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I coined the term "Serengeti Strategy" in my 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. It's meant to describe how industry special interests and their patrons in power single out individual researchers or teams of scientists for attack, in much the same way lions of the Serengeti single out an individual zebra from the herd. In numbers, after all, there is strength, while individuals and small groups are far more vulnerable—and the purpose is two-fold: to undermine the credibility of wider scientific consensus and to discourage other researchers from sticking out their necks and participating in the public discourse over matters of policy-relevant science.
When it comes to attacks on climate scientists specifically, this strategy follows a familiar script. On the eve of a critical Congressional vote, hearing or climate policy summit, a late-breaking "scandal" suddenly erupts. Individual scientists are typically charged with claims of misconduct, fraud or data manipulation and soon enough, right-wing blogs, climate-denying websites and the conservative establishment media are trumpeting the accusations. In time, more objective media outlets are forced to cover the uproar, lending it credibility and oxygen, even as it is responsibly dissected.
With the public conversation hijacked, meaningful progress on climate policy is blunted and the vested interests seeking to maintain our current addition to fossil fuels prevail.
The latest example of this strategy began unfolding earlier this month when David Rose, an opinion writer for the British tabloid The Daily Mail—known for misrepresentations of climate change and serial attacks on climate scientists—published a commentary attacking Tom Karl, the recently retired director of the National Centers for Environmental Information at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a scientist for whom I have deep respect. Rose accused Karl and his co-authors of having "manipulated global warming data" in a 2015 study published in the journal Science. These charges were built entirely on an interview with a single disgruntled former NOAA employee, John Bates.
Rose's charges and Bates' allegations have since withered under scrutiny by journalists—and by the wider scientific community, which quickly noted that the findings of the 2015 Science paper have been independently and repeatedly, verified by other researchers. Bates' secondary claims that data from the Science paper had not been properly archived and that it was "rushed" to publication, have also fallen apart.
Still, the mission of this latest disinformation campaign has been accomplished and with its mooring in technical details too remote for casual news consumers to fully investigate, the headlines will nonetheless create additional drag on any well-meaning efforts to address climate change.
As a climate scientist, I should know. I've found myself at the center of such episodes more than once, as a result of what's become known as the iconic "hockey stick" diagram that my co-authors and I had published in the late 1990s—a graphic display of the data that made plain the unprecedented rate of global warming. While the hockey stick is hardly the basis of the case for human-caused climate change, the visually compelling character of the graphic has made it—and indeed me—a target of climate change deniers for years.
A version of the so-called hockey-stick diagram, made famous by the author—and attacked by his critics.
In the fall of 2003, just days before a critical U.S. Senate resolution to acknowledge the threat of human-caused climate change, an article in the journal Energy & Environment—regarded by many as a haven for climate skeptics —engaged in unsubstantiated attacks of the hockey stick. A group with ties to the fossil fuel industry published an op-ed trumpeting those criticisms in USA Today on the morning of the Senate vote. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has described climate change as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," gleefully read the article aloud during the Senate floor debate. While the critique on the hockey stick would soon be summarily dismissed, it served the short-term purpose of hijacking the discussion and the bill did not pass.