Menu Close

Climate scientists the target in culture war

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?

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,300 academics and researchers from 4,972 institutions.

Register now