Climategate Hacker Scores Own Goal

11/29/2011 02:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Not all climate skeptics are callous mercenaries working for the fossil fuel industry. A couple of other kinds spring to mind. The first are honourable, independent-minded people, taking a little time to check out for themselves -- as surely they should -- how they should understand climate change. The second are people who like to see themselves as outlaw heroes, untrammelled by conventional rules, saving people in distress like 21st century Robin Hoods.

The trouble is, what if this self-appointed savior gets his facts wrong? What if he isn't so much Robin Hood as Hong Kong Phooey?

The climategate hacker sounds like he (or she, or they) belongs to this unfortunate category of misguided saviours. This hacker, you will recall, broke into the private emails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and released a first batch of these stolen emails in 2009, on the eve of the UN's Copenhagen climate talks. These emails were selected so as to 'prove' that the scientists were hypocrites, publicly pretending to believe in climate change while privately questioning various aspects of the evidence.

The reality was simpler. The scientists were not phonies: they were only doing what good scientists always do, which is to question themselves and their colleagues as rigorously as possible about their findings. Nine separate enquiries followed. All exonerated the scientists.

Now, just before the start of the 2011 UN climate talks, this time in Durban, South Africa, he has released a further batch: 5,000 emails leftover from the same crop stolen two years before. But this time he reportedly included a clue to his motives: a text file headed "Background and Context" that included remarks like:

"Poverty is a death sentence. Nations must invest $37 trillion in energy technologies by 2030 to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at sustainable levels."

"Over 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day."

" 'One dollar can save a life' -- the opposite must also be true."

So Mr. Secretive Saviour apparently imagines he is sidelining climate change because it diverts attention from eradicating poverty! He couldn't be more misguided. Climate change is the greatest poverty-creator -- ever. If he really cares about eradicating poverty, he should be using his talent for publicity to encourage people to tackle climate change as vigorously as they possibly could.

But it seems to have escaped his notice that it is the poorest and most vulnerable countries that are the most anxious to get ambitious and legally binding action agreed at the UN climate talks. The only people the hacker has been benefiting are those who are actively causing climate change -- the fossil fuel lobby and major polluters. The status quo keeps them in the manner to which they have become accustomed: extraordinarily rich.

He has also got his numbers wrong. The BBC's Richard Black reckons the $37 trillion figure is

... probably derive[d] from the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook for 2009, released shortly before the Copenhagen summit... The IEA said the cumulative investment needed to meet the growth in projected energy demand by 2030 was $26 trillion. Keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million would require an additional $10.5 trillion, they said, because of the more expensive technologies that would be needed... In some reports, these figures were combined to form $37 trillion.

So the purpose of the bulk of $37 trillion was to provide energy for the very people our hacker is so stricken about -- energy they need in order to pull themselves out of poverty. It's nothing to do with climate change. The remaining trillions are there to make sure it's clean energy. Some deniers would argue that that was unnecessary, but who would prefer poor people to get dirty energy?

So how should responsible members of the public respond to this second wave of emails? When the first batch of emails were released in 2009, we were advised not give it the oxygen of publicity. But that simply left the deniers free to spin the climategate story as they pleased. Or should we convey "a collective yawn," as Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists advised? Yawning doesn't seem that different to keeping silent.

Others prefer to ask tough questions. Why hasn't the hacker been caught? Why has so little been invested in catching him? In the past year, says Richard Black, the Norfolk Police have spent the grand sum of £5,649.09 on this investigation. It is reminiscent of the feeble, foot-dragging police investigation into the phone hacking allegations against the News of the World.

The police should take heed of the massive swing in public mood, from shrugs to fury, when people realized that phone-hacking hadn't just bothered a few publicity-hungry celebrities but had caused grievous pain to innocent families like the Dowlers. They should try counting the number of innocent families that have been hurt by the climategate hacker.

UEA's climate scientists have been hounded and falsely vilified because of the hacker's lack of understanding of basic scientific methods. Millions of decent people struggling to come to terms with climate change have been misled by his half-baked information. Most grievously of all, the billions of families who scrape by on less than $2 a day have had their lives put further at risk.

What would most help these impoverished families is for the UN climate talks in Durban to result in a strong climate deal. This hacker attack, timed to derail the process once more by falsely undermining the science, is the last thing they need. If the hacker's moral purpose is to help the poor, then he has scored a spectacular own goal.