The Desperate But Effective Attempts to Silence Climate Scientists
By Jeremy Deaton
People play dirty when they can't win by playing fair. This is, more or less, the story of climate change denial in the U.S.
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.
Jonathan Overpeck. University of Arizona
The lawsuit has taken a hefty toll on Overpeck and Hughes. Overpeck said he spent six weeks of his sabbatical sorting through 90,000 pages of emails, explaining the case was a "grave distraction" from his work and family. Hughes spent an entire summer collecting emails, failed to attend to his work and lost a research grant as a result.
These injuries are temporary. More worrisome is the long-term effect that records requests have on research. Hughes noted that, due to his involvement in the case, other scientists have been reluctant to email him. While Hughes is nearing the end of this career, he said that, were he a young man, he would "consider a different line of work or another institution."
Even if E&E loses in the trial court—and it most likely will—the group will have nonetheless succeeded in bullying climate scientists. This, rather transparently, was the point. If E&E had concerns about the empirical rigor of climate research, it could have scrutinized the findings of specific studies. Instead of interrogating the final product, it went after the hastily scribed emails exchanged between colleagues.
Malcolm Hughes. University of Arizona
"I have taught, researched and administered in academia for more than 40 years and have not seen a time in which freedom of inquiry has been more needed, or more imperiled than it is now," Hughes wrote in a letter to University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan when E&E was working to obtain Mann's emails. "Nothing is more likely to quash the creativity of America's scientists than the ever-present ear of a hostile listener intent on finding, at all costs, the appearance of malfeasance. Nothing is more calculated to discourage research into topics that may challenge power interests."
Today, some states are enacting policies to protect scientists. Rhode Island and North Dakota recently passed laws guarding academic freedom. The Rhode Island statute specifically shields "drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers and work products" from open records requests. Kurtz hopes more states follow suit.
Climate scientists have an unlikely ally in the Trump administration.
At the federal level, the issue becomes more complicated. The legal protections that guard the emails of federally-funded climate scientists also shield government employees, including those working for the president. As a result, climate scientists have an unlikely ally in the Trump administration.
In 2015, the conservative nonprofit Judicial Watch made a FOIA request to obtain the emails of climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Judicial Watch has a history of harassing opponents with records requests—most notably Hillary Clinton. Its president, Tom Fitton, claimed the NOAA documents requested would show "the Obama administration put politics before science to advance global warming alarmism."
"This case is interesting because it was actually started under the Obama administration, but the Trump administration continued it, I think, because the Trump administration recognizes that it's important to maintain these open-records protections," said Kurtz.
The administration, though leaky, is notoriously secretive. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who regularly antagonizes climate scientists, recently installed a $25,000 soundproof booth in his office. Pruitt has also been sparing in his use of email, in part, as a response to a 2014 open-records request that revealed his close ties with the fossil fuel industry. "The Trump administration, I don't think, is eager to be turning things over under open-record laws," said Kurtz.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, at the Conservative Political Action Conference 2015. Gage Skidmore
The rationale for protecting scientists' emails from public disclosure is simple. FOIA was enacted to make government more transparent, but it also threatened to discourage open conversations among federal employees. Judges have interpreted the law to exclude these conversations from records requests—what's known as deliberative process privilege.
"The deliberative process privilege was designed to allow agency employees to have freedom to communicate with each other and toss around ideas and engage in devil's advocate debates and what-if arguments and really feel like they can be candid with each other," Kurtz said. "In addition, there's the rationale that people might toss out ideas that are later determined to be bad ideas and never implemented, and if you produce all those emails, it's really going to confuse the public."
The NOAA suit was settled in August. "The trial court judge agreed that the emails in the NOAA case were exactly the sort of emails that this deliberative process privilege was designed to protect," Kurtz said. Judicial Watch declined to appeal to the ruling.
As with the University of Arizona case, the damage was already done. If Judicial Watch had concerns about the empirical rigor of the NOAA study, it could have scrutinized the data, the method or the results—all of which were publicly available. But, the group didn't want to debate the merits of the science. Its goal was more specific.
Invasive records requests undermine scientific inquiry.
A 2015 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that researchers in numerous fields—public health, environmental science, genetic engineering—face attacks from groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum. The report explains that "individuals and well-heeled special interests across the political spectrum are increasingly using broad open records requests to attack and harass scientists." It warned that such tactics can "can curb the ability of researchers to pursue their work, chill their speech and discourage them from tackling contentious topics."
With climate change, there is evidence that this is already happening. A 2015 study found that climate scientists frequently downplay the gravity of their findings in response to harassment. Authors wrote that, " in response to constant, and sometimes toxic, public challenges, scientists have over-emphasized scientific uncertainty, and have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to affect how they themselves speak, and perhaps even think, about their own research." This erodes public understanding of science.
"We all lose when scientists self-censor due to continued harassment. We have a poorer understanding of the science and are less able to make good personal and policy decisions," said Michael Halpern, head of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Scientists will be more likely to keep their heads down and refuse to publicly engage or ask contentious research questions if they don't feel that their peers who are attacked are adequately protected."
How then do scientists balance privacy with transparency? Where is the line between confidentiality and obfuscation?
The Stand Up for Science Rally in Boston. Josh Landis
"We think it's totally appropriate to FOIA for funding information and conflict of interest information," Kurtz said. "When you're getting into research emails and candid communication, I think that's really harmful." She added, "Short of something where you have actual evidence of criminal fraud, I think those things should be protected."
FOIA is designed to give a window into the policymaking process, but science is already transparent. "When you're doing a peer-reviewed study, your peers are looking at your research and giving you feedback on it, and they are determining whether or not it is appropriate for publication," said Kurtz. Scientists must publish their data, their methods, their results, and they must disclose their source of funding .
"That sort of transparency is actually what you need to replicate the research, evaluate the research," said Kurtz. "That is not happening in the policymaking field where FOIA was originally designed to operate."
Lauren Kurtz. Nexus Media
Because science is transparent, it is also self-correcting. Researchers can interrogate, criticize and improve upon each others' work. In 2013, Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts made headlines when he found a number errors in an influential study authored by two Harvard economists. The paper showed that economic growth slows down in countries with high national debt, and it was used to justify austerity measures following the Great Recession. Herndon, 28, published a paper which called attention to the errors and refuted its conclusions about national debt.
This is how research works. Researchers evaluate and attempt to replicate the findings of their peers. They have every incentive to prove each other wrong. Herndon's work earned him the acclaim of serious economists, weeks of fawning press coverage and a star turn on The Colbert Report. Any person who could do the same for climate research would be similarly celebrated.
If E&E, Judicial Watch or any other groups were to find and publicize flaws in peer-reviewed climate research, they would be doing a public service. But, overwhelmingly, the data show that humans are driving the warming trend. So instead, right-wing groups go after emails, looking to defame scientists.
"Scientific transparency is obviously important," Kurtz said. "What we want to preclude is scientists having to live in a fish bowl."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.