FT: Antarctic Debacle Probably Biggest Setback For Campaigners Since Climategate

  • Date: 03/01/14
  • Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times

The debacle in the Antarctic ice is probably the largest setback for global warming campaigners since Climategate scandal in 2009.

When a Chinese helicopter rescued 52 passengers from a Russian climate-science cruise ship trapped in ice off Antarctica, it was a skilfully managed end to an ordeal that had begun on Christmas Eve. It was also a debacle for climate change activists. The 233-foot Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian meteorological ship leased by the Australian tour outfit Aurora Expeditions, had been on a mission called the “Spirit of Mawson”. It aimed to replicate part of a gruelling voyage the explorer Douglas Mawson had made in 1912. The ship carried 22 scientists looking to perform various experiments, led by Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales. They were joined by 26 tourists paying for the adventure, along with journalists for The Guardian, BBC and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Amid the worldwide relief that the passengers are now en route to Tasmania on the Australian supply ship Aurora Australis, another note is audible. Many websites where readers normally take climate change for granted have been inundated by posts from gloating disbelievers. The Australian group belittled the winter that nearly killed them and got a comeuppance, say the detractors. Such posts appear on the many YouTube videos uploaded by passengers (“For all your self-aggrandising bluster, you will go down in history as Turney’s turkeys . . . You are an international laughing stock”), on the Spirit of Mawson Twitter feed (“If the #spiritofmawson has taught us anything it’s the low level of intellect among those who have ‘settled’ the science”) and even on the New York Times’s Dot Earth blog, where the writer Andrew Revkin notes that the incident has “energised climate change contrarians”.

Of course, a scientific dispute cannot be settled by one near-tragedy on the high seas and a week’s worth of online invective. But the episode is a setback for those making the case for what used to be called global warming – probably the largest such setback since emails stolen from the University of East Anglia in 2009 cast doubt on the scientific neutrality of several climate researchers.

A beset ship is like a skint bank, and we can draw certain parallels to the financial crisis of 2008. The voyage of the Akademik Shokalskiy mixed public and private purposes, and all such enterprises nowadays invite scepticism. Those who stood to reap the benefits of the voyage were able, when things went sour, to pass on many of the costs.

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