MANY people “want to be deceived” about climate change because they fear having to sacrifice their lifestyles, according to the “Climategate” scientist.
Professor Phil Jones said he regretted sending several of the emails, which were stolen and published on the internet a year ago this week. Some were held up by sceptics as proof that evidence for global warming was being manipulated.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had drawn heavily on Professor Jones’s research for its most recent report, which found that human activities were very likely to be the cause of global warming.
He admitted that his emails undermined public confidence in that conclusion and predicted it would take years to convince doubters of the need for action on emissions. Some would never be persuaded.
In his first significant interview since being reinstated at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), Professor Jones said he had been a victim of an attempt to sabotage negotiations on a global climate change treaty.
“I suspect it was to try and derail the Copenhagen talks coming up two weeks later. I can’t see any other reason for the timing.”
He said he had recovered from the depression that had led him to contemplate suicide at the height of the controversy, when Sarah Palin and other politicians in the United States accused him of faking his research. He has put on most of the stone he shed and lost the pale, gaunt look on show in March as he trembled in front of a parliamentary committee questioning him about his integrity.
He received more than 400 abusive emails: “There were some saying you should kill yourself and others saying ‘we know where you live’. I did feel physically threatened at times.
“I tried to forward them to the police but they were bounced back by their computer because they were too obscene. So I had to print them.”
Professor Jones, 58, has resumed working with the Met Office on global temperature records and said he expected his research to form part of the next IPCC report, due in 2013. He believed it would repeat its previous conclusions: “I can’t see it saying that much different.” But climate scientists would continue to struggle to be heard amid the outpourings of sceptical bloggers, he feared.
Google searches for key scientific papers yielded long lists of dismissive postings by sceptics and it was hard to find the actual research. “It’s way down there because of the way Google works. People will potentially get the misinformation first.” The sceptics offered a reassuring message that people wanted to hear, he said.
“I think some people want to believe that we are not able to affect the climate and want to use any bit of evidence to promote the case for doing nothing. They think that [to do something] might lead to such a change in our lifestyles.
“If you want to be deceived on some issues you preferentially take all those reports that go along with your particular perceptions.”
He said some of the doubters would finally be persuaded when the Arctic became ice-free in summer. But others would still believe false claims that this had happened before in the 1920s.
The majority would eventually be won over, but he added: “I don’t know how long it’s going to take. It’s potentially going to take years.”
He said he regretted some of the language in emails “sent in haste”, particularly his reference to a “trick” to “hide the decline” in global temperatures.
An independent inquiry dismissed claims that this was evidence of an attempt to manipulate data.
He also regretted saying that he would prevent research that questioned the link between human emissions and global warming from being included in the IPCC’s report. “That was something I said on the spur of the moment. I do regret saying that.”
He admitted that he should not have asked a colleague to delete correspondence but denied deliberately wiping his own emails to prevent them being published under the Freedom of Information Act.
Professor Jones said the cold winter in parts of the Northern hemisphere had played a bigger part in fuelling scepticism than his emails. “People have a problem understanding what a global temperature average means. They see what the weather is where they are and if it’s cold they think the rest of the world might be cold.”
He blamed the press for exaggerating the significance of the emails. “A lot of people in the media made up their minds and decided to go with the story because everybody else was.”
He was particularly critical of George Monbiot, the environmentalist and newspaper columnist who called for his resignation soon after the e-mails were published. “He didn’t retract it for months until after the Muir Russell review [the independent inquiry which exonerated him] came out and even then it was somewhat begrudging. To me it showed he didn’t understand how science was done.”
Professor Jones, who completes his 34th year at CRU next week, said he had survived the trauma because he “always had the support of the climate community around the world”.
He accepted he would continue to be best known as the Climategate scientist, but added: “Hopefully they will remember me for the scientific papers I have written rather than the emails.”