Scientists decry political assaults on climate researchers

Over 250 of the nation's top scientists have joined together to denounce political intimidation of climate researchers as "McCarthy-like" tactics; they call for immediate action to address the causes of climate change.

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Fifteen Stanford faculty members joined in signing a letter denouncing political intimidation of climate researchers.

Fifteen Stanford faculty members are among the 255 prominent scientists who signed a letter published in the May 7 issue of Science that decries "the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular." The signers are all members of the National Academy of Sciences and 11 of them are Nobel laureates.

Many of the recent attacks on climate science and scientists are "driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence," according to the letter.

"The scientists have finally decided to come out of the ivory tower and fight back," said Stephen Schneider, professor of biology and senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. The move was triggered by "a pent-up anger at the mis-framing of climate science itself and the motives of climate scientists," he said.

Schneider said that most of the signers of the letter are not climate researchers, but they were sufficiently disturbed by the nature of the attacks – some leveled by members of Congress – that they felt compelled to speak out.

Statements by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), accusing climate scientists of fraud and calling 17 of them – including Schneider – potential “criminals”, helped provoke the response, Schneider said. "I have never seen my staid colleagues so angry," he said.

L.A. Cicero Harold Mooney

Harold Mooney, professor of biological sciences and signer of the letter, checks an experiment on native plants at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

The scientists' letter calls for "an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo … and the outright lies being spread about them." Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a congressional investigation into the influence of the Communist Party in the United States in the 1950s. That investigation is now generally considered to have been a "witch hunt" that leveled unsubstantiated accusations at members of the labor movement, the film industry, the federal government and the U.S. Army.

Inhofe has claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore, is a deliberate fraud. He has called for investigations of possible violations of federal law by some climate researchers.

The Nobel committee awarded the prize to the panel and Gore "for efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

Although all the signers of the letter are members of the National Academy of Sciences, the letter has no official connection with the academy. The academy provides science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

An accompanying editorial by a deputy editor at Science said that "unfortunately, many news organizations have eviscerated their science staffs" and, as a result, scientists will have to "aggressively" communicate the nature of their work to the public. Otherwise, "the scientific enterprise and the whole of society are in danger of losing their crucial rational relationship." 

The researchers initially tried to get the letter published as an editorial in several major newspapers, Schneider said. 

"They tried the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today," he said. "None of them took it."

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Copenhagen last year, disappointed many researchers by failing to produce a binding international agreement to combat climate change. 

"I would like to see that the next meeting, coming up this year in Mexico, is not a repeat of Copenhagen," said Rodolfo Dirzo, professor of biology and another signer of the letter. "The only way I see some potential in this year's not being the same is to have an informed, engaged society on the planet's side."

"What we need in our social contract is for the scientists to be able to honestly communicate risk so society can do the due diligence of risk management," Schneider said. "How do they do that in this cacophony of lies and spin from the fossil fuel industry and ideologues who oppose government regulation in principle?"

 The letter closes by noting that society can choose to ignore the science and hope to get lucky, or act quickly to substantively reduce the threat of global climate change: "But delay must not be an option."

Louis Bergeron, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, louisb3@stanford.edu