There’s an old saying in legal circles that goes something like this: “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.”
Climate change deniers have vacillated between all these tactics in their quest to find a weakness that would kill the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change.
Contestation of scientific facts is often the first response of industries that see science as a threat. Climate denial began in earnest when the fossil fuel industry began recruiting minority-view scientists to “testify” as “expert witnesses” in the media that the Earth was not warming and that, even if it was, there was no evidence it was due to greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity.
This manufactured “scientific controversy” is still maintained by think tanks and the conservative media, even though scientific peer-reviewed literature contains no research that refutes the now almost universal scientific consensus that climate change is a real threat.
As the scientific evidence and consensus strengthened, climate deniers tried to discredit scientists. Their attacks were nasty and intimidating.
Researchers studying climate change, denial or policy have faced vexatious litigation, investigations and political interference.
Recently, I peer-reviewed a paper published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation”, by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues. The paper analysed blog posts and confirmed a link between conspiratorial thinking and the rejection of climate science. The journal received a barrage of complaints from climate deniers, and the bloggers discussed in the paper threatened to sue the journal for libel unless the paper was retracted.
In a move that shocked the scientific community, the journal retracted the paper even though it conceded it was academically and ethically sound. This prompted several of the journal’s editors to resign, angry that Frontiers had failed to defend academic freedom.
One group of deniers has already launched a new campaign to have another scientific paper co-authored by Lewandowsky retracted.
In an extreme case of intimidation in the US, the former Attorney-General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, launched a fraud investigation in 2010 against leading climate scientist Professor Michael Mann. Mann co-authored the now famous hockey stick graph that shows a dramatic increase in global warming since the mid-20th century is unprecedented in the past 1,000 years.
Cuccinelli ordered the University of Virginia (where Mann had been assistant professor) to hand over all data, emails, computer code and other information relating to research grants received by Mann.
After two years of legal stoushes, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Cuccinelli had demonstrated no reasonable basis to suspect fraud or demand any documents. This landmark victory for academic freedom cost the university a staggering $US600,000 in legal fees.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel-funded think tanks and conservative media continue to disparage scientific evidence about climate change, falsely claim scientific consensus is crumbling and repeat conspiracy theories about scientific fraud.
Individual academics have also been attacked privately. For example, Lawrence Torcello, a philosopher at the University of Rochester, received more than 700 abusive emails and phone calls following an article he recently published on The Conversation website in which he said corporate funding of climate denial was morally wrong and criminally negligent.
Two years ago, an investigation by The Canberra Times revealed dozens of climate scientists regularly received abusive emails, some of which contained death threats.
Australian Attorney-General George Brandis complains loudly that climate deniers are being “sidelined” but he has side-stepped the war on science that has defined the history of climate denial. All the table-pounding in the world won’t change the reality that climate denial is driven by vested interests and ideological warriors resolutely opposed to policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.