The BBC’s new docudrama The Trick dramatises events around ‘Climategate’ – the hacking and subsequent false representation of thousands of emails between climate scientists, just before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. It’s an episode that can now be seen as a blueprint for a later – and even more devastating – disinformation operation.
Writer Owen Sheers has described how he was prompted to create the drama by questions about how Climategate was covered in the media at the time:
“All the stories were about the climate science and the data. Was it valid? Had it got to be cooked? I couldn’t find any security stories that were asking the question, ‘Well, who has done this and why would they want to do this?’”
I have been interested in Climategate for a long time, and particularly in those same questions. And I became even more so in 2016. Watching how Trump, Wikileaks and far-right conspiracy theorists worked hand-in-hand to wring the maximum amount of damaging fake news out of emails expertly hacked from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), I couldn’t help feeling a powerful sense of déjà vu.
That carefully choreographed and devastatingly effective operation, timed to give Trump just the boost his campaign needed in the closing stages of the US election campaign, was so strikingly similar to what had happened in 2009 that the earlier incident seemed almost like a blueprint. It seemed remarkable to me that the world’s media failed to pick up on this.
Climategate began with what British police called a ‘sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack’ on a server used by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s leading institutions in the study of climate change. Between September and November 2009, a large tranche of emails and other documents created by CRU scientists was stolen. This was then uploaded to a server in Tomsk, Russia before being copied to various locations across the internet. The hackers then sent links to selected bits of the stolen data to various prominent climate ‘sceptics’ (i.e. people who seek to cast doubt on the well-established link between man-made CO2 emissions and global warming).
The hackers passed on the same selection from their trove of stolen material to Wikileaks, who promptly published it online. Wikileaks was also to prove a useful conduit for the DNC hackers. (Julian Assange, perhaps hoping for a pardon from Trump, was more than happy to oblige them – not just by releasing the material but by drip-feeding releases so as to cause maximum damage to Clinton.)
Once the climate ‘sceptics’ got their hands on the hacked CRU material, a great deal more highly selective sifting went on, the aim being to discover titbits that would feed into their grand conspiracy narrative and show that climate scientists were engaged in systematically falsifying scientific evidence.
Exactly the same modus operandi was evident in the way conspiracy theorists used entirely innocent emails from Hilary Clinton’s aides to spin elaborate stories about child sex trafficking and other lurid crimes.
Likewise, passages and phrases were plucked from the CRU email correspondence and presented, out of context, as ‘smoking guns’ that supposedly proved the scientists’ guilt. The most notorious of these was a term used by CRU director Phil Jones, who had written to a colleague to say that he had used ‘Mike’s Nature trick’ in a graph made for the World Meteorological Organization ‘to hide the decline’ in proxy temperatures derived from tree ring analyses.
This was seized on as an admission that Jones had conspired with the leading US scientist Michael Mann to distort evidence that global temperatures were declining rather than rising. In fact it was nothing of the sort – the word ‘trick’ is a piece of statistical jargon that describes a way of neatly (and legitimately) bringing together two different data sets, and the ‘decline’ Jones referred to was nothing to do with current global temperatures, which were in fact at record highs.
The Climategate data was subsequently examined in detail by no less than eight expert committees, all of which concluded that they contained no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct. But the damage was done. The distorted and decontextualised email material had been widely presented as a ‘scandal’ by the world’s media.
Leading the pack was the Kremlin’s slick propaganda outlet RT (Russia Today), which alleged that the stolen emails gave ‘the clues to prove that global warming is a huge conspiracy’. Journalists such as the deeply mendacious James Delingpole also went to town on the leaked emails. Delingpole was then working for the Daily Telegraph but has since become a key player at Breitbart, the far-right ‘news’ network whose former chairman, Steve Bannon, was also Donald Trump’s chief strategist.
What makes Climategate so uncannily similar to the 2016 hack is not just the way stolen information was fed out through carefully selected channels (which could be relied on to use it to stoke conspiracy theories) and via Wikileaks (then seen as an organisation devoted to truth and transparency), but also its timing. The material was released just a few weeks before the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen and seemed deliberately designed to cast doubt on the integrity of climate science at a moment that would inflict maximum damage on the chances of the summit reaching an effective agreement.
This was a highly sophisticated operation, both in the technical expertise of the hack and in the way that it was milked for political impact. Like the DNC hack, it was decidedly not the work of amateurs or of “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” (as Trump described the DNC hack).
Michael Mann, one of the eminent climate scientists whose work was smeared by right-wing commentators as fraudulent, using the CRU emails as ‘evidence’, subsequently took legal action against the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank that had disseminated these unfounded allegations. In 2019, the Centre finally publicly apologised for publishing “ untrue and disparaging accusations which impugned the character of Dr Mann. ”
This was a satisfying victory for truth against disinformation, but it left the shadowy instigators of the Climategate affair – the hackers and the kleptocratic state that was most probably behind their efforts – untouched.
These are powerful actors who understand only too well the political impact that such disinformation campaigns can have. Climategate probably helped to sabotage an effective climate agreement at Copenhagen in 2009, leaving oil companies and the corrupt states with which they are enmeshed free to carry on despoiling the world’s climate for profit. It certainly helped to discredit the crucial work of climate scientists in the eyes of the public. And it looks to me as if the success of this operation emboldened those behind it to aim for even higher prizes, using precisely the same methods.
Seven years later, a strikingly similar disinformation campaign, also based on material stolen by highly sophisticated hackers – now known to be Russian military intelligence – helped deliver the US election to Trump, a man effusive in his praise of Vladimir Putin and who believes (or purports to believe) that global warming is a hoax.
The Russian kleptocracy draws the bulk of its stupendous wealth from fossil fuels, and kleptocracy has been elevated into a political system in Putin’s Russia. One notable feature of this system is that the line between state functions and business interests – particularly those of fossil fuel corporations – is very deliberately blurred.
Much has been written about Trump’s and Putin’s affinities with fascism, but perhaps the way in which both men most closely model an earlier incarnation of fascist ideology is in the way they seek to align corrupt business interests with state power. As Mussolini observed:
“Fascism is when you can’t put a cigarette paper between corporate power and government power.”Mussolini
We may never know for sure whether Climategate was the work of a foreign intelligence agency or of corrupt fossil fuel interests, or both. But for kleptocrats, stealing email records and using these to smear your opponents is all in a day’s work. Compared with the wholesale theft of natural resources and the destruction of the world’s climate system for personal enrichment, this sort of operation might seem pretty minor.
But to ensure that such theft and destruction can continue unimpeded, undermining trust in science and in democratic political systems is, to say the least, extremely helpful.