Most scientists know how to fight for acceptance of their ideas within the community of scientists. The rules of the game are fairly well understood. But when it comes to politically charged issues, they tend to be at a loss because they work as individuals and hence do not know how to respond to massive organized attacks, of the kind that they have been under from climate change deniers. The attacks have ranged from explicit and not-so-veiled threats to them and their families to dead animals being placed on their doorsteps. The situation has got so bad that the president of the AAAS issued an alarm at their recent annual meeting.
The February 2012 issue of Physics Today (p. 22-24) describes some of what has been happening.
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.”
Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says he has seen young scientists get a surge of nasty emails when they publish on climate change. “They are flabbergasted. A lot of the community is unaware this is happening.” And, he notes, the people who send the emails have “gotten off scot-free.”
But scientists are learning how to deal with these new threats and are now fighting back.
One new development is the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which features more than 140 climate scientists plus a few historians and economists on call to provide information to journalists and lawmakers. Trenberth, a member of the team, says, “[We] provide rebuttal, response, and clarification” to misleading reports in the media.
This past September, rapid response team cofounder Scott Mandia and others launched the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. The nonprofit group raises money for climate scientists embroiled in legal battles. As of December, it had raised more than $20,000 for [Michael] Mann, who is fighting Freedom of Information Act demands by the American Tradition Institute think tank for 5000 pages of his email correspondence. The fund also offers informal counseling to harassed climate scientists and plans to hire a staff attorney to offer quick and experienced help. “Many scientists think they can win by blocking punches. You have to throw them,” says Mandia, who teaches physical sciences at New York’s Suffolk County Community College. “The main thing is that the world understands there is a group that will defend climate scientists who are being harassed.”
The climate change deniers are backed by wealthy interests and depend upon scientists working as individuals to make their intimidation tactics work. I am glad to see scientists take this collective attitude to fighting back.