Climate scientists cooperate to fend off legal, personal challenges

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People trying to undermine the credibility of climate scientists behave like predators on the Serengeti: They pick off scientists one at a time, says a thermal scientist from the University of St. Thomas.

"The idea is, if you can discredit that one person, you can discredit the whole group," said Prof. John Abraham. "But scientists have recognized the Serengeti strategy, and we're standing together."

Abraham is one of the organizers behind a legal defense fund for climate scientists. The fund is necessary, he said, because he and his fellow scientists have come under legal fire and personal attacks.

"I first got into this public fray when a climate contrarian or a denier of climate change named Christopher Monckton gave a speech in Minnesota," Abraham recalled. "I watched that speech online. He had a British accent and he sounded really smart. ...

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"I went back to his sources that he cited and I found that he misinterpreted every single one of them. So I put a rebuttal online." His rebuttal, he said, "got picked up by the Guardian, and within a few days the legal threats started. And that's how this all began."

Kenyan Safari
In this 2007 file photo, a male lion hunts two wildebeest in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya.
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Abraham stressed that the encounter with Monckton was not the usual give-and-take between rival scientists.

"It's not normal, in a couple of respects," he said. "First, this wasn't a scientist. He put himself forward as a scientist, but he had no publications; he wasn't a practicing scientist. The other thing that made this unusual is he responded with the threat of a lawsuit to myself and my university . ... And that is not normal discourse.

"Scientists fight all the time over ideas, and we're really vicious to each other because we want the best ideas to win. But we don't threaten lawsuits. We don't go on television and radio shows, encouraging people to send hate mail."

Abraham said such maneuvers are "surprisingly common" and have been employed against some of the best-known names in the field: Heidi Cullen, Michael Mann and Benjamin Santer.

"All of them have been subjected to this kind of attack but even worse," he said.

"Let's take Mike Mann. He has undergone incredible attacks. It's really not criticism, it's attacks. He's had to hire attorneys to defend himself. He's had to sue people for slander and libel charges, and there are a lot of economic costs to Mike Mann for this. Ben Santer's been attacked in many of the country's premier opinion pages.

"These aren't just idle criticisms, they are attacks that have economic and personal costs.

Another tactic used against climate scientists, he said, is the filing of multiple requests under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. For scientists working at public facilities or receiving public funds, he said, the requests come so frequently that they "have to stop their work, and all they do is deal with FOIA requests."

He called abuse of FOIA a "very effective way of shutting down research."

Abraham said he worries that such an environment might discourage young people interested in climate science from entering the field.

"Can you imagine, if you're a young scientist, and you see some of the best-known people in your field undergoing these attacks in the media and having to incur these legal costs?" he asked. "Would you have second thoughts about going into the field? We hope not, but I imagine some young scientists do."