Last week Richard Muller and his team released the findings of their exhaustive study on global warming with definitive simplicity, saying flatly “global warming is real.” The statement is an especially damning one to climate change deniers, as Muller, himself once a global warming skeptic, conducted the study partly with funds from the Koch brothers. As even skeptics like Muller begin to accept the overwhelming science behind global warming, opponents are taking up a new tactic that goes after the scientists themselves.
One of these scientists is Michael Mann, a climatologist who, since January, has been targeted by climate-deniers.Following the example of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, which have a tradition of attacking the credibility of scientists who oppose their products, skeptics are beginning question the credentials and research of individual scientists.
Since 2007, when a Supreme Court ruling found that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions based on the threat to human health, global warming skeptics have been left to assert their views in the court of public opinion. The lesson they learned was, if you can’t attack the science, attack the scientist.
Mann became the target of the conservative American Tradition Institute (ATI) this year when the organization requested access to e-mails relating to his research at the University of Virginia under that state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).(Mann left UVA for a position at Pennsylvania State University in 2005). In total, that's about 9,000 items. Mann’sconcerns about the effect this “smear and innuendo” campaign will have on the integrity of his studies are precisely why Virginia allows exemptions from FOIA requests for scientific research. Despite the exemption, UVA decided to release Mann's emails to ATI’s attorneys, forcing Mann to defend his privacy himself.
This year, ATI also targeted NASA scientist James Hansen with FOIA requests to access information relating to his contract. ATI alleged that Hansen’s outside activities, including speaking engagements and awards, relating to climate research violated his employment agreement with NASA. NASA denied the request because of the law's exemption for personnel documents.
Global warming deniers pioneered this tactic of targeting scientists on the back of a non-scandal, dubbed “Climategate.” InNovember of 2009, 4,500 emails (including some from Mann) seeming to show an effort by scientists to cover up and manufacture data proving global warming were stolen from a research facility and published online. Even though several independent reviews exonerated the scientists and recognized that the emails were “cherry picked” and misconstrued, “Climategate”, succeeded in casting doubt on scientists' credibility.
Scott Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences at Suffolk County Community College, cautions: “As we saw with the stolen e-mails from the climate research unit, all these guys have to do is find a couple of sentences taken out of context, and they can try to create another one of these so called ‘Climategates.’ There was nothing there, but if you make enough smoke people assume there is a fire.”
Not only do events like Climategate injure the credibility of global warming science, they are also disruptive to the individual scientists. “[Opponents] use FOIA to access information that is freely available, mostly because by law you have to respond to it," says Mandia, "One of the tactics is to bury them with paper.” Mandia felt the weight of this attention in 2010 when he was threatened with a lawsuit from Christopher Mongton, who works with Heartland Institute, a conservative non-profit that denies global warming (and who have worked with tobacco giant Philip Morris in the past). “I’ve got two small children, I teach classes," thought Mandia, when confronted by the suit, "now I understand why these guys are doing this. If they keep you busy, you can’t do your research. If you can’t do your research, you can’t advance the science.”
Recognizing the danger in allowing climate scientists to become targets, several organizations have stepped up to support Mann. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Science Watch, American Geophysical Union, and the American Association of University Professors have all voiced their support. The Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement, noting the sharing of research data is vastly different from unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists.”
Mandia recently helped establish the “Climate Science Defense Fund” to help offset Mann's legal fees, which are nearing $10,000. Using PayPal donations, donations from concerned groups and individuals (Climate Progress) hit their $10,000 goal within 12 hours. After the promising response, Mandia said that he intends to make the fund permanent, fearing scientists in the near future will be facing the same battles. Still, it's no match for the network of groups and their funders behind organizations like ATI, which include the Koch Foundation and, in the past, ExxonMobil.
“The trend will continue until there are serious repercussions," says Mann, who is preparing to return to court on November 1, "be they in the financial or public relations realm, for the organizations and front groups that fund these ongoing attacks.”