"Climategate" Is a Decade Old. All It Exposed is the Bad Faith of Climate Deniers | Opinion

Russia, Wikileaks and stolen emails. You could be forgiven for thinking I'm talking about the now well-established conspiracy to steal the U.S. presidential election of 2016, a scandal that has since been branded Russiagate. Instead, I'm talking about the fake scandal in November 2009 that would come to be known as Climategate, and which arguably served as a training ground, a test run, for the more recent hacking of our presidential election.

Ten years ago, hackers with links to Russia and Wikileaks broke into an email server in the U.K., and released stolen emails in a massive, carefully orchestrated disinformation campaign designed to impact the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit of December 2009. Words from the emails were disingenuously rearranged and taken out of context (for example, the word "trick"—a term used by mathematicians and scientists to denote a clever short-cut to solving a problem) by climate change deniers to misrepresent both the science and the scientists.

Even the name attached to the affair—"Climategate"—was the product of a carefully crafted narrative foisted on the public and policymakers in a collaborative effort by fossil fuel industry front groups, paid attack dogs, and conservative media outlets. Mainstream media couldn't resist the bait, and before long the news was buzzing with talk of how emails expose the seedy underbelly of the climate science world.

Never matter that multiple subsequent investigations revealed no wrongdoing on the part of scientists. Indeed, the true irony is that, just like Watergate after which it was named, the only wrongdoing was the criminal theft itself. But the damage was already done. "Climategate" became a rallying cry for the fossil fuel-funded climate denial network and industry-funded politicians alike.

The ultimate legacy of the affair, however, is quite different from what climate denialists might like to think. While the fossil fuel industry had for decades sought to forestall regulation of carbon emissions, Climategate illustrated the depths of dishonesty to which denialists were willing to sink in their efforts to sabotage action on climate. It was a tacit admission on their part that they no longer had a legitimate case to make.

And so citing "Climategate" as a reason for inaction has become a simple "tell" in the climate discourse. Those who do it are acting in bad faith. They are not honest actors expressing true belief. They are dissemblers intentionally misrepresenting the science and the scientists to score political points on behalf of the fossil fuel interests whose bidding they are doing.

In the decade since, we have now largely overcome outright climate denial. The debate has, at least in honest quarters, moved squarely beyond the question of whether we have a problem to what to do about it. But it's late in the game. Extreme weather events have been made more frequent, destructive and deadly because of climate change. Yet those same events are also now mobilizing the public and an increasing number of policymakers to act, making it clear that the danger is already here and needs to be addressed now. Sea level rise combined with more destructive hurricanes are now threatening coastal communities in Florida, triggering Republicans there to begin taking the issue seriously as sea-side real estate falls increasingly underwater.

On the energy front, renewables are now cheaper than ever, with prices falling still, and adoption accelerating. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is unstoppable if, for no reason other than the fact that the price of capturing wind and sun is ultimately lower than the cost of digging up, transporting, and burning fossil fuels—even without putting a price on carbon pollution. But we will need to speed up the transition if we are to avert ever-more dangerous warming. A price on carbon will do that.

Add to that the massive world-wide climate demonstrations, with our children leading the way, and we have all of the basic ingredients necessary for a societal tipping point on climate action. But Big Oil isn't stepping aside willingly. Instead, we're seeing a new front in the fight, with a softer form of denial involving efforts to deflect attention from industry's responsibility or offer fake solutions that keep us addicted to oil, coal, and natural gas. We cannot afford that sort of slow-walking however. We don't have time to appease polluters with incremental policies. We have precious little time to end our addiction before the consequences are catastrophic.

Looking back, we've wasted too much time already. But looking forward, we're just a year away from a make or break election when it comes to climate. Another thing that is even more true now than it was a decade ago. The good news is that it gives us an opportunity to seize control of our future by turning out to vote, and to vote on climate.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The views expressed in the article are the author's own.