03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mainstream Media Misdirected in Stolen Email Story

Unless you live under a rock, you have undoubtedly heard by now about the emails stolen from a computer server belonging to the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in Britain.

This hack job was committed by an unknown individual or group who illegally infiltrated the university's system, stole thousands of emails from a select group of climate scientists spanning over a decade, and then published a subset for the world to see, ostensibly to prove that global warming is a "hoax".

While the scientific evidence demonstrating that climate change poses a very real threat to our health, economy and planet has never been clearer, an army of climate deniers has used its extensive echo chamber to manufacture a "scandal" out of this rather bland collection of email banter.

The mainstream media has swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, developing an obsession with "Climategate", without ever asking the most fundamental questions this "scandal" raises:

Who performed this illegal hackjob, and how did they do it? Who paid for it? What was their motivation?

Was this release timed to further confuse the public in the days before world leaders meet in Copenhagen to attempt to come up with a plan for global action to address climate change?

Is there really a controversy over climate science here, or simply a lot of talk about a collection of occasionally embarrassing private email exchanges?

Once again, the media is not asking the right questions. Distracted by the fabrication of a "scandal" concocted by a group of industry-funded deniers who have cherry-picked from the emails to suit their agenda, major papers like The New York Times are providing a platform for climate skeptics to spout their discredited conspiracy theories.

I fully understand that any "scandal" is a newsworthy topic in these days of dwindling revenues at traditional media outlets, but where is the scandal here? I don't see any evidence anywhere in the hacked emails suggesting a grand conspiracy of global collusion to rig the science.

What I do see is a small group of expert climate scientists repeatedly discussing how depressing and troubling it is that industry-funded skeptics have successfully misconstrued their work, harassed their colleagues with information requests that take them away from doing real science, and distorted their conclusions to suit their denier agenda.

Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May took the informed step that few if any reporters took before commenting on the emails -- she read all 3,000+ of them, in threaded context, painstakingly looking for any evidence of a "scandal". Her conclusion?

"They never once suggest 'cooking the books' or fudging the science. How dare the world's media fall into the trap set by contrarian propagandists without reading the whole set? ... Certainly nothing in these emails suggests any problem with fundamental science," May says.

While UK climate change denier James Dellingpole labeled the matter "Climategate" (a term which now returns nearly 14 million results in a Google search), blogger Josh Nelson at affixed a more appropriate name to this episode: SwiftHack (only 13,000+ Google results). This smear campaign targeting scientists more closely resembles the outrageous Swift Boat attacks on Vietnam veteran and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry than it does the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.

Senator Barbara Boxer accurately dubbed the hack job "Email-Theft-Gate" this week during a meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and suggested that those responsible should face criminal charges. (The only coverage her suggestion garnered appears to come from right wing papers and blogs attacking her.)

The real scandal here is that no media outlet appears willing to track down the perpetrators of this criminal hack in which more than 3,000 emails and documents were stolen. And no outlet has properly connected the dots between this episode and the greater effort by polluting industries to convince the public that global warming is a hoax so they can keep on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere with abandon.

There is a crystal clear trail of money and extensive evidence tying a small group of climate change deniers and skeptics, fueled by millions of dollars from polluting industries, who have worked tirelessly for the past few decades to confuse the public about science and delay action on a host of public health and environmental priorities, none with greater potential consequence than global climate change.

DesmogBlog, the project I co-founded, has spent years documenting this industry effort, and my colleague Richard Littlemore and I recently published the book Climate Cover Up to explain it comprehensively.

The journal Nature, unquestionably one of the most credible sources in science today, weighed in this week with an editorial on the hacked email controversy, noting that "denialists use every means at their disposal to undermine trust in scientists and science."

This denial industry has successfully duped the media on multiple occasions, and the email hack job is no exception. Indeed, the most vocal deniers stoking this controversy are the same characters that have spent the last decade building the echo chamber of confusion in order to delay action on climate change.

This is just another chapter in an all-out political war on science waged by industry-funded skeptics and front groups. They have proven willing to do or say literally anything -- even commit crimes, as in the case of Astroturf firm Bonner & Associates' forgeries this summer, and now the CRU hack -- in order to stop any progress to address climate change and transition the world to cleaner forms of energy.

In this case, they've taken a few tiny out-of-context morsels from a large collection of emails sent over the course of 12 years in order to manufacture a mountain out of a molehill. It is a technique that surely has its roots in the era of World War II propaganda, employing character assassination, innuendo, misdirection and obfuscation. The Great Houdini briefly hides the scientific facts up his sleeve while presenting a sparkly "scandal" easily digestible by a lazy, incompetent media.

Is there no rational, critical thinking in the media anymore? How else could the skeptics get away with this manipulation?

These days, the public is subjected to tabloid journalism more befitting of Entertainment Weekly, not the kind of probing conducted by investigative journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Seymour Hersh or Bill Moyers in days gone by.

What happened to the role of the journalist as fact finder, capably sifting through misinformation, digging to find the truth and providing it in plain language to engage an informed citizenry? Journalists have forgotten their role as watchdogs, content to print whatever sensational quote from a skeptic responding to an actual scientist in order to fit their new "balance" paradigm.

Take, for example, the rather dismaying efforts of late from The New York Times' writer Andrew Revkin. Although Mr. Revkin is widely respected for his coverage of climate science, he repeatedly provides a forum for non-scientists and deniers -- perhaps never so egregiously as in his stories on the CRU hack.

Revkin is not alone, the entire media has let the public down by ignoring the real issues raised by this criminal act. It must have taken quite some effort for the unidentified hacker(s) to pull off the CRU heist. And to what end?

Ice core samples don't lie, melting glaciers aren't Hollywood props, and increasingly extreme floods and droughts are not hallucinations. The facts are staring us in the face.

These stolen emails reveal nothing that changes our extensive understanding of climate science. The global scientific consensus -- that unchecked climate change poses serious risks to our economies, health and the future of the planet as we know it -- was reached through decades of work by thousands of independent scientists from prestigious institutions in nations around the world, and confirmed once again in the recently-released Copenhagen Diagnosis.

This is a manufactured scandal, a distraction meant to hinder the efforts of world leaders to craft a swift, meaningful response to the climate crisis during the U.N. climate summit this month in Copenhagen.

With the media asleep at the switch, the denial machine is driving us further towards the cliff of catastrophic climate change.