The Dangers of Being a Scientist

In which occupations would you expect to be threatened with murder?

Soldiers, at the front lines of combat zones, are an obvious example. Police officers would often qualify, too. Even high-ranking government officials put their safety at risk – just look at the number of American presidents that have been assassinated. Gang leaders and drug dealers, if they can be called “occupations”, would be high on the list.

What about scientists?

They don’t spend their days suppressing violent criminals. Although they’ll occasionally speak to the media, they could hardly be called public or political figures. Their job is to learn about the world, whether they sit in a lab and crunch numbers or travel to the Antarctic and drill ice cores. Not exactly the kind of life where threats to personal safety seem likely.

Nevertheless, top climate scientists around the world have been receiving death threats for over a year now. This violent hate campaign recently reached Australia, where, as journalist Rosslyn Beeby writes, “Several universities…have been forced to upgrade security to protect scientists.”

Their names have been deleted from staff directories. One scientist’s office cannot be found by without photo identification and an official escort; another has a “panic button”, installed on advice of police.

Some researchers have installed advanced home security systems, and made their home addresses and phone numbers unlisted. They have deleted their accounts on social media sites. All because some people feel so threatened by the idea of human-caused climate change that they’d rather attack the scientists who study the problem than accept its reality and work to fix it.

In the United States, such threats to climate scientists are commonplace, but the hate speech is protected by the American freedom of speech laws, so there isn’t much police can do. The situation isn’t quite as widespread in the UK, although several scientists have been excessively targeted due to the “Climategate” campaign.

Nobody has been hurt, at least not yet. However, many researchers receive regular emails threatening murder, bodily harm, sexual assault, property damage, or attacks on family members. One anonymous scientist had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. A young Australian woman who gave a speech at a library about carbon footprints had the words “Climate Turd” written in feces on her car.

Several American scientists say that the threats pick up whenever right-wing talk show hosts attack their reputations. It’s common for Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh to single out climate scientists as socialist frauds, or some variation of the sort. However, knowing that the more extreme viewers of Fox News will watch these baseless attacks and, subsequently, whip off threats of murder in emails to the scientists involved, is unsettling, to say the least.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some people who deny the reality of climate change are also denying the reality of these violent threats. In Australia, the Liberal spokesperson for science, Sophie Mirabella, stated that “the apparently false allegation of death threats have diminished the individuals involved and reflect poorly on the scientific community”. In some ironic twist of logic, the victims of hate crimes are now receiving even more public battering of their reputations, simply because they reported these crimes. There’s no way to win.

We can only hope that these threats will subside with time, and that nobody will get hurt in the process. We can only hope that governments and police agencies will take the threats seriously and pursue investigations. However, once climate change becomes so obvious that even extremists can’t deny it, we will all face a greater danger: the impacts of climate change itself. We can only hope that these hate crimes don’t frighten scientists into staying silent – because their knowledge and their voices might be our only chance.

References:

1) Beeby, Rosslyn. “Climate of fear: scientists face death threats.” The Canberra Times, 4 June 2011.
2) Beeby, Rosslyn. “Change of attitude needed as debate overheats.” The Canberra Times, 14 June 2011.
3) Hickman, Leo. “US climate scientists receive hate mail barrage in wake of UEA scandal.” The Guardian, 5 July 2010.

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The Rest of the World

Here in North America, we are surrounded with rhetoric denouncing the feasibility of climate change mitigation. It’s not possible to reduce our emissions, people say. It’s not worth it.

The situation in the U.S. Congress regarding this issue is becoming so bizarre that hopes for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have grown faint. Without the U.S. on board, many countries (see: Canada) will bail out entirely.

Not all countries are waiting for everyone else, however. Many developed countries, particularly in Europe, have gone ahead and achieved significant cuts in their emissions. Let’s take a step out of the little bubble of North America and see what the rest of the world managed to do while we bickered about whether or not there was even a problem.

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Countries: the European Union (EU), representing most of Europe

Emission Targets: 20% below 1990 levels by 2020

How They’ll Get There: The EU started a cap-and-trade system in 2005. They also plan to target energy efficiency and develop the use of renewable energy.

How They’re Doing : The total emissions of the EU have declined slightly since 1990. This is partly because many Eastern European countries are still transitioning from communism, and their emissions are fairly low while their economies recover. However, some rich countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the UK have made significant cuts in their emissions, and, as of 2008, were already around 10-20% below 1990 levels.

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Country: the United Kingdom (UK)

Emission Targets: 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2012, as per their Kyoto targets. Through their Climate Change Acts, the UK has also set a goal of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

How They’ll Get There: The government is aiming for 40% of their energy to come from low-carbon sources (both renewable and nuclear). They are also focusing on efficiency, and planning a cap-and-trade system.

How They’re Doing: The UK is well on track to meet, and even exceed, their Kyoto agreements. By 2010, their emissions were predicted to be 11% below their Kyoto targets.

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Country: Norway

Emission Targets: Norway has some of the most ambitious targets in the world. Not only are they aiming for emissions to be 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, they are planning a carbon-neutral economy – 100% cuts – by 2050. If a major international agreement comes to pass, like Copenhagen was supposed to be, they will pledge for carbon neutrality by 2030.

How They’ll Get There: In addition to their cap and trade system, Norway is investing a lot of money into carbon capture and storage (CCS). They have also introduced taxes on natural gas and stricter efficiency standards for new houses.

How They’re Doing: Norway’s emissions have increased by 8% since 1990. Hopefully their extensive plans will reverse that trend.

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Country: Australia

Emission targets: If an international agreement comes to pass, Australia will reduce their emissions to 25% below 2000 levels by 2020. Otherwise, they will shift that target to 5-15%. Normally, using a baseline that’s later than the standard 1990 is a warning sign, a clever trick that governments use to make their targets look stricter than they are (see: Canada). However, since Australia’s emissions fell slightly between 1990 and 2000, the equivalent target with respect to 1990 is actually more than 25%.

How They’ll Get There: The Australian Parliament has had difficulty passing cap-and-trade legislation. They are hoping to implement this eventually, but will focus on energy efficiency and renewables in the mean time.

How They’re Doing: Originally, Australia refused to sign Kyoto, but in 2007 a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was elected. He committed the country to Kyoto targets, just a little late. So far, it looks like Australia will easily meet their targets of 8% over 1990 levels by 2012.

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Country: Japan

Emission targets: Japan has set solid targets of 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050.

How They’ll Get There: Japan has a cap-and-trade system, and is considering a carbon tax. They also want 10% of their energy to come from renewables by 2020.

How They’re Doing: Japan’s emissions have increased slightly since 1990. As of 2008, they were about 6% above 1990 levels.

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Country: Canada

Emission targets: The Canadian government has pledged to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. However, emissions in 2005 were quite a bit higher than they were in 1990. When you adjust this estimate to the standard baseline, it’s actually a 2.5% increase. The Environment Canada website describes this as an “ambitious target”. Go figure!

How They’ll Get There: So far, the Canadian government has tightened up fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, but that’s about it. The current administration refuses to consider meaningful action until the United States does. In fact, the House of Commons recently passed a bill setting meaningful emission targets (20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050)…but the Senate, which has a Conservative majority, voted the bill down with absolutely no debate. Given the fact that Senators are appointed by Prime Ministers, not elected by citizens, it’s hard to see this action as anything less than anti-democratic.

How They’re Doing:By 2008, Canadian emissions had soared to 24% above 1990 levels.

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This data almost makes me feel ashamed to be Canadian, to be a part of such an obstructionist country. Look at what countries in Europe have managed to do. It wasn’t impossible, like so many North American politicians warned. And then look at countries like the United States and Canada, that have not only failed to reduce their emissions, but have actively worked against any kind of a plan to do so.

Future generations will not look on us kindly. We will become the villains of our own history books.

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Update: By popular request:

Country: United States of America

Emission targets: None

How They’ll Get There: Despite not having a formal target for emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to regulate emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants and refineries in late December. The Republican Party is resorting to all sorts of silliness to try to change this.

How They’re Doing: As of 2008, US emissions were 14% above 1990 levels.

Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World

Even if you don’t have any intention of reading the new book by Prince Charles of Wales, it’s almost worth buying a copy just to admire it. Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World is beautifully bound, with thick, glossy pages full of photographs that take you on a visual journey of the natural and architectural wonders of the world. Some, like the two-page spread of a humpback whale breaching, are joyful; others, such as the carcass of a young albatross, its digestive tract stuffed with plastic debris, are distressing.

The actual contents of the book were unique, but compelling. Rather than focusing on a particular issue and discussing it in depth, Prince Charles swept through just about every discipline you’d find in a modern university – agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…and that’s only the A’s. This broad approach could easily have fallen into confusing disconnect, but he managed to connect each subject with what he referred to as a “golden thread”: a philosophical principle emphasizing the importance of following patterns seen in nature, and not trying to overwhelm or conquer it.

This approach is not really a “new way of looking at the world”, as the subtitle proclaims – in fact, it predates the dominant practice of Western society. For example, among indigenous civilizations that have modestly endured for many thousands of years, “not one…considers itself to be a master of creation”. Compare that to today’s industrialized society, which is only a few centuries old, and already views nature as a huge machine composed of independent parts which we can tweak at our will, rather than as a complex, dynamic system.

Prince Charles makes both emotional and scientific arguments to support his message, but he emphasizes the emotional ones first. I found this framing to be a turnoff, especially in the first chapter, which began, “This is a call to revolution. The Earth…is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen,” and continued from there. I couldn’t really take this narrative seriously, as I hadn’t yet heard his rational arguments, so the opening seemed far too dramatized. Perhaps others will find the initial appeals to emotion more effective than graphs and citations, but I was not impressed by them.

The meat of the book, however, was far better. Prince Charles explored a wide array of fascinating subjects that never managed to bore me. From the mathematical relationships found in the biosphere, to the importance of agricultural crop diversity in a changing climate, to the fascinating stream of engineering known as biomimicry, to the history of Islamic architecture…they may seem unrelated, but in fact all lead back to the importance of sustainability, in every sense of the word, and the incredible wisdom and beauty that can be found in nature.

The major flaw of Harmony, in my opinion, was the frequency of Prince Charles’ self-promotion. It seemed like nearly every second page contained a sentence similar to “(this particular problem) is very significant…and that is why I decided to start (some charity) to address it.” I think it’s wonderful that such a powerful and prolific figure is supporting projects for sustainability, but a better approach would have been to include an appendix of his charities at the end of the book. That way, the writing would have been less about him, and more about what he had to say.

There were also some obvious errors in the book, more serious than simple typos. 22 does not follow 13 in the Fibonacci Sequence, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is not 24.5º (at least not at present). I expect these errors will be fixed in future editions.

The text’s discussion of climate change was fairly standard – think Al Gore’s slideshow, condensed into a few pages – but nonetheless very accurate and effective. There were some brief forays into paleoclimate which I enjoyed, too. Climate change was not the focus of this book, it was instead presented as a piece of a larger picture, but I appreciated the clarity with which it was addressed.

Although the scientific side of my mind is hyper-vigilant when I read nonfiction, I can relate to the deep affinity and spirituality people feel for the natural world. Nothing builds a sense of kinship like being out in the wilderness and recognizing how much smarter other species can be, in their own ways, than human beings. Nothing feels quite as healing as the quiet awe that strikes when a deer steps out onto the path ahead, or the joy and laughter that inevitably follow from watching songbirds. Nothing builds acceptance of the phenomenon of death like witnessing its omnipresence and necessity in any functioning ecosystem.

We could fill libraries with the economic, scientific, and health benefits of preserving nature in all its integrity. When it comes down to it, though, nature keeps us sane in the crazy world we have created for ourselves, and these emotional reasons are just as strong, if not stronger.

So What Happened with ClimateGate?

Remember back in December, when the news was buzzing each day about the stolen emails from top climate researchers? They were described as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming”, or worse. Apparently, the scientists had written things that severely compromised the underpinnings for the idea that human activity was causing the Earth to warm. We could now all stop worrying and forget about cap-and-trade.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. There were no less than four independent investigations into the contents of these emails – conducted by scientists, universities, and governments, not general reporters rushing off a story about an area of science with which they were unfamiliar, and trying to make it sound interesting and controversial in the process.

So what did these investigations find? Is the Earth still warming? Are humans still responsible? Can we trust the scientific process any more, or should we throw peer-review out the window and practice Blog Science instead?

Actually, all four of the investigations concluded that absolutely no science was compromised by the contents of the emails. The CRU scientists weren’t as good as they should have been about making data easily accessible to others, but that was the only real criticism. These scientists are not frauds, although they are accused of it on a daily basis.

Pennsylvania State University, over a series of two reports, investigated the actions of their employee, Dr. Michael Mann, who is arguably at the top of the field of paleoclimatology. They found that, contrary to most accounts in the mainstream media, he did not hide or manipulate any data to exaggerate global warming, delete any emails that might seem suspicious and be subject to Freedom of Information requests, or unjustly suppress skeptical papers from publication. After a second investigation, following up on the catch-all accusation of “seriously deviating from accepted practices within the academic community”, Penn State exonerated Mann. They criticized him for occasionally sharing unpublished manuscripts with his colleagues without first obtaining the express permission of the authors, but besides that minor (and somewhat unrelated) reprimand, they found absolutely nothing wrong.

The British House of Commons investigated the actions of CRU director Phil Jones, and came to a similar conclusion. They found that his “actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community”, that he was “not part of a systematic attempt to mislead” or “subvert the peer review process”, and that “the focus on CRU….has been largely misplaced”. They criticized CRU’s lack of openness with their data, but said that the responsibility should lie with the University of East Anglia, which CRU is a part of. So these scientists should really catch up to the climate research team at NASA, for example, which publishes all of their raw data, methodologies, and computer codes online, with impeccable archives.

The University of East Anglia conducted their own investigation into the actions of CRU as a whole. They found no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda”, and asserted thatallegations of deliberate misrepresentation and unjustified selection of data are not valid”. They also explored the lack of transparency in CRU, but were more sympathetic. “CRU accepts with hindsight”, they write, “that they should have devoted more attention in the past to archiving data and algorithms and recording exactly what they did. At the time the work was done, they had no idea that these data would assume the importance they have today and that the Unit would have to answer detailed inquiries on earlier work.” They also note that CRU should not have had to respond to Freedom of Information requests for data which they did not own (such as weather station records).

Just last week, the final investigation, headed by Sir Muir Russell on behalf of UEA, found that “their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.” Is this starting to seem a bit repetitive? To illustrate their point, over the course of two days, they independently reconstructed the global temperature record using publicly available data, and came to the same conclusion as CRU. Again, there was the criticism that CRU was not as open as it should have been. They also noted that an obscure cover figure for a 1999 World Meteorological Organization report, constructed by Phil Jones, did not include enough caveats about what was proxy data and what was instrumental data. However, the more formally published, and much more iconic, graphs in Mann 98 and the IPCC TAR, were fine.

There have been some great comments on the results of these investigations since they were released, especially by scientists. Here are some samples:

[The CRU researchers] are honest, hardworking scientists whose reputations have been unjustifiably smeared by allegations of unscrupulous behaviour…I hope that the media will devote as much attention to this comprehensive dismissal of the allegations as it did to promoting the hysteria surrounding the email theft in the first place. Will the Daily Telegraph now retract its claim that the emails revealed “the greatest scientific scandal of our age” and apologize unreservedly to Phil Jones? Will there now be a public inquiry about the erroneous, shallow and repetitive nonsense promulgated in the media over this affair? If there is a scandal to be reported at all, it is this: the media stoked a controversy without properly investigating the issues, choosing to inflate trivialities to the level of an international scandal, without regard for the facts or individuals affected. This was a shameful chapter in the history of news reporting. -Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts

The call for greater transparency and openness among scientists and their institutions is necessary and welcomed, but certainly they aren’t the only ones who deserve that reminder. What institution on the planet would pass muster under such intense scrutiny? Certainly not the U.S. government agencies, which often deny or impede FOIA requests, or global corporations like BP, Massey Energy and Koch Industries, which seem to revel in hiding information from the public all the time. More transparency is needed everywhere, not just among scientists in lab coats. -Brendan DeMelle, freelance journalist, DeSmogBlog

[The Muir-Russell report] makes a number of recommendations for improvements in processes and practices at the CRU, and so can be taken as mildly critical, especially of CRU governance. But in so doing, it never really acknowledges the problems a small research unit (varying between 3.5 to 5 FTE staff over the last decade) would have in finding the resources and funding to be an early adopter in open data and public communication, while somehow managing to do cutting edge research in its area of expertise too. -Steve Easterbrook, computer science professor at the University of Toronto

I agree with these statements. I think that we are holding scientists in general, but especially climate scientists, to a far higher standard than any other group of people in the world. We need to relax a bit and realize that scientists make mistakes, and that innocent mistakes are not evidence of fraud that will bring a long-standing theory tumbling down. We need to realize that scientists are employees like any others, who don’t always follow ideal actions in every professional situation, especially when they are under intense pressure that includes death threats and accusations of criminal activity.

However, at the same time, we need to start holding other groups of people, especially journalists, to a higher standard. Why has the media been able to get away with perpetuating serious allegations without first investigating the what really happened, and without publishing explicit retractions and apologies when the people whose reputations they smeared are found innocent? Why haven’t there been four official investigations into who stole these emails, and why?

Illogic

Here’s a great quote from a great article posted on the Nation. Thanks to Tim Lambert for the link.

Yet when it comes to coverage of global warming, we are trapped in the logic of a guerrilla insurgency. The climate scientists have to be right 100 percent of the time, or their 0.01 percent error becomes Glaciergate, and they are frauds. By contrast, the deniers only have to be right 0.01 percent of the time for their narrative–See! The global warming story is falling apart!–to be reinforced by the media.