Despite a complete lack of evidence, the leaked emails hysteria has encouraged more deniers to emerge from the shadows
It is now 12 days since the hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia first appeared online, and the propaganda machine for the climate change denial lobby is in overdrive.
The University of East Anglia has rightly announced an independent investigation into the hacking episode. It is essential that the investigation examines, thoroughly and transparently, the substance of the email messages and establishes whether there has been any wrongdoing. From what I have seen, there is no evidence of research misconduct, but the only way to clear the air now is through an investigation.
Some people have already, and predictably, taken on the role of judge, jury and executioner, and have called for Phil Jones, the director of the unit, to resign. Yesterday Jones announced he would be temporarily standing down while an inquiry is carried out. But such a hysterical witch hunt is a sign of desperation rather than justice.
Despite nearly two weeks of frantic brandishing of the "smoking gun", there is still no evidence of the alleged bullets that would constitute an overturning of 200 years of climate research. The greenhouse effect still exists and the Earth is still warming. Nevertheless, the denial lobby – and it is denial rather than scepticism because they reject all of the evidence they don't like and embrace any alternative theory no matter how flaky – is claiming victory. And to some extent they have succeeded – by confusing the public and perhaps reducing public pressure on politicians to reach a strong and effective agreement at Copenhagen climate talks this month.
They have been aided in their campaign of disinformation by some feeble media reporting. Take the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a lobby group launched on 23 November, a few days after the stolen emails first appeared on the web. The chairman of its board of trustees, Nigel Lawson, promoted his new group by listing alleged misdeeds by the Climatic Research Unit and calling for a public inquiry by a high court judge.
What Lawson neglected to mention and which no journalist sought to quiz him about was a graph featuring prominently at the top of every page on the foundation's website, using data published by the Climatic Research Unit and the Met Office's Hadley Centre. Nor did he reveal that the foundation had "hidden" the temperature record prior to 2001, so that visitors could not tell that eight of the 10 warmest years since the instrumental record began in the 19th century have occurred since 2000. But most damagingly of all, nobody reported that the temperature data in the graph had been inaccurately misrepresented, with 2003 wrongly appearing to be warmer than 2005, and 2006 and 2007 erroneously appearing warmer than 2004.
Who knows, maybe the "sceptics" will be evenhanded now and call for a public inquiry into the data on the foundation's website. But don't hold your breath.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hysterical atmosphere created by the emails has encouraged more of the denial lobby to emerge from the shadows. The British National party leader, Nick Griffin, gave a speech in which he claimed that climate change was a leftwing conspiracy, in much the same way as Lord Christopher Monckton has in his recent speeches in the United States. Monckton and Prof Ian Plimer then helped the UK Independence party to launch its own declaration of climate change denial this week. Suddenly climate change denial has become a new article of faith among the far right.
Who knows where this will end. The denial lobby is determined to make this story drag on for as long as possible, and some are even claiming that it contributed to the failure of Australian climate change legislation this week and the ousting of the opposition leader. But when is all is said and done, the climate will still be changing and the risks will be mounting.
• Bob Ward is the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.