Have you heard the one about the climate scientists’ emails? (Getting tired of the same joke?)



Stop me if you’ve heard this one: computer hackers steal thousands of emails among climate change scientists from a university. They release the emails publicly just days before important climate change negotiations are set to begin. Climate change-denying bloggers and their friends in Congress take the emails out of context to accuse climate researchers of scientific misconduct and justify their conspiracy theories, and the media plays along.

Multiple subsequent independent investigations (found here,here, here, and here) find no evidence of wrongdoing by scientists, but by then, the climate negotiations have passed. And the ridiculous circus sideshow continues for months, because, predictably, the climate change deniers will not accept the findings of these exhaustive investigations.

That’s what happened in 2009, when part of a batch of emails stolen from Great Britain’s University of East Anglia were published anonymously on the Internet.

And today, shortly before international climate talks are to begin in Durban, South Africa, the hackers released some of the leftovers from that batch, approximately 5,000 messages in all. Last time, the emails received a lot of undeserved attention. This time, as my colleague Francesca Grifo says, the release “should be met with a collective yawn.”

But it’s not enough to dismiss the latest release. The British government, and the media, need to focus on holding the computer hackers accountable for their illegal acts.

Scientists must have the ability to discuss contentious ideas with each other. Indeed, we all deserve a certain level of privacy to be able to develop and refine our understanding of complex subjects. There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical of research. But stealing private correspondence is not the way to challenge the ideas of those with whom one disagrees.

And certainly, discussion over the content of private email correspondence isn’t going to prevent dangerous extreme weather and other consequences of climate change. Hopefully, elected officials and the press have learned from their previous mistakes and will focus instead on how the world can tackle the challenges posed by global warming.