Why Growing Harassment of Scientists by Climate Change Deniers Is So Dangerous
Photo Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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When Michael Mann chose a career in science, he didn't think that he would be denounced on billboards, grilled by hostile legislators on Capitol Hill and in the British House of Commons, have his emails hacked and stolen, receive letters laced with an anthrax-like white powder, and become the target of anonymous death threats.
Mann also did not imagine that he would be spending quite so much time with lawyers and in courtrooms. Today, he is the plaintiff in a controversial case that is being argued before the Virginia Supreme Court. It pits the scientist against a climate change denialist group, which is seeking to get a hold of several years worth of his emails, as well as those of dozens of other climate investigators.
Mann, who currently directs Penn State University's Earth System Science Center, is one of the authors of the so-called " hockey stick graph", which Al Gore used in his film, An Inconvenient Truth, to illustrate the precipitous rise in global temperatures since the dawn of industrialization when humans started spewing the heat-trapping greenhouse gas CO2 into the atmosphere. For the "sin" of helping to create this "exhibit A" in the scientific case for climate change, the conservative semimonthly, the National Review, called Mann "the Jerry Sandusky of climate scientists." Blogger Rand Simberg wrote on the Review's online site:
Except that instead of molesting children, [Mann] has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.
The Penn State researcher didn't take this insult lying down. He sued the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which also published the offending blog; the case is currently pending.
Mann is also challenging the American Traditions Institute (ATI) in court – they've recently changed their name to the innocuous-sounding Energy & Environment Legal Institute. This group, funded over the years by entities controlled by the Koch brothers and an assortment of big energy corporations like Exxon Mobil, is the one that wants Mann's emails. They say that they are entitled to this information under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act (VFoia), which gives media and citizen's groups access to the documents of public employees. (Until 2005, Mann worked at the University of Virginia.)
ATI claims that they are just defending good science. But their view of science is an odd one. The group was instrumental in preventing North Carolina from using data on sea-level rise in planning their decision making. They are also going after climate researchers in Texas and Arizona and at Nasa. Why are they so interested in getting their hands on the private correspondence of these academics?
ATI's counsel, David Schnare explained in an email:
These emails represent a period of time when the science upon which major national and international policies have been based was being done. In light of the extremely important public policy issues that these emails informed, the public has a right to know what these government employees were doing and how they were doing it.
Freedom of Information (Foia) laws, like the one being used by Schnare's group, were enacted at the federal level and also in many states to help insure transparency and accountability in government. They have proved invaluable tools for journalists and public interest organizations seeking to uncover information that some in government would prefer to hide. But applying these so called "sunshine laws" to academics at state-run academic institutions is something new.
It's a dangerous precedent, says Peter Fontaine, an environmental lawyer who began his career at the EPA and is one of the founders of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Fontaine, who is representing Mann before the Virginia Supreme Court, believes that ATI is on a fishing expedition for anything they can find to embarrass Mann and cast doubt on the validity of his work. They've hijacked laws aimed at transparency, he told me, in order to intimidate scientists who are engaged in controversial research – a move calculated to have a chilling effect on the free and open sharing amongst colleagues which is essential in the scientific process.