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.

Michael Mann, the Penn State University climate scientist who has been ensnared
Michael Mann, the Penn State University climate scientist who has been ensnared in two highly publicized legal battles, has been working with the Climate Science Legal Defens Fund. Credit: Michael Ferguson, flickr

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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.

The university says it spent $570,698 defending itself against the Virginia Attorney General’s investigation, which sought documents related to climate change research Mann conducted when he was a UVA assistant professor of environmental sciences from 1999 to 2005. Because the university’s counsel is appointed by and answerable to the Virginia Attorney General, UVA was represented by outside counsel and private funds covered its costs.

The nearly two-year long case, dismissed by the Virginia Supreme Court on March 2, was brought by state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who sought to prove that Mann had manipulated scientific data and therefore obtained his University of Virginia research grants fraudulently. Had Cuccinelli’s interpretation of the law prevailed, the University would have had to comply with two Civil Investigative Demands under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act and turn over years’ worth of correspondence and other documents.

The University of Virginia and Mann, who now directs the Penn State University Earth System Science Center, are still contending with the American Tradition Institute’s lawsuit.

In its 2011 Year in Review, the ATI said its “litigation center is moving at full speed: we have filed a series of landmark Freedom of Information requests and lawsuits challenging the anti-freedom environmentalist agenda.”

The ATI won an earlier FOIA case seeking the release of scientist James Hansen’s NASA email relating to fees for work and speaking engagements he did outside of NASA.

Ruch said FOIA requests can be a complicated area of law. Although public institutions are generally subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, some public universities are exempt from public records laws and individual states have different FOIA policies. Whether records are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests may also depend on where the documents in question appear and possibly on funding sources supporting that work. For example, Ruch said “Is a journal article that appears under a scientist’s own name official university business?”

“These attacks on climate science are multi-purposed,” Mann said in an interview “One of my greatest concerns is that this will tell young scientists that this area of science is off limits.

“It’s part of a larger strategy to undermine confidence in science by vested interests who see science as a threat to their profits,” he said. Part of the aim “is to scare other scientists and manufacture an air of controversy.”

ATI acknowledges that global temperatures are rising, said Schnare, director of the organization’s Environmental Law Center, but it doesn’t agree with what the models say with respect to the contribution of human activities to that increase.

The ATI’s 2011 Year in Review said that in 2012 the organization “will be expanding our research efforts with the goals to reverse the trend of massively wasteful, politically driven and often environmentally harmful public policy. Our investigative journalism team will be ever vigilant in exposing those who use alarmism to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer.”

In what can easily be read as a metaphor for the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, Mann describes what he calls the “Serengeti strategy” in the prologue to The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, his new memoir about his experience defending his work against climate science deniers. On a trip to Serengeti National Park, Mann watched a group of zebras line up back-to-back in “a continuous wall of vertical stripes” in an effort to deter predators’ ability to pick out a single and vulnerable individual.

“Only later,” writes Mann, “would I understand the profound lesson this scene from nature had to offer me and my fellow climate scientists in the years to come.”

Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, hasn’t been sued, but she spends lots of time defending her science from some of the same sources that are supporting the lawsuit against Mann. Hayhoe has contributed to more than 50 peer-reviewed publications and served as an expert reviewer for the IPCC’s 2007 assessment. She is also an avowed Christian and co-author of the book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, work that has prompted what she calls an onslaught of “nuisance attacks.”

Hayhoe said just knowing that a group like the Climate Science Defense Fund exists is important, because it tells climate scientists they are not alone.

“It’s really important that people understand that there are people deliberately trying to make it hard to do science,” Hayhoe sad. “It’s the only world we’ve got and it’s important to understand what’s going on so we can make decisions.”

Clarification: Katharine Hayhoe’s title has been corrected. She is director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.