Matt Ridley salutes the bloggers who changed the climate debate. While most of Fleet Street kowtowed to the green lobby, online amateurs uncovered the spin and deception that finally cracked the consensus.
Journalists are wont to moan that the slow death of newspapers will mean a disastrous loss of investigative reporting. The web is all very well, they say, but who will pay for the tenacious sniffing newshounds to flush out the real story? ‘Climategate’ proves the opposite to be true. It was amateur bloggers who scented the exaggerations, distortions and corruptions in the climate establishment; whereas newspaper reporters, even after the scandal broke, played poodle to their sources.
It was not Private Eye, or the BBC or the News of the World, but a retired electrical engineer in Northampton, David Holland, whose freedom-of-information requests caused the Climategate scientists to break the law, according to the Information Commissioner. By contrast, it has so far attracted little attention that the leaked emails of Climategate include messages from reporters obsequiously seeking ammunition against the sceptics. Other emails have shown reporters meekly changing headlines to suit green activists, or being threatened with ostracism for even reporting the existence of a sceptical angle: ‘Your reportage is very worrisome to most climate scientists,’ one normally alarmist reporter was told last year when he slipped briefly off message. ‘I sense that you are about to experience the “Big Cutoff” from those of us who believe we can no longer trust you, me included.’
So used are greens to sycophancy in the television studios that when they occasionally encounter even slightly hard questions they are outraged. Peter Sissons of the BBC: ‘I pointed out to [Caroline Lucas of the Green party] that the climate didn’t seem to be playing ball at the moment. We were having a particularly cold winter, even though carbon emissions were increasing. Indeed, there had been no warming for ten years, contradicting all the alarming computer predictions… Miss Lucas told me angrily that it was disgraceful that the BBC — the BBC! — should be giving any kind of publicity to those sort of views.’
Of course, reporters have been going native for decades. The difference is that they cannot now get away with it. When acid rain was all the rage in the 1980s, I was a science editor and I relayed all sorts of cataclysmic predictions from scientists and greens about its effect on forests. (Stern magazine said in 1984 that a third of Germany’s forests were already dead or dying and that experts believed all — all! — its conifers would be gone by 1990.) Today, we know that these predictions were wildly wrong and that far from dying out, forests in Germany, Sweden and North America actually thrived during that decade. I should have been more sceptical.
Yet, this time round, despite 20 years of being told they were not just factually but morally wrong, of being compared to Holocaust deniers, of being told they deserved to be tried for crimes against humanity, of being avoided at parties, climate sceptics seem to be growing in number and confidence by the day. What is the difference?
In a word, the internet. The Climate Consensus may hold the establishment — the universities, the media, big business, government — but it is losing the jungles of the web. After all, getting research grants, doing pieces to cameras and advising boards takes time. The very ostracism the sceptics suffered has left them free to do their digging untroubled by grant applications and invitations to Stockholm. The main blog used by the Consensus, realclimate.org, exemplifies this problem, because it was set up by a PR company and is run by an employee of Nasa, who ties himself in knots trying to show that he does the blog in his spare time. It is also characterised by a tone of weary condescension and censoring of dissent that you do not find on most sceptic sites. …