEA was hacked. Thousands of emails and computer files were stolen and leaked.

Prof Phil Jones and Tim Osborn at the UEA Climactic Research Unit

Prof Phil Jones and Tim Osborn, director of research at the University of East Anglia's Climactic Research Unit, outside the building. - Credit: UEA

Climate change deniers claimed the documents and emails showed that climate change was a global conspiracy, with scientists manipulating data to suppress critics.

It was suggested by scientists, policymakers, and public relations experts that the emails were leaked as a smear campaign in an attempt to undermine the Copenhagen Summit on climate change, which was to take place just weeks after the hack.

Scientists at the UEA even received death threats.

A temperature graph at the University of East Anglia's Climactic Research Unit

A temperature graph showing global warming at the University of East Anglia's Climactic Research Unit. - Credit: UEA

Proving the UEA CRU was right.

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What followed was "one of the most rigorous scrutiny processes in UK academic history", it was confirmed that these claims were false and that climate change deniers were misrepresenting the emails.

Eight committees, based both in the UK and the US, investigated the allegations and found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.

Many of the quotes from the emails used by climate change deniers were taken out of context and mischaracterised to portray the scientists as deceitful. 

Prof Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA, appeared before the Science and Tech

Prof Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA, appeared before the Science and Technology Committee in Portcullis House, London on March 1, 2010 to be quizzed by MPs over "Cimategate". Picture: PA Wire - Credit: PA

Asher Minns, now executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA, said the scandal "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 results of Climategate.

Some believe it has led to increased support for the fight against climate change.

The third Youth Strike 4 Climate protest outside City Hall, Norwich in May. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

The third Youth Strike 4 Climate protest outside City Hall, Norwich in May. Picture: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

Mr Minns 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."

However, others believe it has damaged the reputation of the environmental sciences community.

Tim Osborn, a climate modeller at CRU in 2009, said: "The basic approach is not to disprove it, it is to spread uncertainty. 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."

The Trick is airing on BBC One tonight, October 18, at 8.30pm.

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