Debunking the "Climategate" Diversion Tactic

Ploy by climate deniers to discredit science is revealed as misleading sham

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Six months after the media hoopla known as "Climategate," we begin to see more clearly and fully how our news establishments, both here in the United States and abroad, have failed us on reporting scientific fact and doing what they were created to do: uncover the truth.

We see it everyday on TV, online and in print: News establishments ceding serious investigative reporting, foregoing real fact finding, relinquishing truth seeking, in favor of this new idea of "fair and balanced" reporting that just shows two sides of any story—or worse, just offers us some opposing opinions—and calls it a day.

The two sides of the story are represented all too often by extremes, and any little opportunity to amplify the arguments or set the stage of a "battle" are seized upon and fully capitalized by media today.

You can blame the 24-hour news cycle that lends itself to lazy stories and quick soundbites, or worse, demands that from reporters; you can blame the downturn of a once-lucrative news industry; you can blame the advertising-based revenue models of traditional media outlets; you can blame a lost values and ethics code in journalism; or you can blame a society obsessed with conflict and crossfire—whoever or whatever you blame, the fact remains: We The People are getting desperately sold short on information, facts and especially science in today’s so-called "news" reports.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that democracy depends on an educated and informed electorate. Today, it’s not only democracy that depends on it; it’s all of society. And it can be argued that we depend, now more than ever, on not just any kind of information but scientific information especially. 

So it’s a total blow to the gut when the scientific information exists and is out there—encapsulated in volumes and volumes of scientific data, government agency reports from administrations of both parties, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles—and it still doesn’t fully make its way through a mainstream media circus.

It’s painful to watch the consensus and research of scientists from all over the world get laid to waste by a politically charged decoy like the "Climategate" story, which distracted the public from a whole body of sound science with some sparkly—albeit misguided—hacked-e-mail exchanges between a few people. The "Climategate" emails between a few scientists were not productive, not ethical, but they also can’t possibly discredit the whole body of science and fact that exists.

One particular organization that helped cut through a lot of the crap to get to the facts was Media Matters. While the researchers at Media Matters sifted through the hundreds of stories that fueled this bogus "Climategate" beast, they found that much of the press on "Climategate" was based on rumors, unsubstantiated claims and shoddy reporting.

Over the few months since the alleged scandal, the real story, the truth, has unfolded. The few scientists who were wrongly accused of tampering scientific evidence have gone through thorough investigations and have been totally cleared. Outlets have retracted stories that perpetuated Climategate and escalated it. And yet even more scientific evidence supporting climate change has come out (of particular note: an important report by the crucial National Academy of Sciences.) And these are just a few examples. Of course, these facts and this science have garnered a tiny fraction of the press that the Climategate story got.

This week, Earthjustice joined Media Matters and 11 other organizations to urge outlets that reported on the original "Climategate" controversy to set the record straight. We joined together to urge these news outlets to highlight recent developments that completely disprove much of the evidence that supported the "Climategate" scandal with the same forcefulness and frequency that they reported the original charges.

Check out our letter and more examples of how climate change is proven, and how the media got the Climategate story all wrong (below and also here, on Media Matters):

Dear Editorial Boards and Journalists,

Last winter, newsrooms across the world raced to add the newest layer to the then-controversy over stolen emails, the reliability of climate science, and the legitimacy of the findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The journalistic arms race on both sides of the Atlantic, enabled by the lax publishing standards of Europe and fueled by oil industry-funded climate deniers in the U.S., resulted in the mutual destruction of accurate reporting and an informed readership. These false reports had a measurable impact on public opinion.

With the dust finally settling now six months later, it’s painfully clear that news outlets across the globe hastily published hundreds of stories—based on rumors, unsubstantiated claims, and the shoddy reporting of their competitors—questioning the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change. One by one, the pillars of evidence supporting the alleged "scandals" have shattered, causing the entire storyline to come crashing down.

According to The New York Times, the Independent Climate Change E-Mails Review today "cleared climate scientists and administrators at the University of East Anglia of claims of malfeasance rising out of the contents of folders of e-mail messages and files extracted from computers there and posted around the Web last November." The Times further reported that "the committee made it clear that nearly all of the attacks on the scientists and the university were unsubstantiated."

After the hacked emails drew criticism, a panel established by the University of East Anglia to investigate the integrity of the research of the Climatic Research Unit wrote: "We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it."

Responding to allegations that Dr. Michael Mann tampered with scientific evidence, Pennsylvania State University conducted a thorough investigation. It concluded: "The Investigatory Committee, after careful review of all available evidence, determined that there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann, Professor, Department of Meteorology, The Pennsylvania State University.  More specifically, the Investigatory Committee determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions t hat seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scholarly activities." 

The British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee investigated the charges and concluded: "The focus on Professor [Phil] Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced. On the accusations relating to Professor Jones’s refusal to share raw data and computer codes, we consider that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community."

London’s Sunday Times retracted its story, echoed by dozens of outlets, that the IPCC issued an unsubstantiated report claiming 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest was endangered due to changing rainfall patterns. The Times wrote: "In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF [World Wildlife Fund] report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change." 

The Sunday Times also admitted it misrepresented the views of Dr. Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds, implying he agreed with the article’s false premise and believed the IPCC should not use reports issued by outside organizations. In its retraction, the Times admitted: "Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports," and, "We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view. … A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this."

In May of this year, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering released a report titled, Advancing the Science of Climate Change. According to a news release, the report concluded: "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems."

After analyzing 32 summary conclusions on the regional impacts of climate change in the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency concluded that "no significant errors" had been made.

Every newspaper, magazine and television show that reported on these bogus scandals owes it to its audience to set the record straight with the same forcefulness and frequency that it reported the original, disproven charges. Failure to publicly correct the record undermines the very heart of journalism—to report the truth.

Alliance for Climate Protection
Center for American Progress Action Fund
Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture)
League of Conservation Voters
Media Matters for America
Natural Resources Defense Council
Project on Climate Science
Safe Climate Campaign
Sierra Club
United Nations Foundation
World Wildlife Fund

Liz Judge worked at Earthjustice from 2010–2016. During that time, she worked on mountaintop removal mining, national forests, and clean water issues, and led the media and advocacy communications teams.