Scientists tend to be inoffensive people who tinker away at esoteric studies in quiet labs, only emerging to make very careful and boring arguments in dense journals. Most scientists struggle to ever get the public’s attention, and yet there’s a group of scientists who can’t stay out of the spotlight. Because due to populism and general 2019 idiocy, climate scientists have become the public's favourite scapegoat.
We've believed in weather reports for centuries but now right-leaning governments and electorates are calling bullshit. And not just bullshit, but conspiracy. People are claiming that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the left, and only deniers and altruistic oil corporations can save us from the lies. And so deniers do their bit by sending aggressive, weirdly punctuated emails to the very scientists they once trusted.
To get a sense of what climate scientists are dealing with, we asked them about the most concerning threats they’ve received. Most had been dealing with abusive emails for years, but a few had recently called the police. Here’s what they said:
Sarah Perkins- Kirkpatrick is an Australian climate scientist at the University of NSW, whose work explores climate extremes and heat waves
I’m not what a lot of people would consider as a "typical scientist". I’m young, female and I have children. I’m currently pregnant with my second child, and I’m often in the media saying how I fear for the future, and how it’s very unfair that our children are going to inherit such a shitty world because they don’t deserve that. But there are these climate deniers who come back and always say the same thing: that is, you don’t deserve to have children and you’re the one creating this shitty world for them.
Pretty much every media appearance I do, I receive some kind of abuse from climate deniers. The emails usually come from people 50 years or older—just old people in their own echo chambers with lots of time because they’re retired. They’re usually always all male too, and sometimes even well educated—not in climate change, but they’ll be retired engineers, physicists, things like that. This one man sent me all these sexist and misogynist emails has a whole website about conspiracies. Here’s one of his emails:
At the UNSW, where I work, our admin people often vet the emails or letters before passing them onto us. Occasionally people show up to our offices as well, and demand to speak to me, or they phone though and our admin team has to deal with them.
As a result of all this aggression, and the subsequent fear, there are a lot of climate scientists who won’t communicate with the public. This means a lot of scientists become invisible, relative to how many there really are, just because they don’t want to be attacked.
In my personal life, I’ve become much more cautious about the information I present online. My Facebook is set on private and I won’t put my work phone number up. But in my professional life, I take it as a bit of a challenge. It’ll inspire me to communicate messages differently, and to use different analogies, things like that. Climate change denialism has really helped to shape how I deliver my messages.
Professor Michael Mann is an American climatologist, and the author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars
I think I brush off most threats, except one, which couldn’t be ignored. What happened was that on August 18, 2010, I had to explain to colleagues in the Penn State University meteorology department why there was police tape all over my office door. The immediate answer was that the FBI had quarantined the room after I received a letter filled with Anthrax-like white powder.
But at a more basic level, the answer was that was simply what it means to be a prominent figure in the climate change movement today.
Here’s just one example of the sort of emails I can receive:
Subject: 6 feet
under, with the roots is were you should be doin your magic, how come know 1 has beat the livin piss out of you yet,i was hopin i would see the news and you commited suicide, Do it.freak
Kevin Trenberth is a distinguished senior scientist at NCAR—the National Center for Atmospheric Research in New Zealand
I have a whole folder of abusive emails I’ve received from deniers, usually with a lot of extremely foul and aggressive language. And while I don’t usually take these emails personally, I know some of my colleagues have been profoundly affected. But perhaps the bigger effect is how funding for climate science has suffered under the US Republican Congress. So I guess deniers have had some influence in that way.
This is a fairly classic example of the stuff I get on a regular basis:
Professor David Karoly is an Australian atmospheric scientist, currently based at the CSIRO
I’ve received quite a number of abusive emails and death threats. There was a period there, when the Labor party were trying to implement an emissions reduction scheme and the climate denier attacks were really strong. At the time a couple of denier groups were determined to stop climate scientists from engaging with the media, or to stop us from supporting the federal government’s action.
I received this very specific death threat via email, and the police traced it to a person in Queensland, but they couldn’t lay charges as there was no realistic way the email presented an imminent threat. But as a result the university made a few recommendations about how I could keep myself safe.
I was told to not follow the same route to work and to get a silent phone number. I’d previously listed my name and address in the phone book but that was all taken out. And the university recommended that I get an office behind locked doors that students couldn’t access. Also my phone number and room number were removed from every notice board around the uni. I had a blank room number, and visitors had to go to reception in my building and reception wouldn’t give out my room number to anyone who asked.
This probably continued until I left Melbourne Uni a year ago. It started in 2010 and essentially continued for eight years. Now I’m as the CSIRO and it’s even more secure as it’s a Commonwealth research facility.
I’ve seen people receive these aggressive and threatening emails that are really disturbing. I know one postgraduate research fellow, for example, who had to take six months off on stress-leave after receiving threatening emails. It can definitely make some scientists want to be more careful about what they do, who they engage with, and if they give public talks.
But then I think I have another perspective on it, and that’s when dealing with the countless abuse and threats from deniers—it says to me that climate change science is an important issue to the community. I think that the fact people want to silence our message is an incentive for some scientists, myself included. And because it’s such an important debate, I think it’s necessary that people are appropriately prepared to continue to battle as hard as they can, and to communicate the best possible information about climate change science, and as widely and as frequently as possible. That’s my approach. I see the continued climate change denialism as an incentive to do more.
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