Culture | March 24, 2017 at 12:46 pm

Inside the Climate Science Witch Hunts


As attorney general of Virgina, Ken Cuccinelli launched a civil investigation into a climate scientist’s use of taxpayer money.

Katharine Hayhoe is a Texan, an evangelical Christian, and a climate scientist. She’s on a mission to convince skeptics, many of whom share her faith, that climate change is not a liberal hoax. “Global Weirding,” a PBS-produced web series that Hayhoe hosts, addresses everything from climate science to the Bible, arguing among other things that Christians should take a stand on climate change. That, in part, explains the death threats.

But even before her show started, Hayhoe was the target of a cottage industry of climate skeptics. She came to prominence in early 2012, after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suddenly dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment—Hayhoe’s arguments affirming climate change caught the fury of Rush Limbaugh at the height of the Republican primaries.

That was when the Freedom of Information Act inquiries began. The conservative American Tradition Institute sent a FOIA to Texas Tech, where Hayhoe is a professor, requesting her email correspondence with specified journalists. She was also asked to turn over emails with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that defends climate scientists. “When you write a FOIA, it’s just a simple request,” Hayhoe told the HPR. “But the FOIAs I got were more like an arrest warrant.”

Hayhoe, like many scientists who are subject to similar inquiries, thinks the group was looking for embarrassing emails to use in political debate. “Their MO is you’re guilty, and you can never be proven innocent,” she said. “You have to scrutinize your thoughts before you express them [in email], because people will take one phrase, not even one sentence, completely out of context.”

“People can get very dogged in attacking climate scientists, and they can do things you would never think of,” Lauren Kurtz said in an interview with the HPR. She’s the director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, based out of Columbia University, which defends scientists like Hayhoe from legal attacks.

National FOIA legislation was signed by President Johnson in 1966, and similar FOIA laws are in place in all 50 states. These laws were passed to hold government agencies and officials accountable. But to some climate scientists, politically-motivated FOIA inquiries don’t do anything to increase transparency. Instead, they undermine scientists’ ability to do work.

“If I took a job somewhere else in Texas, I’m not interested in a job at another public university,” says Hayhoe. “I’m only interested in jobs at private universities now, because there’s a different standard over what’s released. It takes a huge amount of time to comb through your emails to find everything.”

Climate scientists across the spectrum are subject to aggressive legal inquiry, personal attacks, and physical threats. Climate change has entered the mainstream of national political debates—yet another divide between Democrats and Republicans—and support or denial of climate science has become another part of the party line. As a result, actual science is pushed to the side.

A Political Litmus Test

On July 28, 2003, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R – Okla.) took to the Senate floor to give a speech entitled “The Science of Climate Change.” He concludes with the thundering lines, “Wake up, America. With all the hysteria, all the fear, all the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? I believe it is.”

Inhofe, who has received $465,000 from the oil and gas industry since 2011, is one of the strongest Republican opponents of climate science in Congress. Along with Representative Lamar Smith (R – Tex.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Inhofe is setting the standard for conservative views on the subject.

“Climate change has become a litmus test issue of political identity,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M, in an interview with the HPR. “A Republican’s greatest weakness is a primary challenge from the right. You can’t deviate from the party norm. And that’s why, if you look around, you see a lot of reasonable Republicans, but they’re all out of office.”

Dessler believes that growing partisanship around climate change has led to debates that are no longer rooted in science. “You have these people, and if they show any deviation from the party line, they’ll get their head handed to them,” he said. “And you have people on the other side who are in basically the same situation.”

In 2012, Dessler received FOIA inquiries from the same group as Hayhoe. Although Dessler is adamant that he supports open records laws, and that it is relatively easy for him to respond to FOIA requests, he still finds these sorts of inquiries questionable. “When I write a paper, all of the information is in there. You can see exactly how I got to my conclusion,” Dessler said. “Clearly these open records request for science are done to find something embarrassing.”

“People don’t understand the process of peer review,” Hayhoe said. “If it’s peer reviewed, not only does that mean it’s in the public domain, it also means we have described what we have done in sufficient detail that anyone could reproduce what we did.” Emails, then, should reveal nothing of scientific importance.

For politicians on both sides of the aisle, however, investigations into climate scientists serve to reinforce their reputation. In 2015, the University of Alabama in Huntsville received a letter from Representative Raul Grijalva (D – Ariz.), asking for sweeping information about John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science and a prominent climate skeptic. “They had the view that if you had our type of information, you had to be paid under the table,” Christy told the HPR. Christy’s funding, by all reports, comes from state and federal sources.

“These kinds of personal and political attacks are terrible no matter who they’re directed towards,” Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, told the HPR. Emanuel is open about his disagreement with Christy—they’ve represented opposite sides in climate debates—but scientists seem largely united in their dislike of nonscientific tactics to discredit peer reviewed research. “There’s no better way to stop someone from doing whatever it is they do than to flood them with FOIA requests,” he said.

Behind the Attacks

“The wrath that’s being directed at climate scientists at root is not because people don’t respect the science or the scientists,” says Emanuel. “It is expressing a fear of what the solution to the problem might look like.” There is considerable anxiety among Republicans that climate change will undermine small-government conservatism. This leads think tanks and other groups to harass scientists, even if they don’t have backing from vested interests like the fossil fuel industry. The issue has moved beyond economics into a proxy war over ideology.

In 2015, Smith launched an investigation of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Kathryn Sullivan, alleging that NOAA scientists altered climate data in a landmark climate change study. Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator during President Obama’s second term, recalled the time as particularly contentious. “[Smith] handled himself in a very aggressive way,” McCarthy told the HPR. “It was very clear from the way he approached it that what he didn’t like was not the science, but the outcome of the science.”

Smith, who has received $95,050 from the oil and gas industry since 2015, keeps his investigations legal. Other skeptics have taken more extreme steps to discredit climate scientists.

In November 2009, a Climatic Research Unit server at the University of East Anglia was hacked. Hundreds of emails and other private documents from notable climate scientists were leaked online. The leak, dubbed “Climategate,” was seen by many skeptics as evidence that climate scientists doctored data. One email in particular caught their eye. It read, in part: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

Michael Mann, the “Mike” from the email and the Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, explains in his book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars that the sentence was taken out of context: “In reality, neither ‘trick’ nor ‘hide the decline’ was referring to recent warming, but rather the far more mundane issue of how to compare proxy and instrumental temperature records.” According to Mann and other scientists, “trick” simply refers to a clever approach to solving a problem.

After Climategate, Mann was subject to a congressional investigation, two independent inquiries from Penn State, EPA petitions, and a detailed investigation from the National Science Foundation. All found him innocent of any wrongdoing.

Although Climategate revealed that scientists needed to be more open with their data, it also exposed the extent to which the field had become politicized. It is true that environmental groups have some influence over politicians on the left, and that the fossil fuel industry has considerable lobbying power over the right. However, vested interests alone fail to explain the level of fury in political debate over climate science.

When illegal practices like email hacking become common, it reveals that more fundamental issues are at stake. A whopping 97 percent of climate scientists agree the Earth is warming as a result of human activity. Politicians are not inherently anti-science; instead, attempts to discredit climate scientists have become a tool to justify a particular small-government ideology. In the proxy war, that ideology matters more than science. “These are just ridiculous arguments that have moved on from what’s actually right,” says Dessler.

Letting Scientists do Science

After Climategate, Mann’s troubles had just begun. The attorney general of Virginia used the scandal as a launching point for a civil investigation of Mann’s use of taxpayer money when he was still a professor at the University of Virginia. These attacks were so serious and expensive that a new group was founded in 2011 to help support his defense: The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, now directed by Kurtz.

“At the time, a bunch of climate scientists were dealing with various lawsuits, the most prominent of which was Dr. Michael Mann,” said Kurtz. “Ken Cuccinelli, who was the attorney general [of Virginia], claimed that Michael Mann’s research was tantamount to fraud on taxpayers.” Eventually, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in Mann’s favor.

McCarthy is vocal about her support of Mann, but also defended John Christy’s research. To her, personal attacks on any scientist are harmful to climate research. “[These attacks] are really an attempt to silence a discussion that democracy relies on,” McCarthy said. “Scientists do disagree. I do not know any scientific exploration where there are not people who hold differing opinions.”

However, when it comes to crafting regulation, McCarthy assumes the scientific consensus. “Governance is not about getting unanimity of opinion. It’s about looking at the strength of the arguments,” she said. Policy, as McCarthy stresses, is different from science.

Meanwhile, science continues to come under attack. Last year, Malcolm Hughes, one of Mann’s colleagues, testified before an an Arizona trial court that repeated investigations have harmed his career: “I have been directly informed by several colleagues that they have limited their email communications with me because I have been targeted in public records requests,” he says. “This chilling effect is not merely theoretical but rather an actual and present harm.”

Politics is a question of philosophy. Because philosophy is grounded in deep, unanswerable questions—how do we govern ourselves? How do we maximize our freedom while preserving justice?—there is no definitive way to prove one political view is objectively correct. There are only arguments and counterarguments.

In the political sphere, science simply becomes another kind of argument. Some conservatives see climate science as a threat to limited government, so instinctively they make a counterargument. The actual science is an inconvenience, a weak point in the argument that can be covered up by quoting embarrassing emails. In the world of politics, scientists matter not because of their commitment to discovery, but because of their role as cannon fodder.

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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