A Legal Defense Fund for Climate Scientists

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

A pair of scientists is trying to rally public support—and funding—to help other scientists fend off attacks from climate deniers. They've launched a legal defense fund to help individual scientists like Pennsylvania State University's Michael Mann deal with the sizable legal fees that have resulted from attempts to gain access to their emails and other correspondence.

Blue Marble readers are well apprised of these efforts—climate deniers have used every trick in the book to get their hands on scientists' emails, from attempting to subpoena them to filing lawsuits to stealing them. In the latest edition, a group called the American Tradition Institute—a "think tank" that promotes climate change denial—has filed both a Freedom of Information Act request demanding Mann's emails, and now a lawsuit to expedite the process.

After the FOIA request, Mann's previous employer, the University of Virginia, agreed to turn over some documents. The school said it would use whatever exemptions possible to withhold documents if they felt the release threatended academic freedom or confidentiality. Under the current agreement, though, ATI would still be able to review even the documents that are withheld from public release. Now Mann has intervened on his own behalf, as well as that of 39 other scientists whose email correspondence the group is trying to obtain, to try to protect some of those documents.

Mann has been a target of climate deniers for years, with their attacks focusing largely on the iconic hockey stick graph he developed showing the uptick in global temperatures over the last century. Last month, he was cleared of yet another allegation of misconduct in his climate research, this time by the National Science Foundation. If you count all the different investigations into climate scientists stemming from the so-called "Climategate" scandal and those into Mann alone, he's now been cleared eight times. But climate deniers still haven't relented.

Mann's personal legal fees are expected to run $10,000, which led Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at New York's Suffolk Community College, and John Abraham, a professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas, to launch a webpage last week to raise money for a "Climate Scientists Defense Fund." This would help cover the costs beyond the pro-bono work that a law firm is already doing for Mann.

And that's precisely what makes a lot of people really nervous about the UVA case. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Association of University Professors, the American Geophysical Union and Climate Science Watch have all expressed concern about the disclosure of personal emails between scientists, arguing that it jeopardizes academic freedom. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has also decried this type of attack on scientists, arguing that they that have created a "hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings." We already know that climate deniers are really good at taking scientists' emails and grossly distorting them for political gain. Using laws like the Freedom of Information Act and the courts to gain access to that kind of information sets a terrible precedent.

Which is why some scientists are rallying now to create this fund. It's currently a DIY operation, using PayPal to raise the money, but Mandia says he and Abraham want to build a nonprofit to keep the fund in place for the future. "Michael Mann needs the money now, but others are going to need it," he said.