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Legal Fund Helping Climate Scientists Draw Line in the Sand

'We're not actively trying to pick a fight or become part of the debate but to provide a badly needed service,' says defense fund co-director.

Mar 13, 2012
Michael Mann, the Penn State University climate scientist who has been ensnared

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which was officially formed less than two months ago, is already working with five scientists who are defending themselves against lawsuits initiated by groups that doubt and deny the preponderance of climate science.

One of the scientists is Michael Mann, the internationally respected climate scientist who has been ensnared in two highly publicized legal battles seeking release of emails and other documents during his tenure at the University of Virginia. One of those cases was  dismissed earlier this month by the Virginia Supreme Court.

The Climate Science Defense Fund declined to release the names of the other four scientists it's working with. But Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which serves as the Defense Fund's fiscal sponsor, said two of the cases involve requests for voluminous amounts of public records similar to those in Mann's.

The idea for the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was hatched last summer, when Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk Community College, and Joshua Wolfe, photographer and co-author of the book Climate Change: Picturing the Science, were discussing Mann's plight.

The lawsuits against Mann, who shared in the 2007 Nobel Prize for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have targeted the science behind his paper that developed what's become known as the Hockey Stick graph, which illustrates the recent rise in global temperatures. Several investigations—including into the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia that became known as "climategate"—have cleared Mann of any wrongdoing. But Virginia's Attorney General and the American Tradition Institute (ATI), a non-profit think tank that supports a free-market and private property approach to environmental policy, separately continued their pursuit of Mann's correspondence with the aim of finding flaws in his science.

David Schnare, director of ATI's Environmental Law Center, said the Defense Fund is "defending a political statement" rather than defending science. "We don't generally defend political statements," said Schnare, referring to his organization.

"The money to defend the climate alarmist community, the environmental community that supports that agenda, is broad and deep," Schnare said. "It generates hundreds of millions of dollars."

The University of Virginia is covering a large portion of the legal expenses in both the lawsuits involving Mann, but Mandia and Wolfe realized the scientist would still need some help with attorney fees. So Mandia set up a PayPal account and sent out a "dear colleague" letter on his website last fall.

"Many scientists do not enjoy the institutional support necessary to fight attacks from well-funded science-denying groups," the letter said. "We need to help scientists to defend themselves. If ATI succeeds in this case, it would set a terrible precedent for scientists at public institutions across the country. But if they are turned back here, it will send a clear message to climate deniers that scientists are willing to stand up to them and fight for their rights."

Within a day, about $10,000 in small donations had come in. Knowing that Mann is not the only climate scientist who might need legal assistance, Mandia and Wolfe went on to establish the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Officially launched in January with PEER as its fiscal sponsor, the fund's mission is "protecting the scientific endeavor" and helping "climate scientists protect themselves and their work from industry-funded legal attacks."

To date, the Defense Fund has raised about $25,000. 

"Our goal," Wolfe said in a phone interview, is to "make sure scientists can do their science ... to let the science community do its job and not get caught up in legal efforts. We're not actively trying to pick a fight or become part of the debate but to provide a badly needed service ... The goal is not litigation but to make sure scientists have the best advice in their time of need."

The fund's short-term goals, explained PEER's Jeff Ruch, are to provide free legal assistance and advice through a network of pro-bono attorneys and advisors, and also to provide some financial assistance for legal defense. Long-term goals include educating scientists and their academic institutions on legal issues, including how to respond to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for faculty email correspondence that prompted the lawsuits against Mann.

Ruch described them as "vacuum cleaner FOIAs," because they ask for an overwhelming volume of information. The American Tradition Institute's FOIA in one of Mann's cases asked the University of Virginia for thousands of emails—the ATI website says 12,000– dating back more than 10 years.

"What we have here is an assault against science. It's clearly well-funded and targeted at squelching academic freedom and curiosity," said Peter Fontaine, an attorney with the firm Cozen O'Connor, which is defending Mann.

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