The Trick: can BBC ‘Climategate’ drama reset global warming debate?

Jason Watkins stars in show exploring human costs and political ramifications of hacking of emails from University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in 2009

October 12, 2021
Jason Watkins in The Trick as this programme is illustrated for this story
Source: BBC/Vox Pictures

In 2009, an unknown hacker breached the servers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and released hundreds of emails.

Some were said to indicate that researchers had been willing to manipulate the evidence to support the case for anthropogenic climate change. The CRU director, Philip Jones, came in for particularly savage treatment, although he was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing in seven separate reports, including one from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

Now Vox Pictures has turned the story into a drama directed by Pip Broughton, The Trick, which BBC One is due to broadcast on 18 October. We see the initial response from Professor Jones (played by Jason Watkins), UEA vice-chancellor Edward Acton (Adrian Edmondson) and others to headlines saying, “Have the books been cooked on climate change?” The former receives death threats, tries to hide himself away and even considers suicide. Yet he slowly finds a way to defend himself even in the face of a largely hostile media.

So why is “Climategate” worth revisiting today, particularly in the form of a drama?

For The Trick’s writer, Owen Sheers, who is also professor of creativity at Swansea University, “the forces that coalesced around the hacking and leaking of emails from the Climatic Research Unit – cybercrime, the dismissal of expert opinion, ‘both-sidesism’ at all costs, internet platforms leading the debate – are the same forces that have shaped and directed much of the last decade of Western politics”.

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Furthermore, we are still living with the results. In 2009, explained Professor Sheers, “it looked as if the world was about to take serious action on greenhouse gas emissions…But other forces were at work, forces which wanted to keep doubt alive in the conversation, which wanted to slow action on curbing the burning of fossil fuels.” Attempts to breach five other climate research centres at around the same time indicated that what happened at UEA was part of “a strategy, a game plan”. The impact of “the various campaigns against acting on global warming around 2009-10”, according to a study by Yale University, “pushed back public opinion on climate change, especially in the US, by between eight to 10 years. A decade was stolen, from us, our children and our grandchildren.”

Mark Bould, reader in film and literature at the University of the West of England, is the author of a book to be published next month, The Anthropocene Unconscious, about how climate anxieties are represented in popular culture. “Entertainment and art can enlighten and persuade in ways scientific papers and policy documents cannot,” he argued. “The real importance of exploring Climategate is to do everything possible to lay to rest any lingering doubts it prompted about climate change...The data breach was malicious, and even if it wasn’t timed to cast doubt on the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations, the subsequent release of cherry-picked, misrepresented and misunderstood quotes from emails, etc, were used to that end.”

The BBC itself, “along with pretty much all other news media, has played a shockingly complicit role in representing the science of climate change – typically misrepresenting it as some kind of ‘debate’ between two equally valid perspectives, and preferring to produce scandal, outrage and buzz”, Dr Bould said.

Mike Hulme, now professor of human geography at the University of Cambridge, was one of the UEA researchers whose emails were hacked alongside Professor Jones’. Climategate was important, in his view, “because it reveals science – and scientists – to be a social/human enterprise, full of human virtues and defects, flaws and achievements”. He had no problem with “artistic representations of the idea of climate change” but was doubtful if The Trick would do much to “shift the debate” about climate change because this was no longer really about science but about “development, technology, culture, economics, values and power”.

Adrian Edmondson and Jason Watkins in the BBC drama, The Trick
BBC/Vox Pictures

For Harry Collins, distinguished research professor in Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, Climategate represented “a kind of icon of the way science has been mis-advertised over the years as a kind of perfect knowledge-forming activity. Selling it in that way is a hostage to fortune because the public is always going to be disappointed a) when they get a close look at how science is actually conducted between scientists and; b) when they encounter science in the policy domain, where we are not dealing with the movement of the planets or subatomic particles in otherwise empty space, but systems subject to chaos and human whim, like the effect of lockdowns and so on.” It was therefore essential to find other ways of justifying science if we want to avoid “opening the door to populists and the like”.


Print headline: The Trick: can BBC drama reset the climate debate?

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