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Phil Jones now – What happened to the professor from BBC's The Trick

·5-min read
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

The Trick spoilers follow (though bear in mind, the events are all public knowledge).

Three weeks before the 15th UN Climate Change Conference (COP15), which took place in Copenhagen back in 2009, around 1,000 email correspondences between scientists working at the University of East Anglia's (UEA) Climate Research Unit (CRU) were stolen and leaked to the public.

It was dubbed "Climategate" and had one singular purpose: to cast doubt on the data gathered by Professor Philip Jones, played by Jason Watkins on screen, and his colleagues, in turn negatively influencing the global response to climate change.

The reaction to Jones' "hockey stick" graph, which is a reconstruction of global temperature, was such that it was suddenly considered an unreliable source by many, believing the case for global warming to have been exaggerated.

Photo credit: Chris Bourchier/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Chris Bourchier/Shutterstock

There were two details that the press and subsequently the public seized upon when the information was published: the word "trick" and the phrase "hide the decline".

While the former often denotes deceit, in the above context it was used to describe a "clever way of doing something", such as a "shortcut", or offering a "solution to a problem".

The latter was concerning tree rings, which formed a significant chunk of Jones' findings. In the drama, he explained that before the introduction of modern-day technological developments, tree rings were used as a window into the past to understand the impact of rising greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.

Those figures eventually became unreliable, which is why Jones chose to disregard them. But as the character notes in The Trick, there is no big "gotcha" or "aha!" that climate change sceptics can throw his way because current thermometer records tell you all you need to know about the direction we're heading.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

During that period, Jones and his family received death threats, which he described as "very shocking and frightening for all of us" in a recent interview with UEA, and Jones was also experiencing suicidal ideation.

"All my working life it has been very important to me to be a good, ethical scientist," he explained. "When I was called a fraud or a charlatan, I felt attacked to the very core and I floundered and did not know how to respond. I found it difficult to sleep and relaxed only when watching mindless television or doing jigsaws. I closed down."

And the abuse has yet to subside fully.

"At the time, the mail was awful," he said in an interview with The Observer at the beginning of October. "Everyone was attacking me and I couldn't deal with it. I got Christmas cards filled with obscenities and, to this day – on the November anniversary of the hacking – I still get a couple of offensive messages.

"After The Trick is screened I expect there will be a new wave of abuse. However, I accept the risk because this is a story that needs to be told."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Following a House of Commons select committee hearing, Jones was vindicated. It was determined that the focus on both him and CRU was "misplaced", and there was no challenge posed to the ongoing threat of climate change.

In the final moments of the film, his wife Ruth (Victoria Hamilton) revealed that there were seven reports in total that examined the case, all of which reached the same conclusion, and it was described as a "manufactured controversy" by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

But despite the verdict in Jones' favour, the drama highlights the fact that the campaign against the professor and his work did impact public opinion in a way that has been detrimental to the fight against climate change.

"The debate over the science was eventually won, but long after the narrative had already been lost," said writer Owen Sheers (via BBC). "A study at Yale University indicates that the various campaigns against acting on global warming around 2009-10 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."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Jones lives south of Norwich with Ruth and continues to work for CRU.

"It was a very strange and surreal experience seeing myself and my wife portrayed by Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton," he told UEA. "It is remarkable how they not only understood us but were able to observe and portray our mannerisms and quirks – some of which came as news to me.

"To see Jason become me and then to watch 'me' at this most difficult time of my life has been very odd. The Trick does feel very real. It reflects how it was."

Chatting to The Observer, he discussed that while the film is "not heavy on the science", it does have the desired effect: "This is a drama and you cannot go into the minutiae or you will get bogged down."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

The timing of The Trick's premiere is no coincidence. COP26 is scheduled to kick off on October 31 in Glasgow, and the issues that Jones was talking about all those years ago are as pressing as ever.

Speaking to UEA, he revealed what hopes he has for the upcoming conference: "I would like all politicians to go into COP26 with open hearts and open minds as they can make a powerful and meaningful response to the difficulties the world faces and change the future for our children and grandchildren."

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