Attorney General Cuccinelli Under Investigation for Climate Probe—By Greenpeace

Is his investigation of climatologist Michael Mann an unlawful, unduly burdensome and impermissible intrusion?

Jul 6, 2010

WASHINGTON—As a scientist, Michael Mann has peered into his share of microscopes, but he never expected to have his life's work magnified under one.

While delving into math and physics as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980s and then geology and geophysics as a doctoral student at Yale University in the 1990s, he could hardly imagine the firestorm his "hockey stick" diagram would ignite among those who doubt that the burning fossil fuels are significantly altering the Earth's climate.

That ordeal prepared him for the scrutiny that descended upon him as a result of the manufactured scandal called "Climategate," and for the latest investigation into his science, this time for taxpayer fraud of all things, by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli.

Smelling a politically motivated witch hunt, Greenpeace has stepped into the fray with its own investigation into the Attorney General and possible relationships with global warming deniers.

This kind of commotion has become all part of a day's work for Mann. Years of harassment and verbal pummeling have not been able to deter the Pennsylvania State University climatologist from persevering in the career he clearly cherishes.

"I've loved science from the time I was a young child," the professor at Pennsylvania State University's Department of Meteorology told SolveClimate in an interview. "I'm driven by a passion to understand Earth's climate system. One aspect is human-caused climate change. Pursuing that has opened me up to the climate change denial industry.

"For me, the bottom line is that it's a matter of principle," he continued, his words now flowing. "To allow climate change deniers to be successful in scaring scientists away from the science of climate change is unconscionable. I'm the last person to want to give them that victory."

Pause.

Then: "Or at least I like to think that's the approach I've taken."

Hundreds of his fellow scientists seem to think it is. They rallied around the research Mann contributed to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when the trumped up "Climategate" affair erupted last winter.

And they have come to his defense again now that Cuccinelli is in the midst of investigating him for violating the state Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. That's connected to research he conducted while teaching at the University of Virginia between 1999 and 2005.

The environmental advocacy organization Greenpeace US is now doggedly pursuing a tangled paper trail which they hope will expose the inner workings of a well-connected network of naysayers attempting to discredit the work of certain climate scientists and to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from deploying the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.

"We've been fighting off the climate change deniers for a very long time," Greenpeace research director Kert Davies told SolveClimate. "These attacks distract people from the science of climate change. Part of what we've done for 20 years is to fend them off and educate people about climate change."

Climategate Losing Traction?

On July 1, Penn State completed the second portion of a two-part investigation of Mann's role in the "Climategate" e-mails. After two months of deliberation, the investigatory committee found him innocent of the remaining charge of scientific misconduct.

The committee found that "Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scholarly activities."

Back in February, the Penn State committee also found him innocent of misconduct, finding no evidence that he falsified data, destroyed data related to the 2007 IPPC report or misused privileged or confidential information available to him in his capacity as a scholar.

"Climategate" burst onto the scene last November after hackers released thousands of e-mail exchanges and other climate data exchanged among researchers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. Mann was embroiled in the controversy because his name appeared in the suspect e-mails.

Climate deniers and skeptics accused researchers at the English school of manipulating and suppressing global warming data eventually used in IPCC reports. But two inquiries have cleared the researchers of any wrongdoing, the last one in April. Results of a third inquiry are expected soon.

Newest Probe at University of Virginia

While "Climategate" turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, probes involving Mann's career at the University of Virginia—the Charlottesville school President Thomas Jefferson founded—seem to be reaching a boiling point.

In late April Cuccinelli filed a civil subpoena with the university, requesting Mann's correspondence and hundreds of his documents. The attorney general's office claims the demands were made to find out if Mann committed fraud by presenting false or misleading data related to global warming when seeking research grants. Virginia passed the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act eight years ago to keep government workers honest.

Mann received five grants that added up to roughly $484,875 during his Virginia tenure, according to records. The university has stated that the fraud statute doesn't apply to any of the grants. Their attorneys say the federal government covered four of the grants and the fifth was an internal university grant awarded in 2001, before the fraud statute came into existence.

In late June, university lawyers filed paperwork in the circuit court in Albemarle County, Va., that labeled Cuccinelli's fraud investigation unlawful, unduly burdensome and an "impermissible intrusion on academic and scientific speech and research."

"If the attorney general is merely trying to discredit a scientist with whom he disagrees on climate change, that's a shameful abuse of his office and a real threat to academic freedom in Virginia," Kent Willis, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said in response to Cuccinelli's tactics.

Chilling Effect on Scientific Community

In mid-May the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists went to bat for Mann by writing a letter to Cuccinelli urging him to drop his investigation. It was signed by 810 scientists and academics in Virginia, including nearly 300 from its flagship university.

"This letter shows that much of Virginia's scientific and academic community is appalled that their attorney general has launched such a blatantly political investigation," said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Labeling scientific findings 'fraudulent' sets a disturbing precedent for attacking peer-reviewed science in the legal system."

The letter points out that historically, scientific discovery does not advance when government officials harass scientists. Signers made it clear they fear the potential lasting and damaging effects of Cuccinelli's pursuit.

"This lawsuit harkens back to the Dark Ages when scientists were tried for heresy when their findings ran contrary to the dogma of the day," Jeff Holt, a University of Virginia associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience, said when explaining his reasons for signing the letter. "Science is a search for the truth."

Amato Evan, an assistant professor in the university's Department of Environmental Sciences said he is worried about who might be the next target.

"As long as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is in office, in the back of my head I'll be wondering if my work on global climate change is going to fall under the same senseless attacks," he said. "This feels like harassment, plain and simple, and is wasting the time of the other faculty and staff members in my department."

Why Greenpeace Persists

Virginians know that Cuccinelli, a former state Republican legislator who represented the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Fairfax County, seems to be a magnet for controversy.

Since becoming Virginia's top lawyer under the Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell administration this year, he has joined handfuls of other states in filing a lawsuit against EPA for attempting to curb greenhouse gases, challenged federal health care reform and directed state-funded universities to remove sexual orientation from their list of anti-discrimination policies.

The legal action against EPA came after the agency ruled in December that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger human health. Virginia and the other states want to force EPA to reopen hearings on its December finding or block the regulations.

Their claim is that EPA's finding depends on faulty data from the U.N.'s climate science panel.

That latter argument is what intrigues Greenpeace researchers who are seeking transparency about who is financing attempts to undermine the work of Mann and other IPCC scientists.

Greenpeace filed Freedom of Information requests with the University of Virginia back in December and with Cuccinelli's office in June. Specifically, the environmental advocates are looking to see if there's a link between the attorney general and two former University of Virginia professors who argue that the man-made causes of global warming are being vastly exaggerated.

Patrick Michaels is now a senior fellow in environmental studies with the conservative Washington-based Cato Institute. He resigned from his position as Virginia's climatologist after 27 years when critics pointed out the utility industry was funding his research. S. Fred Singer, a retired environmental science professor, is now the president of an organization he calls the Science and Environmental Policy Project.

Both climate skeptics are part of an echo chamber that continues to exaggerate the importance of the strategically circulated "Climategate" e-mails, Davies said.

In February, Singer filed a petition requesting that the EPA withdraw its endangerment finding. He submitted it as co-founder of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, along with representatives from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Singer's Science and Environmental Policy Project.

What information is Greenpeace seeking about Michaels and Singer? For starters, they want a list of grants that financed their research. The organization also has requested conflict-of-interest statements, disclosure forms on outside income, correspondence with conservative advocacy groups and correspondence with ExxonMobil and other companies.

From the attorney general's office, Greenpeace wants correspondence with confirmed climate change skeptics and conservative organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Cato Institute.

"Our request was written very specifically," Greenpeace's Davies said about the FOIA query to Cuccinelli's office. "It can't be called a fishing expedition."

Cuccinelli has not yet responded to Greenpeace's FOI request. After several conversations with the University of Virginia, Davies said that request has not been fulfilled yet either.

"Even with the exoneration of Mann and other climate scientists, the other side will never say it's sorry," Davies said. "One of our objectives is to be able to tell the story about a deliberate campaign of denial. Climategate is just one chapter."

New Round of IPCC Scientists Selected

Mann is fully aware that his famed hockey stick graph—the one showing the relatively recent rise of greenhouse gases that Al Gore highlighted in "An Inconvenient Truth"—became iconic as talk about climate change seeped into daily conversations among the public. Skeptics pounced on it as a point of attack, he said.

"I think it's a tactic of the anti-science crowd, twisting the words of scientists," he said, "They make it so difficult and intimidating to talk to the media that they stop doing so. And then they penalize them for clarifying their positions."

Mann is not be among the 831 researchers that the IPCC named in late June to compile its fifth assessment report that will be released in sections in 2013 and 2014. He explained that his work at Penn State is keeping him plenty busy.

He has directed the university's Earth System Science Center since arriving at the State College campus in 2005. In addition, he is a co-founder and author of the award-winning science Web site RealClimate.org.

"It's a huge time commitment," he said, reflecting on the time he already invested in IPCC's paleoclimate findings. "This gives the next generation a chance to shape the next assessment."

He served as a lead author for a chapter on climate observations for the IPCC's third assessment report released in 2001. He also was a contributing author for three other chapters in that report.

"I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of," Mann said about his dedication to scientific pursuits. "I continue to do research, publish, advise students and teach. And I'm doing my best to defend myself, my science and the broader scientific community from this independently funded misinformation and smear campaign. That means my days are pretty full."

See Also

Greenpeace Says Climate Denialism a 20–Year Industry

'Sorry' State of Affairs: Climate Scientists Collecting Official Apologies from Attackers

Climate Scientists Cleared of Malpractice Accusations in Hacked Email Case

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