It was in November 2009 when climatologist Professor Phil Jones found himself making international headlines. Abuse and even death threats soon followed.
Thousands of emails and documents had been hacked by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, their content carefully selected and featured publicly in blogs by climate change deniers from in a way that “proved” that scientists were falsifying their evidence of rising temperatures. , it has been falsely claimed.
Professor Jones, a mild-mannered private man who headed the unit at the time, found himself at the center of the ensuing media storm as the story was picked up – and a target for the hate mail.
“I am a very calm person, I used to lecture to students and scientific colleagues at meetings in Britain, Europe and other parts of the world,” he said. he told Sky News, “and I used to deal with journal reviews”. But it was as far into the scientific spotlight as he had ventured there. When the story broke he said, “I couldn’t really face it.”
The life-changing November turned out to be one of the wettest on record in the UK, the kind of extreme weather event that global warming would only make more frequent.
What is Climategate?
The story is now told in the new BBC film The Trick, which precedes the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. The time is right; the 2009 leak occurred just before this year’s COP summit, COP15 in Copenhagen.
When the hack was made public, it garnered enormous media attention, raising doubts about the accuracy and authenticity of CRU’s work at a time when the world was slowly waking up to the impact of climate change.
Independent investigations have ruled in favor of Professor Jones and the other scientists involved, but the damage was already done. Doubts had been raised. And the pirates were never found.
Experts later said the damage the hack caused to perceptions of climate change had potentially delayed tackling it for up to 10 years, delaying the introduction of measures that could have slowed the rise in temperatures. and given the world more time to reduce carbon emissions.
Professor Jones wishes to stress that the science of climate change is even stronger today than it was then; it refers to the landmark IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report released earlier this year, who predicted that the world is expected to reach the global warming limit of 1.5 ° C in the next 20 years, and said climate change is certainly man-made.
“There is no doubt about it now,” he said. “But I think some still remember [Climategate]. They have been potentially misinformed by this and may also have been misinformed by other blogging sites in the past 12 years. “
The trick: how the story was dramatized
The idea for the film came from Professor Jones and his former college colleagues, although there were nerves to bring the scandal back into the limelight. He is also played by Jason Watkins (The Crown, Des, Line Of Duty) and Victoria Hamilton, Jerome Flynn, George MacKay and Adrian Edmondson.
“It all happened,” Professor Jones said, speaking of the abuse he suffered, which is portrayed in the film. “We even had a Christmas card with a death threat. It was pretty bad. We tried to hide it from our immediate family, the real seriousness of it. It’s hard to describe, The Trick addresses it. some aspects … it’s still pretty crude, to see it again. “
But along with Professor Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the university at the time of the hack, he “felt it was a story that needed to be told” once again.
“There are still a lot of people who saw the massive media coverage in November and December 2009, but the media coverage was quite limited when the surveys [rejecting the Climategate claims] started releasing in the spring and summer of 2010. It was far from the same media coverage at the time. And some people still thought we messed around with the numbers. “
Attitudes towards climate change have changed since 2009, says Professor Jones. Many more people are realizing the threat now. And yet, he’s always ready to receive more criticism, if not abuse, when the film airs. “I’m prepared for it but I hope there won’t be as many. It only comes out in Britain at the moment, but it probably will be in America at some point, there is more. of skeptical deniers there than here. “
It was surreal, he says, seeing himself played by Watkins and his wife, Ruth, by Hamilton. “We even went to see part of the shoot on Norfolk Beach in Happisburgh and seeing a few scenes there was quite emotional… Jason Watkins from me picked up on some of my manners and quirks, one or two that I didn’t know. did. I think it is more emotional for my wife because she was aware of how I was back then and remembers it more than I. Maybe I tried to forget some parts. “
How has the leak affected the fight against climate change?
At the end of The Trick, the viewer hears a moving soliloquy from Watkins’ Professor Jones on the effect of the leak on public opinion. “We could have had 20 years to fix this problem, but now we only have about 10,” he says. “If this.”
“These are not my words – they are my thoughts, “said Professor Jones.” They are [screenwriter] Owen Sheers words, but I have the same views. “He laughs.” He’s more articulate than me, I’m used to writing scientific English. “
After COP15, “we thought there would be progress, we thought the science was really solid. We didn’t realize that there was still this body of opinion in many governments that they didn’t ‘were not ready to accept the evidence, “he continues. . Times have changed, he says, with many other world leaders embracing science. But without the leak, “we could have done earlier” and the changes could have been spread out, mitigated over more time.
“Now the government is talking about having all electric cars by 2030, which means a massive change,” Professor Jones said. “We’ve phased out coal, eventually you have to phase out oil and gas. So that would have given us more time to do that and spread it out over a longer period of time. It has to be done faster now.”
However, Professor Jones says he feels empowered by the younger generation taking over. “Especially Greta Thunberg and others around the world pushing politicians,” he says. “Because it is this generation and the following ones who will have to live with the consequences of the actions that were taken by my generation.”
What should I do now?
In August, the IPCC report issued a stern warning, saying global warming is unprecedented and will continue no matter what we do, but it can be reduced. Professor Jones says it’s the job of scientists to present their findings – and the job of world leaders to act.
“Scientists shouldn’t prescribe policies,” he says. “We presented them with the evidence, they have the future projections, that an increase in global temperatures of 1.5 or more, or 2 degrees, is going to have a real influence on the climate.
“If we do nothing, places like Greenland will end up melting faster than they are now, as will the Antarctic Peninsula. do nothing about it.
“More importantly, if we don’t do much in the short term, we’ll have more of these extreme events like we’ve seen in recent years. We don’t know where they’re going to be, where there’s going to be this precipitation. record or these very high temperatures, but more people are going to be affected by this in the years to come. The number of extreme events is likely to increase from what we have experienced in previous decades. “
Hopefully at COP26 there won’t be any science talks, he said. “Hopefully there will be discussions about what to do about it and how fast we need to do things about it as well.”
Science under attack
Earlier in October, an investigation by the journal Nature revealed the extent of abuse and even physical attacks scientists faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The trick shows the effect it can have.
“The problems of attacked scientists recently made the news with something from Patrick Vallance [the government’s chief scientific adviser] said about the media attention for his family and some of the COVID scientists who have received threats after being in the media about vaccines or potential cures for COVID, ”Professor Jones said.
“It just shows you what it is like to be in high level science. [Climategate] was probably one of the first. Richard Doll, one of the people who discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer, probably had a similar thing, but that was far from the case … the media is so much more ubiquitous today. than in previous decades. “
Professor Jones doesn’t think The Trick will change the minds of staunch climate change deniers. But he hopes it will encourage viewers to research the topic. He understands that this can be difficult – while the IPCC report is “virtually the Bible on this subject”, he is aware that such reports “can be very difficult to read unless you are a trained scientist.”
But the information is there. “You just have to make sure you get it from a good source.”
The Trick releases Monday October 18 from 8:30 p.m. on BBC One and BBC iPlayer