Open Season on Climate Science

Open season on climate science

First posted on ipolitics

By  | Feb 17, 2015 8:57 pm

On February 5, a B.C. judge found that several Canadian journalists and the National Post libeled Dr. Andrew Weaver by defaming his character during and after the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, the most significant climate change policy negotiations yet undertaken.

The case is significant enough in its legal and journalistic consequences — but it also raises the question of how to communicate climate change science, and how to treat those communicating such science. The stakes are higher now than in 2009; the political pressures on the public communication of climate change will only intensify as the federal election, and the upcoming climate change talks in Paris, get closer.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot to learn from Weaver v. Corcoran. The journalists, according to the judge’s ruling, created a systematic “theme of deceit” to attack Dr. Weaver’s reputation by making false statements about him, by misquoting him, by attributing statements to him that he did not make. The journalists also attributed nefarious motives to Dr. Weaver for positions he did not hold.

When challenged on these points, the National Post refused to correct the public record or apologize, even when presented with clear evidence contradicting their claims. A pile of false statements and innuendo was published, amplified in reader responses, and left to sit on the Post website for five years. At any rate, the price of a climate scientist’s reputation is now set by court precedent — at $50,000, according to Justice Burke.

But the real insight in Weaver v. Corcoran lies in what it has to say about how hostility towards the science of climate change may be affecting the argument in the media. In her judgment, Justice Burke concluded that the defamation resulted not from malice toward Dr. Weaver personally — that the journalists failed to distinguish the scientist and his views from the broader picture of climate change science they had constructed in their minds.

In the judge’s words, “the defendants are using inaccurate information to paint an unflattering picture of Dr. Weaver, ultimately in a defamatory way, as part of expressing their view of the science that Dr. Weaver represents.”

In their desire to generate a negative view of climate science, the journalists set aside their concern with the accuracy of their statements. While Justice Burke rightly refrains from assessing whether the view of climate change held by the journalists has scientific standing, she does show that Dr. Weaver simply does not fit with the broader picture of climate science the journalists wished to circulate.

Malice against climate science is real. It is not a fiction cooked up by paranoid scientists. The extent and intensity of the public attacks on Dr. Weaver and climate science defied decorum and reason to a bewildering extent.

Let’s call this affair “SkepticGate” and consider it the context of “Climategate”, the name given to the leak of the email correspondance of climate change scientists at the University of East Anglia around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen meetings. There are two lessons to take from SkepticGate.

Lesson one — malice against climate science is real. It is not a fiction cooked up by paranoid scientists. The extent and intensity of the public attacks on Dr. Weaver and climate science defied decorum and reason to a bewildering extent. The details found in Justice Burke’s judgment are especially troubling in this respect.

The journalists did not appear to realize they were defaming Dr. Weaver. The desire to propagate a negative view of climate science created a resistance to fact, evidence, counter-argument and fairness. This happened at a news organization that claims public trust by promising to exemplify these values.

Lesson two — not all climate scientists respond to attack as Dr. Weaver did, and this brings us to back to Climategate. The most regrettable behaviors recorded in those leaked email messages are not evidence of systematic incompetence or deceit in climate science. In fact, it was the malicious misinterpretation of those messages that encouraged such beliefs and motivated the Post journalists to defame Dr. Weaver.

The Climategate emails are evidence of how the fear of malice distorted the communicative processes of those threatened. Some scientists attempted to avoid access to information requests and failed to meet standards of transparency regarding data, evidence and code that are crucial to conducting climate science. They believed malevolent intentions were behind the requests and criticism they faced, and this belief diminished their willingness or ability to distinguish legitimate questions from those motivated by ill-will. Some climate scientists went astray by forming a belief that all climate skeptics were deceitful, incompetent and filled with malice.

Many climate scientists suffered outrageous public attacks during Climategate, yet the communication of climate science has improved since — and because of — Climategate. The most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report includes a fuller range of perspectives and research on climate denial, and is more careful about potential sources of error. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has released reports that bring the question of climate engineering into mainstream political debate. Climate engineering, in particular, requires vigorous questioning and political debate, and it will be necessary to separate such skepticism from malice for climate science.

Climategate, in brief, has meant climate science is more likely to reflect Dr. Weaver’s persistent efforts to correct the public record than the regrettable behaviours found in the leaked email.

SkepticGate should force a more honest reckoning among journalists and media. Malice for climate science will intensify again later this year. The stakes in the upcoming federal election and the Paris talks — the most important climate change negotiations ever to take place — will be too high, the politics too contentious, for anything else to happen.

Climategate forced science communicators to understand the consequences of facing malice and to better prepare for the coming situation. The courts have played their role in making defamation a costly strategy. Journalists now need to take a hard look at the circumstances behind SkepticGate — and get ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

Chris Russill is a Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is the editor of Earth-Observing Media, a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication, and author of many papers dealing with public communication of the earth sciences.

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