Diplomatic Wikileaks? University of East Anglia’s CRU on the Big Screen

For the past few days, media have been agog with the latest revelations from Wikileaks: about a quarter-million diplomatic e-mails that were never intended to see the light of day. This is quite a pile of information, and it’s taking a bit of time to sift through it, but we can guess that many if not all of the juicy bits have surfaced. In large part, these have consisted of assessments of a number of the world’s leaders, and a few of the world’s rogue countries, that are not entirely complimentary.

They’re also largely unsurprising. Putin the alpha dog? Medvedev the Robin to Putin’s Batman? Kim Jong Il a flabby old chap suffering physical and psychological trauma? Gaddafi strange? Sarkozy thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style?  Hamid Karzai’s brother is corrupt? Really? Iran’s nuclear threat a worry to Mideast leaders? North Korea’s antics a problem even for the Chinese? Please. Tell us something we don’t know.

Even though the Wikileaks story is only days old, perhaps it can help scientists and the public put the University of East Anglia’s CRU leaked e-mails of a year ago into perspective. Here are some initial thoughts. You can add your own:

Human beings as flawed. Climate scientists are human beings? Occasionally frustrated with one another? In disagreement? Given to making casual comments about each other in private e-mails? No kidding. Our world leaders and our diplomats should be so normal. For over a year now, scientists have engaged in agonizing self-reappraisal and made numerous attempts to defend their character, their science, and their behavior. We’re not likely to see diplomats wasting much energy on that. How did we make such a mountain out of the CRU molehill?

Diplomacy (and science) still necessary. No one’s arguing today that these leaked e-mails prove that we should stop wasting money on diplomacy. Diplomacy continues to be essential. Not only that, but diplomats are still the best people to carry it out. No one’s questioning this. In the same way, climate science remains just as necessary today as it was a year or two years ago. Scientists are still the people best qualified to do it. And guess what. They’re doing a good job.

Sheer scale. From the point of view of climate scientists, the CRU story seemed earth-shattering at the time. Certainly it proved so to our community. But extensive worldwide coverage of the diplomatic e-mail leaks dwarfs anything we saw. Our issue? A speck by comparison, when viewed in terms of public attention. Now imagine for a moment that pollsters were sent out today to assess public awareness of the Wikileaks. They probably come back with the news that only 60% (making this up…so feel free to plug in your own shockingly small figure) of the public is tracking this at all. No wonder pollsters find today that public opinion of scientists compared to those in other professions remains largely positive.

Focus on the leaker(s) versus what was leaked. One substantial difference between the CRU and diplomatic leaks? We know, or think we know, who is responsible for the latter. And (surprise!) it turns out those individuals involved (the head of Wikileaks and his source of the material) have issues. So, with some specific leakers targeted, much of the media coverage has focused on their pasts, their personal problems and their professional shortcomings. Chances are quite high that should journalists ever discover who was responsible for the CRU leaks, they’ll quickly find that the leaks were motivated largely by bitterness, reprisal or revenge, some other form of self-interest, or all of the above.

The problem to be fixed. Continuing in this vein: if the world’s diplomats and leaders aren’t wearing hairshirts today, what do they and we see as the problem? Already the media have zeroed in on the main point. It’s not that diplomats need to shape up their act, and think pure thoughts about one another, and the world situation. Rather, what’s up with lax security in the Department of Defense that allowed the downloading of these documents? The most likely change will be tightened control over such data, with an emphasis on mechanical aspects such as preventing download of sensitive documents onto memory sticks, etc. that can then walk out of a building. Something similar probably holds for a lot of other e-mails, in a number of other contexts. It’s privacy rights that have become more problematic in the 21st century – maybe more so than what violations of those privacy rights occasionally reveal. That’s why quite a bit of the government and media attention today is focused on whether laws have been broken in the act of leaking.

The common challenge. Hillary Clinton and others have already acknowledged that the leaking, the violation of privacy, have made the diplomatic process more complex, especially for the United States. In the same way, the real story of the CRU leaks is that the scientific research we need so urgently has become more problematic. Diplomacy and climate research facing a more difficult slog, because of such self-inflicted wounds? Surely the last thing the world needs.

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One Response to Diplomatic Wikileaks? University of East Anglia’s CRU on the Big Screen

  1. william h. hooke says:

    In an earlier version of this post, I mistakenly associated the Climate Research Unit (CRU) with the Hadley Center instead of the University of East Anglia. I regret the error, and have corrected it. My sincere apologies to the institutions and individuals concerned, and to blog readers.

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