Twelve years ago, Professor Philip Jones was subjected to a barrage of hate mail and death threats that pushed him to commit suicide. It was claimed that the emails, taken from his lab, proved that research on climate change was a fraud.
Now, Jones faces the recurrence of this harsh onslaught when the BBC One film, The trick, is scheduled for October 18. He will tell the story, with sympathy, of his tribulations at the hands of climate change deniers.
“It simply came to our notice then. Everyone was attacking me and I couldn’t face it. I received Christmas cards full of obscenities and, to this day, on the November anniversary of the hacking, I still have a couple of offensive messages, ”Jones told Observer last week.
“After The trick is projected I hope there will be a new wave of abuse. However, I accept the risk because this is a story that needs to be told. “
Jones was the head of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in Norwich in 2009, when hackers stole thousands of documents and emails from their computers. Its content was carefully selected and used by climate change deniers to promote the idea that scientists falsely claimed that fossil fuel emissions were heating the planet. Subsequent investigations rejected all such allegations.
“It was a fabricated controversy,” said Owen Sheers, screenwriter of The trick. “There was a definite strategy at work and a massive disinformation campaign. Still, when I talk to those who remember something about it, most still think that a scientist was really caught adjusting the numbers.
“In fact, thousands of documents were stolen and some extracts were expertly removed that became the bullets that caused the damage,” added Sheers, known for books such as The Dust Diarys. Some experts even claim that the fury unleashed by Climategate – which was later christened the piracy affair – played a key role in the failure of Copenhagen’s climate talks in December of that year.
Certainly the right-wing newspapers in the UK went to town for the allegations. Headlines include the Daily mailThe “scientist in” climate cover “said he would leave,” while the Daily Express sprinkled with “The Great Fraud of Climate Change.”
Now, ahead of the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow in early November, history must be resurrected. “It’s a cautionary tale, plus a love story and a bit of thriller,” director Pip Broughton said. “This is a film that everyone can enjoy, so it condenses some complexities. But it allows everyone to see that this man has suffered a great injustice. It is important that it be shown before the Glasgow climate summit. “
Sheers has placed Jones and his wife at the center of the drama, while academics around them struggle to present the real facts against a barrage of conspiracy theories and misunderstandings. Jones is played by Jason Watkins who has acted W1A, Line of duty, The Crown and many other television series, while his wife, Ruth, is played by Victoria Hamilton.
“We wanted to show the terrible impact on Philip and Ruth at another time in history, when it seemed like the world was about to take serious action to curb climate change,” Sheers said. “Maybe Copenhagen would fail anyway, but we know this leak was a concerted attempt to stop them.”
For his part, Jones described seeing his portrayal as strange and surreal. “I only had a Zoom meeting with Jason, but he took all sorts of ways and quirks that I didn’t realize he had, like folding his arms in front of me when I’m talking.”
The Joneses were very interested in production and that was key to the project, Broughton added. “When you’re working on a story like this, go to the source and get as close as you can to retelling it,” he said.
This point was supported by Sheers, who said the couple had been invited to see how Watkins and Hamilton played them. “There were tears in Ruth’s eyes, but I think, like us, they think it’s important to tell the story now.”
As for the title of the film, it is a reference to an email that Jones sent to a colleague where he used the word “trick” to describe a mathematical method of going back to other data to properly describe the historical heat increase. Lacking context, the word was alleged to show that Jones and other researchers were playing data.
It’s a complex argument, but Jones was pleased with the results. “The film is not too heavy in science and I think it’s good. This is a drama and you can’t go into the details, because you will be overwhelmed. “
Broughton and Sheers believe the drama may correct flawed memories of the scandal, as reports of the findings exonerating Jones and his team were not as prominent as the original claims made against them. “Jones’ intellectual defense has existed since almost the first, but he didn’t get the coverage, ”Sheers said.
Sheers also revealed that many of the international news networks that once denounced Jones and others for falsifying global warming figures have now refused to allow the BBC to use their images. ABC and CBS rejected requests to use clips. “The way it was treated at the time is extraordinary, in light of everything we know now, but our requests for news archive were rejected,” he said, although he added that the northern networks -American NBC and Fox did give permission.
“Science was strong back then, but now it’s even stronger,” Jones said. “And when it comes to climate change coverage, much of the British media has improved. So there’s a bit of joy in our history.”
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