It was November 2009 when climate scientist Professor Phil Jones found himself making international headlines. The abuse and even death threats did not take long to follow.
Thousands of emails and documents had been hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), their contents carefully selected and publicly presented in blogs by climate change deniers in a way that “proved” the scientists were faking their evidence about rising temperatures, it was falsely claimed.
Professor Jones, a mild-mannered, private man who was head of the unit at the time, found himself at the centre of the subsequent media storm as the story was picked up – and a target for hate mail.
“I’m a very quiet person, I was used to giving talks to students and to fellow scientists at meetings in Britain and Europe and other parts of the world,” he tells Sky News, “and I was used to dealing with reviewers of journals”. But this was as far into the scientific limelight as he had ventured. When the story broke, he says: “I couldn’t really deal with it.”
The November that turned his life upside down just happened to be one of the wettest on record in the UK, the kind of extreme weather event that global warming would only make more frequent.
What was Climategate?
The story is now being retold in the new BBC film The Trick, which comes ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. The timing is fitting; the 2009 leak happened just before that year’s COP summit, COP15 in Copenhagen.
When the hack was made public, it created huge media interest, creating doubts about the accuracy and authenticity of the CRU’s work at a time when the world had been slowly waking up to the impact of climate change.
Independent inquiries vindicated Professor Jones and the other scientists involved, but the damage had already been done. Doubts had been raised. And the hackers were never found.
Later, experts said the damage caused by the hack in terms of perception of climate change had potentially set the fight against it back by up to 10 years, delaying the introduction of measures that might have slowed rising temperatures, and given the world more time to cut carbon emissions.
Professor Jones wants to highlight that the science on climate change now is even stronger than it was back then; he references the landmark IPCC (the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report released earlier this year, which predicted that the world is set to hit the 1.5C global warming limit within the next 20 years, and stated that climate change is definitely manmade.
“It’s beyond doubt now,” he says. “But I think some still remember [Climategate]. They’ve been potentially misinformed by that and may have been misinformed by some other blog sites over the last 12 years as well.”
The Trick: How the story came to be dramatised
The idea for the film came from Professor Jones and his former colleagues at the university, even though there were nerves about bringing the scandal into the spotlight once again. He is played by Jason Watkins (The Crown, Des, Line Of Duty) and Victoria Hamilton, Jerome Flynn, George MacKay and Adrian Edmondson also star.
“It all happened,” says Professor Jones, speaking about the abuse he received, which is depicted in the film. “We even had a Christmas card with a death threat in it. It was quite bad. We tried to keep it from our immediate family, the real severity of it. It’s difficult to describe, The Trick gets to some aspects of it… it’s still pretty raw, seeing it again.”
But along with Professor Edward Acton, the university’s vice chancellor at the time of the hack, he “felt it was a story that needed to be told” once more.
“There’s still a lot of people who saw the massive media coverage in November and December 2009, but the coverage from the media was pretty limited when the inquiries [rejecting the Climategate claims] began to come out in the spring and summer of 2010. It was nowhere near the same coverage in the media at that time. And some people still thought that we’d manipulated the figures.”
Attitudes towards climate change have changed since 2009, Professor Jones says. Many more people realise the threat now. And yet he is still prepared to potentially receive more criticism, even abuse, when the film airs. “I’m prepared for it but I hope there won’t be so much. It’s only going out at the moment in Britain but it probably will be out in America at some point, there’s more sceptic deniers there than here.”
It has been surreal, he says, seeing himself being portrayed by Watkins and his wife, Ruth, by Hamilton. “We even went to see some of the filming on the beach in Norfolk at Happisburgh and seeing a few scenes there was quite moving… Jason Watkins from me picked up some of my mannerisms and quirks, one or two I didn’t know I had. I think it’s more moving for my wife because she was aware of how I was at the time and remembers it more than I do. I maybe tried to forget some parts of it.”
How has the leak affected the fight against climate change?
At the end of The Trick, the viewer hears an emotive soliloquy from Watkins’ Professor Jones about the effect of the leak on public opinion. “We could have had 20 years to sort this out, but now we’ve only got around 10,” he says. “If that.”
“They’re not my words – they are my thoughts,” says Professor Jones. “They are [screenwriter] Owen Sheers’ words but I’ve got the same views.” He laughs. “He’s more articulate than I am, I’m used to writing scientific English.”
After COP15, “we thought there would be some progress, we thought the science was really strong. We didn’t realise that there was still this body of opinion within many governments that they weren’t prepared to accept the evidence”, he continues. Times have changed, he says, with many more world leaders accepting the science. But if not for the leak, “we could have done more sooner” and the changes could have been spread out, eased in over more time.
“Now the government is talking about having all electric cars by 2030, which involves a massive change,” says Professor Jones. “We’ve phased out coal, you’ve got to phase out oil and gas eventually. So it would have given us more time to do that and spread it out over a longer period of time. It’s got to be done more rapidly now.”
However, Professor Jones says he feels empowered by the younger generation taking up the mantle. “Particularly Greta Thunberg and others around the world, pushing politicians,” he says. “Because it’s that generation and subsequent ones that are going to have to live with the consequences of actions that have been taken by my generation.”
What needs to be done now?
In August, the IPCC report issued a stark warning, saying that global warming is unprecedented and will continue, whatever we do – but it can be reduced. Professor Jones says it is scientists’ job to present their findings – and world leaders’ job to act.
“Scientists shouldn’t be prescribing policy,” he says. “We’ve presented them with the evidence, they have the future projections, a rise of global temperatures of 1.5 or more, or 2 degrees, is going to have a real influence on the climate.
“If we don’t do anything, then eventually places like Greenland will begin to melt more rapidly than they are now, and the Antarctic Peninsula. One of the longer-term things is we will have a dramatic rise in sea level eventually if we do nothing about it.
“More importantly, if we don’t do much in the short-term, we’re still going to have more of these extreme events like we’ve experienced in the last few years. We don’t know where they’re going to be, where there’s going to be this record rainfall or these very high temperatures, but more people are going to be affected by that in future years. The number of extreme events is likely to increase compared to what we have experienced say in earlier decades.”
Hopefully at COP26 there will be no discussions about the science, he says. “Hopefully there will be discussions about what to do about it and how quickly we need to do things about it as well.”
Science under attack
Earlier in October, a survey by the Nature journal revealed the extent of abuse and even physical attacks faced by scientists during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trick shows the effect this can have.
“The issues of scientists being attacked has been in the news recently with something Patrick Vallance [the government’s chief scientific adviser] said about the media attention for his family, and some of the COVID scientists who’ve had threats after they’ve been in the media about either the vaccines or the potential cures for COVID,” says Professor Jones.
“It just shows you what being in high-profile science is like. I think [Climategate] was probably one of the first ones. Richard Doll, one of the people who discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer, he probably had a similar thing, but it was nowhere near… the media is so much more all-pervasive today compared to earlier decades.”
Professor Jones does not think The Trick will change the minds of any staunch climate change deniers. But he hopes it encourages viewers to research the subject. He appreciates it can be hard – while the IPCC report is “virtually the Bible on this” he is aware that such reports “can be very hard to read unless you’re a trained scientist”.
But the information is out there. “You’ve just got to make sure you get it from a good source.”
The Trick is out on Monday 18 October from 8.30pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer