Climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck. Photo: University of Arizona

By Jeremy Deaton
28 September 2017

(NexusMedia) – People play dirty when they can’t win by playing fair. This is, more or less, the story of climate change denial in the United States.

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are altering the climate, reaping changes with potentially catastrophic consequences. Climate deniers can’t dispute the data. They can’t win on facts. Instead, they impugn the credibility of scientists, a tactic which has proved both ugly and effective.

Right-wing groups are using open records laws to obtain scientists’ emails, and then misrepresenting the content of those emails to question the integrity of researchers and cast doubt on their findings, all of which has a chilling effect on scientific inquiry. But scientists have earned powerful allies in the fight to protect their research — including, by a strange set of circumstances, the Trump administration.

“Climategate” led to a wave of harassment.

The current spate of invasive records requests back to “Climategate,” a 2009 controversy that erupted when a hacker obtained more than 1,000 emails sent and received by climatologists at East Anglia university in the United Kingdom. Parts of some emails, taken out of context, suggested scientists had manipulated data to exaggerate the warming trend.

Climate deniers harped on the leaks to paint climate scientists as ideologically motivated and dishonest. Though an official inquiry into the matter exonerated scientists, the damage was already done. Their calls for universities to investigate climate scientists prompted institutional probes that hampered research efforts. Today, conservative advocacy groups point to “Climategate” when making open records requests.

“I think anyone who looks at the whole ‘Climategate’ manufactured controversy understands now that it’s bogus, but that’s the rationale that they’ve used,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit working to protect researchers threatened by legal attacks.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E), a conservative think tank with ties to coal and oil companies, cited “Climategate” as the impetus for its “transparency project.” In 2011, the group sued to obtain more than 10,000 emails written or received by Michael Mann, a researcher at the University of Virginia and one of the scientists implicated in “Climategate.” The Virginia Supreme Court sided with Mann, who lamented the “coordinated assault against the scientific community by powerful vested interests.”

That same year, E&E requested more than a decade of emails from University of Arizona climate scientists Jonathan Overpeck and Malcolm Hughes, another researcher ensnared by “Climategate.” E&E’s legal brief alleged there is a “climate scientific-technological elite” which has “behaved badly” in the past, a reference to “Climategate.” In a gesture of surprising candor, E&E acknowledged that it was searching for emails to “embarrass both Professors Hughes and Overpeck,” whom it characterized as “academic climate alarmists.” That suit continues to this day.

The University of Arizona case volleyed back and forth between the trial court and the appellate court, which recently determined the trial court had failed to consider a statute that protects “unpublished research data, manuscripts, preliminary analyses, drafts of scientific papers” and other documents produced by researchers at Arizona public universities.

Now the case will go back to the trial court, which will reevaluate the records request in light of this statute. The ruling is a pyrrhic victory for researchers and the university, who must dedicate even more time and money to fighting off E&E. “That’s basically as good as we could have hoped for,” Kurtz said. Even when scientists win, they lose. [more]

The Desperate But Effective Attempts to Silence Climate Scientists

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