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Climate scientists the target in culture war

The death threats received by Australian climate scientists such as Will Steffen, Andy Pitman and David Karoly haven’t come out of the blue. They are an extension of the vicious attacks on climate science…

The tone of public debate sets the stage for threats to scientists. AAP

The death threats received by Australian climate scientists such as Will Steffen, Andy Pitman and David Karoly haven’t come out of the blue.

They are an extension of the vicious attacks on climate science and climate scientists that can be found in the mainstream media, mostly news outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The virulence of the recent attacks on Cate Blanchett, who did no more than publicly back a carbon tax, is precisely the kind of rhetoric that encourages threats of violence from climate deniers.

No matter how much journalists and commentators protest that they do not support threats and violence, if what they write repeatedly incites those kinds of attack then they have to take responsibility.

And there is no doubt that when some commentators go after a climate scientist, a torrent of abusive and threatening emails immediately follows.

Mimicking the trend in the United States, denying climate science has become part of the mythology behind the most recent surge of right-wing populism.

In January, Americans were shocked at the attempted murder of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six bystanders. The local County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, captured the immediate assessment of many when he linked the attempted murder to the rise of violent anti-government rhetoric and imagery, observing, “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

When asked if the Congresswoman had any enemies her father replied: “Yeah. The whole Tea Party”. Many, including Giffords herself, had had a premonition that the inflammatory language of radical right-wing activists would sooner or later find real expression.

The same vicious rhetoric that created the circumstances in which Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down also stokes ferocious attacks on climate scientists and environmentalists in the United States.

Some of the bitterest attacks on climate scientists are made by commentators employed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity often ridicule climate science.

Glenn Beck calls global warming “the greatest scam in history”. He gives air-time to Christopher Monckton to attack the work of climate scientists as fraudulent with his unique blend of statistical gobbledegook, invented “facts” and off-the-planet conspiracy theories.

Another Fox regular is Marc Morano, the former aide to Republican Senator James Inhofe, founder of the most malicious anti-science blog, and the man who said climate scientists deserve to be publicly flogged. Last April on Fox News, Morano launched a virulent attack on Professor Michael Mann of Penn State University, calling him a “charlatan” and responsible for “the best science that politics can manufacture”.

When Morano singles out a climate scientist for attack on his website he includes their email addresses and invites his followers to “get in touch”. Many of them do, with death threats.

Last year I wrote a series of articles detailing how Australia’s most distinguished climate scientists have become the target of a new form of cyber-bullying aimed at driving them out of the public domain.

The exposé of cyber-bullying was immediately picked up in the United States where the phenomenon is even worse. Scientific American gave it prominence and, in Britain, Nature did too, and many more stories of intimidation emerged into the light of day.

Dr Kevin Trenberth, head of analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, turned over to university security 19 pages of “extremely foul, nasty, [and] abusive” emails collected in the four months after the Climategate storm broke in November 2009.

Another prominent climate scientist had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with body-guards.

Stephen Schneider, an eminent climatologist at Stanford University who died last year, said that he had received hundreds of threatening emails. Exasperated he asked: “What do I do? Learn to shoot a magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket?” He believed that a scientist would be killed, adding: “They shoot abortion doctors here”.

When his name appeared on a neo-Nazi “death list”, alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry, the police were called in. Schneider said he had observed an “immediate, noticeable rise” in emails whenever climate scientists were attacked by prominent right-wing commentators.

Paul Ehrlich was quoted in Nature saying: “Everyone is scared shitless, but they don’t know what to do”. The story noted that the bullying and threats intensify after anti-climate science rants from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Marc Morano and Steve Milloy. Except for Limbaugh they are all either employed by Fox News or appear often on the network.

Michael Mann of “hockey stick” fame said the same about the hate mail he had received. “I’m not comfortable talking about the details, especially as some of these matters remain under police investigation,” he said.

“What I can say is that the emails come in bursts, and do seem to be timed with high-profile attack pieces on talk radio and other fringe media outlets.” The most influential “fringe media outlet” vilifying scientists is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

The campaign of harassment against scientists took a sinister turn last year when Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe called for some of the world’s most eminent climate scientists to be investigated for criminal violations.

A document prepared by his staff on the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works claims scientists mentioned in emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia are guilty of manipulating data and obstructing its release. It lists federal laws they may have violated and names 17 climate scientists whom Inhofe claims should be investigated for possible criminal prosecution.

One of those listed, Raymond Bradley, the director of climate science research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, responded: “I am worried about it, I have to say. You can understand that this powerful person is using the power of his office to intimidate people and to harass people and you wonder whether you should have legal counsel. It is a very intimidating thing and that is the point.”

According to Scientific American, deniers in Congress have used their offices to send “intimidating letters” threatening dire consequences to scientists working on climate change.

One of the recipients, NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt, said: “That is chilling the work of science in the agencies. It’s certainly very off-putting for scientists who want to talk about their stuff in public but fear the political consequences. Nobody wants to create an enemy on the hill.”

In an editorial last March on cyber-bullying, Nature reported on Senator Inhofe’s attempts to criminalise climate scientists before commenting: “As a member of the minority party, Inhofe is powerless for now, but that may one day change.”

That day came last November with the mid-term elections in which the Republicans, powered by a surge of support for the Tea Party, won a majority in the House of Representatives.

Before the election Climate Progress noted that “every single GOP [Republican] Senate candidate now either denies climate science or opposes even the most moderate, business friendly, Republican-designed approach to reducing emissions”. With the elections, both houses saw a flood of new representatives who are climate deniers.

Representative James Sensenbrenner is now the deputy chair of the House Science Committee. The committee plans to investigate the veracity of climate science, despite the fact that the American Academy of Science has reaffirmed its validity and a series of inquiries into “Climategate” has exonerated the scientists mentioned and concluded that there is nothing in them to cast any doubt the science.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is not foolish enough to attack scientists directly but his dog-whistling can be heard by all but the deafest. He has signalled clearly to the hard-line climate deniers that he is “one of them”.

Short of an outright endorsement Abbott could have sent no clearer signal than by his decision, alone among political leaders, to meet with Christopher Monckton when he toured last year. Monckton is surely the craziest and most outrageous of all prominent climate deniers.

Monckton believes that climate science is a communist plot, promoted by the Hitler Youth. He also fantasies about his own history, claiming to be a member of the House of Lords and a Nobel Laureate, to have single-handedly won the Falklands War (he persuaded the British Army to use germ warfare on the “Argies”), and to have invented a cure for Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis, influenza, food poisoning, and HIV.

Tony Abbott takes this man seriously, and his conspiracy theories are accepted by other prominent members of the Opposition, including Nick Minchin.

Monckton is due in Australia again this month, the guest of the same coterie of conspiracy theorists, this time including right-wing mining billionaire Gina Rinehart. Last time Monckton was in the country the ABC, to its eternal shame, gave him blanket coverage where he was permitted to denounce Australia’s climate scientists as cheats, frauds and communist dupes.

When he repeats these fantastic claims during his forthcoming tour, it is certain that Australian climate scientists will be on the receiving end of another torrent of vile emails and death threats.

It’s not just the tabloids of the Murdoch empire that promote climate denial. The most consistent and effective organ of climate denial has for years been the Australian.

While claiming to accept the science and the need for carbon-reducing policies, the paper has conducted a long campaign of undermining, ridiculing and misrepresenting climate science, including giving regular space to the most bizarre conspiracy theories.

The newspaper turns over its opinion pages to Monckton’s crazed claims, and for the forthcoming tour has even been helping raise funds.

In the United States there is now a deep divide between liberal and conservative voters in their beliefs about global warming. As is now well documented, the opening of this gulf was due to the fact that from the mid-1990s Republican Party activists, in collaboration with fossil fuel interests and conservative think tanks, had successfully associated acceptance of global warming science with “liberal” views.

Polls show that the same divide has been created in Australia. Despite the steady accumulation of scientific evidence, and the failure of climate deniers to land any significant blow on the corpus of climate science, Australians with conservative politics views are now much more likely to reject the science.

Like those whose opinions they value — shock jocks and television demagogues — climate deniers are disproportionately older, white, male and conservative —those who feel their cultural identity most threatened by the implications of climate change.

While the debate is superficially about the science, in truth it is about deep-rooted feelings of cultural identity. This makes deniers immune to argument. Their influence will wane only as they grow old and die.

Clive Hamilton is currently a Visiting Academic in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oxford.

When does robust communication of ideas become intimidation: have climate change sceptics crossed the line? Should academics have to put up with criticism if they engage in public discussion? And how will the heated debate affect climate change research?

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Malcolm Gorman


    I wonder if any of the older, white, male and conservative climate change deniers own coastal properties vulnerable to rising sea levels? There are several implications to the answer to this question for each individual. Are they not worried? Are they willing to buy such a property -- prices may be lower now. And have they recently sold such a property? Do they really truly believe that sea levels are not likely to rise?

    1. Jo Nova

      Science writer

      In reply to Malcolm Gorman

      We'd like to buy any cheap property on the coast that you have, and help you out. Please get in touch.

    2. spot_the_dog

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Malcolm Gorman

      The median house price in Perth's beachside suburbs is still at least 3x higher than those a bit further inland. When you can find me a beachfront house in Cottesloe going for less than a similarly-sized house in, say, Midvale, let me know.

    3. spot_the_dog

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Malcolm Gorman

      Actually, my apologies. I just noticed that your comment was restricted to whites-only. I didn't realise science had anything to do with race, but not being pure Aryan I guess I'll have to recuse myself. Pity, that.

    4. Robert Davidson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jo Nova

      Science writer? I don't think so. Spreader of anti-scientific nonsense is a far more apt monicker.

    5. John Nicol

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Malcolm Gorman

      Malcolm Gorman,
      You say "I wonder if any of the older, white, male and conservative climate change deniers own coastal properties vulnerable to rising sea levels?"
      Probably not because they have always been a cautious, thinking group of people, who recognise the possibility of tidal waves and cyclonic effects, nothing to do with climate change or sea level rise.

      But our bold Climate Commissioner, Tim Flannery owns seaside property but does not seem to believe his own ramblings about the rising ocean.

      John Nicol

    6. John Nicol

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Robert Davidson

      Robert Davidson,

      I thought the skeptics were the ones always being chastised for being rude. However, it is consistent with my experience that you have chosen to speak to Jo Nova in a derogatory manner. For your information she has spent many years as a science writer and has been very successful recently in her excellent publication, "The Skeptic's Handbook". So perhaps you shouldn't be so quicjk to criticise. Perhaps you might be able to tell us about the great things have you done lately?
      John Nicol

  2. woolfe

    logged in via Twitter

    Written by the author:
    Hi there,

    There’s something you need to know about your father.

    Your dad’s job is to try to stop the government making laws to reduce Australia’s carbon pollution. He is paid a lot of money to do that by big companies who do not want to own up to the fact that their pollution is changing the world’s climate in very harmful ways.

    Because of their pollution, lots of people, mostly poor people, are likely to die. They will die from floods, from diseases like dengue fever, and from starvation when their crops won’t grow anymore.

    The big companies are putting their profits before the lives of people. And your dad is helping them.

    Warning CHILDREN their father works for a killer.

    Hate much Clive?

  3. Frank Campbell

    This is typical Hamilton. A mixture of sophistry and sermon. Note how he equates criticism of Blanchett with the rabid rantings of shockjocks and threats against climate scientists:

    "The virulence of the recent attacks on Cate Blanchett, who did no more than publicly back a carbon tax, is precisely the kind of rhetoric that encourages threats of violence from climate deniers."

    The Blanchett ad was widely satirised. Not only was it clunky and patronising, but using a wealthy actor to front it is…

    Read more
  4. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    Thank you for an informative, insightful summary that joins the dots between politicians, the media and the treatment of scientists. It is particularly helpful to see such an account from an Australian perspective that is able to draw the parallels and differences to the situation in the US.

    The links between climate denial and fossil fuel industry funding in the US have been widely investigated (see for example, "Merchants of Doubt" by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway), but are still not generally appreciated. The links in Australia are even less known, but Clive's book "Scorcher" is required reading on the topic.


    MR ( I am retired now )

    Strange choice of language in the article by Clive Hamilton.
    He commences with "the death threats received by Australian climate scientists...." mentions death fears by American 'climatologists' and rounds off with "deniers.....influence will wane only as they grow old and die" which amounts to death-threats to the opposition !
    Hardly conducive to a 'meeting of minds' or 'a solution to the understanding-of-the-science '......but pretty typical of some of the academic fueding I have seen in my (short) time (geologically speaking) on this fair planet !
    It occurs to me that rather than blaming the 'scientifically illiterate general populace' (the plebs ) that more effort could be put into the raising of the Aussie educational standards to a level where scientific evaluation would prevail over superstition & "deep-rooted feelings of cultural identity" ( & values & ignorance & suspicion.)
    But then I'm not a philosopher !

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to TREVOR RIDGWAY

      Trevor, you don't need to be a philosopher to recognise that it is absurd to claim that Hamilton's observation about the mortality of climate change deniers amounts to a 'death-threat to the opposition'. Last time I checked,Hamilton wasn't the Almighty, so I doubt he actually has much control over such matters.
      Your observation about raising educational standards doesn't stack up much better, either. This amounts to arguing that, because ignorance was caused by a poor education system, then nothing should be done to counter that ignorance because it isn't the fault of the ill-educated. Did anyone say it was? It is, in effect, axiomatic that ignorance is caused by imperfect education so you are, in fact, saying nothing at all.


      MR ( I am retired now )

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix , thankyou for your asessment of my evaluation of Clive Hamilton's assessment of the political climate currently surrounding the fears of "climate scientists' who have received death threats by e-mail.Whether these are real or merely perceived threats it is an unpleasant & unwelcome development.
      Whilst I do not condone this action I can understand it as an act of frustration against a wall of intransigent paternalistic condescension & blind indifference currently emanating from some of these…

      Read more
    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to TREVOR RIDGWAY

      Wow! I think your own words provide all the evidence needed for rational people to draw their own conclusions.

    4. William Bruce


      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Put the Science to one side for a moment, follow the money?

      When people have the facts they argue the facts when they don't they "play the man & not the ball".

      Trevor said "...Most people I speak with on this subject express their interest in it but also express their lack of understanding of it due , to.... the lack of information being provided to them..."

      Who has proved exactly what re future climate "predictions"?
      If the Scientific "proof" is there why has this not been clearly listed…

      Read more
  6. Clayton Bolitho

    Faculty Librarian

    An article published in the Daily Telegraph on June 9th stated: "Claims prominent climate change scientists had recently received death threats have been revealed as an opportunistic ploy, with the Australian National University admitting that they occurred up to five years ago." -

    Is anybody here able to comment on the accuracy of this report?


  7. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Sounds like a classic lie by omission. Pick a case that was five years ago and ignore any that might have happened since.

    It is Murdoch news on an issue on which we know them to have a strong prejudice.

    Is there any real question about the authenticity?

  8. John Coochey