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America Is Only Nation Where Climate Scientists Face Organized Harassment

'I feel for my American colleagues and what they've had to deal with,' one British climate scientist said.

Sep 10, 2012
Map of global temperature anomalies

The harassment faced by U.S.-based climate scientists has been well documented in the media—but not the harassment of scientists in Europe, Canada or the rest of the world.

That's because there hasn't been much to report.

While outspoken scientists of human-caused climate change in the United States endure torrents of freedom of information requests, hate mail and even death threats from skeptics, their counterparts abroad have been free to do their work without fear.

Jochem Marotzke, managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, said there is "no systematic attempt by a political camp" to target climate scientists in Germany. "I get the odd critical email from a skeptic, but would not classify anything as personally aggressive," said Marotzke. "Very different from the U.S. scene."

"I feel for my American colleagues and what they've had to deal with," said
Tim Lenton, an earth system scientist who specializes in climate tipping points at the University of Exeter in the UK. Lenton said he has never had to fend off skeptic attacks against his work or his integrity. "British scientists aren't immune to attacks, but it is a very different level than compared to what is happening in the U.S."

InsideClimate News contacted scientists working on climate change in Europe, Canada and Japan and learned that virtually everyone believes that the harassment is specific to the United States. They said that it could have long-term consequences for public understanding of global warming.

"The harassment has an intimidating effect—especially on young scientists," said Stefan Rahmstorf, head of earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. Rahmstorf said that watching colleagues be harassed often deters them from speaking to media or the public about their research, which skews the debate.

Already, there is evidence of the U.S. public being swayed, said Tony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Climategate, for instance, the 2009 hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in the UK, "had a significant impact" on public opinion, he said. During that scandal, U.S. skeptics pounced mainly on emails written by Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, as evidence that he and others were overstating the human influence on global warming. In a yet-to-be-published Yale study, nearly 13 percent of on-the-fence Americans in 2010 said climategate reduced their trust in climate science and in scientists, Leiserowitz said.

Since then, Mann was cleared of any wrongdoing, and the scientific consensus has strengthened—virtually all working U.S. climate researchers believe human activity is causing the climate to warm.

But the polls have barely budged.

The most recent global poll from 2011 found that only 48 percent of Americans believe climate change is occurring from either human activity or a mix of human and natural causes, the lowest among developed countries. Eighty-three percent of people in Asia expressed this opinion, which was shared by 72 percent in Canada, 69 percent in Europe and 65 percent in Latin in America.

Why Harassment Here and Not There?

U.S. skeptics ramped up efforts a few years ago when momentum built in Washington in both political parties for national climate policies, following the seminal 2007 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that Earth is warming mainly from fossil fuel emissions.

Their campaigns coincided with the rise of the Tea Party movement, whose members are far more dubious about the science of global warming than the public at large, adding to the growing chorus of skepticism.

There are two main types of harassment in the United States—by individual skeptics, or by campaigns led by conservative groups, often bankrolled by fossil fuel industries, that seek to sow confusion on the climate issue and undermine support for carbon regulations.

Their tactics have included filing onerous Freedom of Information requests that can overwhelm a scientist's workload and force them put their research on hold; barraging scientists with hate mail; and filling online comment boards with claims that researchers manipulated their results.

The foreign scientists interviewed for this story expressed concern about the intimidation and about the state of America's climate debate. They have their own opinions about why this country—and not their own—has become fertile ground for skeptics.

Weak Political Leadership

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