Chronicle Gives “Climategate” Probes Their Due

Even wary journalists find little evidence of whitewash

I’ve complained twice in the last month that the press is not giving recent climate-change news its due. Today, I lamented that Senator Harry Reid’s decision to pull the plug on climate legislation was not getting enough analysis. Two weeks ago, I carped that a series of reports rebutting the so-called “Climategate” affair were also not getting the attention they deserved.

Well, in the process of researching the second complaint, I found an exception to the first. On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle carried a front-page article by its energy reporter, David Baker, announcing that, “Five investigations into the ‘Climategate’ scandal have now cleared a group of scientists accused of twisting data in an effort to prove the world is warming. But many environmentalists and climate researchers fear the damage has already been done.”

Part of the reason for the lingering damage, Baker goes on to explain, is that, “The exonerations haven’t generated anything like the intense media coverage that the initial scandal did. Newspapers have typically covered them with small stories far removed from the front page—or ignored them altogether.” And so it goes with Reid’s announcement on Thursday that climate legislation is effectively dead in the water.

On the Climategate affair, it is easy to get lost in the back and forth about what the reports about the affair ultimately mean. Outlets from The Wall Street Journal to the National Post have run op-eds arguing that inquires rebutting the controversy were merely a “whitewash” of the actions of climate scientists. That’s shouldn’t be surprising, coming from two very conservative publications, but even some journalists who have long argued in favor of climate action have doubted the Climategate investigations’ merit.

For instance, The Atlantic’s Clive Crook expressed his feeling that, “At best they are mealy-mouthed apologies; at worst they are patently incompetent and even willfully wrong.” That analysis seems heavy-handed, though. Assessments from journalists such Fred Pearce and Roger Harrabin, who have been following the Climategate affair closely and are certainly no apologists for the scientists involved, have been more evenhanded.

“Critics suspect a whitewash to hide flaws in climate science, but my own lengthy investigations into the background to the inquiries have found no smoking gun,” Harrabin wrote for the BBC, although he added that the inquires were subject to few troubling “inconsistencies.” Likewise, Pearce concluded in the Guardian, “The report is far from being a whitewash. And nor does it justify the claim of university vice-chancellor Sir Edward Action that it is a ‘complete exoneration.’”

It’s that “gray area” in the Climategate investigations’ conclusions that begs for more exploration by journalists. As I wrote in my first complaint about the lack of coverage, “the story is primarily about the mounting rebuttal of this winter’s assaults on climate scientists and their work, but also about how the scientific process and assessment of research can be improved.” Now, with climate legislation in the U.S. ruled a non-starter, it is more important ever that reporters revisit this story.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.