Bullying climate change scientists

bhabib_thumbDr Ben Habib

E-mail: b.habib@latrobe.edu.au


The recent spate of threats against climate change scientists in Australia is an act of tactical ineptitude from the climate sceptic movement, which only serves to highlight the weakness of the sceptic position on climate change in the face overwhelming contrary evidence.

Recent media reports have exposed intimidatory emails sent to over thirty climate scientists at universities across Australia, including profanity-laced rants and death threats against prominent academics including Professor Will Steffen at Australian National University, David Karoly at the University of Melbourne and Andy Pitman from the University of New South Wales. 

This echoes a worrying trend of threats made against climate scientists in Great Britain and the United States.  Anna-Maria Arabia, CEO of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies, has suggested these emails are part of an orchestrated campaign by climate denial lobby groups. 

As with the actions of any bully, it helps to explore what these people are trying to achieve through their acts of intimidation.  Presumably, they wish to scare climate scientists away from making public statements about the severity of the climate change threat.  If they can monopolise media airspace, they can spread doubt among the lay public about the disruptive human hand in the Earth’s climate system, and specifically, to mobilise public opinion against government policies to price carbon.

Regardless of whether this is an orchestrated campaign or the actions of a few lone nuts, the threats made against climate scientists are having the opposite effect of their intended goal.  If anything, this intimidation is galvanising not only those researchers involved in climate studies but the entire academic community and made them more likely to engage in the public debate over climate science and policy. 

Threats against climate scientists make the wider sceptic movement look desperate.  It suggests that climate sceptics are attempting to advance their agenda from a position of weakness, a weakness that stems from the flimsy evidentiary base of their intellectual position.  The misrepresentation of academic studies and outright fraudulence perpetrated by prominent climate sceptics has been well documented by scholars such as Naomi Oreskes and Ian Enting, among others.  It is not surprising that intimidation is becoming the stock in trade of the sceptic movement as more light is shone on their dubious methods of argumentation.

In particular, death threats against climate scientists make the sceptic movement look extreme.  Psychological warfare of this kind is usually the province of criminals, terrorists and totalitarian regimes.  It is ironic that the climate sceptic movement can on one hand accuse climate action advocates of being “communists” while on the other practicing acts of psychological terror which would not have been out of place in Stalinist Russia.  While the large majority of Australian citizens may be unfamiliar with scientific process and the academic tradition, they will have no trouble spotting the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of thuggery.

These desperate, reprehensible threats against academics also devalue the credibility of climate change scepticism as an intellectual argument.  Quite simply, if climate sceptics had the weight of evidence on their side, they would not have to resort to such crass tactics of intimidation to advance their agenda.

What the intimidation of climate scientists instead highlights is the flimsy epistemological foundation of the sceptic position. 

In any field of inquiry, the highest quality information sources are found in literature that has undergone peer review.  To pass through peer review, a publication is judged to have reached its conclusions through coherent reasoning and sound method, based on a solid theoretical understanding of its given field.

Only a very small number of works published by climate sceptics appear in the peer reviewed literature.  By contrast, there have been thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers published by scientists around the world, conducting independent research across numerous scientific disciplines.  This body of research broadly concludes that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have steadily increased since the industrial revolution due to human activity, which is affecting the global climate system in increasingly intense and erratic ways.

The threats against members of the academic community engaged in climate research confirm what is already obvious from a cursory glance at the academic literature: the sceptic position is at best incorrect and at worst duplicitous, in contrast to the human-induced climate change explanation agreed upon by a majority of the global scientific community.

Dr Ben Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga