Thursday, February 2, 2012
Climate Scientists not Cowed by Relentless Climate Change Deniers by Toni Feder
Receiving an email with a statement like “You should resign, and if you don’t, I’ll work to see that you are fired” or “I know where your kids go to school” would be unsettling enough. But they “pale compared to what other climate scientists are getting,” says Raymond Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, at whom the first threat above was aimed.
Now climate scientists—in atmospheric physics and chemistry, geophysics, meteorology, hydrology, and oceanography, among other disciplines—have begun to fight back. “I think the community is finding a voice,” says Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, whose work has largely focused on identifying the human influence on global climate, and who once answered a late-night knock to find a dead rat on his doorstep.
Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is happening, although details of how it will play out are uncertain. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues a report prepared by hundreds of scientists and government officials from around the world; the next is due out in 2014. The latest, published in 2007, says that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, that most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid 20th century is due to human activities, and that past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will contribute to warming and sea-level rise for more than a millennium. Yet deniers have hampered efforts to tackle climate change, and their actions, especially in North America, the UK, and Australia, have led to climate researchers being investigated by their governments, suffering nervous breakdowns, and spending time and money defending their rights and reputations.
Harassment of climate scientists by climate-change deniers goes back at least to 1995, after the IPCC published its Second Assessment Report. Santer was the lead author of chapter 8, which looked at the causes of climate change. “The single sentence ‘The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate’ changed my life,” he says. “I was the guy who was associated with this sentence. Those who did not like that finding did everything not only to undermine the finding but also to undermine my scientific reputation.”
The harassment has ramped up in recent years, says Michael Mann of the Pennsylvania State University, whose book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, due to be published by Columbia University Press in early March, includes a retelling of his own ongoing experiences with harassment. “Political intimidation, character attacks, what appear to be orchestrated phone and email campaigns, nasty and thinly veiled threats, not just to us but to our families, are what it means in modern American life to be a climate scientist,” says Mann. Even this magazine, after publishing last October articles on the science of climate change—about its being under fire and about communicating that science to the public—received an abundance of letters with the tenor, “How could PHYSICS TODAY print such a one-sided portrayal of climate science when many reputable scientists disagree?”
Fossil-fuel interests, says Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA, “have adopted a shoot-the-messenger approach. It’s been a very successful strategy. They have created a chilling effect, so other [scientists] won’t say what they think and the conversation in public stays bereft of anyone who knows what they are talking about.” Schmidt cofounded RealClimate.org, a forum for climate scientists to “provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary.” Meanwhile, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a vocal opponent to limiting greenhouse gas emissions, is suing NASA for the release of Schmidt’s personal emails.