What is the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund?

'Would gravity be overturned if we could see Sir Isaac Newton’s personal letters?' -- Scott Mandia

The Cavalry Arrives

A year ago Professors Scott Mandia and John Abraham witnessed with growing dismay burgeoning legal attacks on scientists performing climate related research. Mandia and Abraham had discussed for some time how they might help defray legal costs incidental to inconvenient research results being borne by scientists; the pair were catalyzed into action upon learning that Dr. Michael Mann was dipping into personal funds to defend himself against a litigious fishing expedition by the extremist anti-regulatory American Tradition Institute. Mandia and Abraham crystallized their thinking into concrete form and action with the inception of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF).

Launching the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund required a conjunction of several key parts: the idea of formally organizing a combat fund, initiative to put thoughts into action, and most importantly the right people to start the process. John Abraham is the celebrated veteran of a prolonged verbal skirmish with the eccentric yet CSDF Logocuriously influential Christopher Monckton. Scott Mandia shares with Abraham the distinction of being threatened with a lawsuit by Monckton, a campaign ribbon in the weird world war of climate reality versus climate fantasy.

Within 24 hours of Climate Science Legal Defense Fund's announcement over $10,000 dollars were raised for the cause of allowing Michael Mann to proceed with his research with less distraction and worry. This wouldn't have been possible without the bona fides brought to the project by John Abraham and Scott Mandia.

It wasn't long before a third participant applied elbow grease to CSLDF. Joshua Wolfe is a professional photographer, coauthor with NASA-GISS scientist Gavin Schmidt of a pictorial illustration of climate change. Wolfe has proven instrumental in driving CSLDF forward. Managing a prolonged fundraising effort with proper accounting, a 501(c)3 imprimatur for tax deductible donations and all the trimmings of a not-for-profit is a lot of work. Mandia and Abraham began their fund as a simple PayPal account but the response to their request for help was overwhelming; with day jobs as professors the two needed a way to scale the fund. Joshua Wolfe forged a partnership between The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER. Joining with PEER taps into a productive, efficient and nonduplicative structure, eliminating a lot of costly overhead. 

Joshua Wolfe also instantiated a highly successful fundraising module for CSLDF at the crowdfunding site RocketHub. The Climate Science Legal Defense fund RocketHub fundraising tool has found a warm reception, raising over $11,000 for the fund's work.

With over $50,000 raised in the year of its existence the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund has swiftly become an important bulwark protecting guileless scientists inadvertently colliding with powerful ideological and commercial interests.

Hitting the ground running, CSLDF helped defray Dr. Michael Mann's expenses incurred when ATI jumped Mann as part of a seemingly endless process of retailiation for Mann's elucidation of the famous climate "hockey stick."While Mann is still dealing with lingering costs from ATI's mugging, CSLDF was instrumental in defending him against ATI's pointless prying, transforming a lopsided fight into something a bit more fair.

More importantly for the long run, Mann's defense served as a test case for the utility of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, lighting the way ahead for improvements.

At the most recent AGU Fall conference the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund presented a session detailing lessons learned and suggestions for better equipping scientists and institutions with the tools necessary to counter increasingly frequent brushes with litigation mills disguised as "thinktanks." CSLDF is building a core of institutionalized knowledge about FOIA requests and other legal arcana for ready access by individuals and institutions and is developing a core group of legal talent familiar with the particular needs of CSLDF. 

Looking forward, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund sees the need for more human resources devoted purely to protecting scientists from gratuitious lawsuits, institutional support via grants and-- not to put too fine a point on it-- simply more money to counter a fad for SLAPP-style offensive maneuvers showing no sign of diminishment. The organization wants to hire a suitable FTE to take the reins from the group of part-timers now juggling their time between professional and personal lives and CSLDF.

It's safe to say that for people who care about the integrity of climate science, money contributed to CSLDF is an excellent investment, a fine way to transform frustration into positive energy.

Warning: Science-free Zone

With all this time, effort and money being spent on defending scientists from extra-curricular actors the question naturally arises, 'what's it all about?' What's the connection between trawling for scientists' correspondence and financial records with science and healthy skepticism pertaining to scientific research findings?

Taking the American Tradition Institute as an example of organizations rooting around in stale email and dusty accounting records, we find no connection with science at all. Let's allow ATI to speak for themselves:

American Tradition Institute v. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (records of Dr. James Hansen, Freedom of Information Act Petition filed June 21, 2011)

On June 21, 2011 American Tradition Institute’s Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal district court in the District of Columbia to force NASA to release ethics records for Dr. Hansen. The action followed NASA’s denial of ATI’s federal Freedom of Information Act request (PDF) with NASA, seeking records detailing whether and how ‘global warming’ activist Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) has complied with applicable federal ethics and financial disclosure laws and regulations, and NASA Rules of Behavior.

American Tradition Institute v. University of Virginia (records of Dr. Michael Mann, Freedom of Information Act Petition filed May 16, 2011)

American Tradition Institute’s Environmental Law Center and Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall asked a Prince William County judge, under the Commonwealth’s Freedom of Information Act, to expedite the release of documents withheld by the University of Virginia that pertain to the work of its former environmental sciences assistant professor Dr. Michael Mann.

These cases are notably devoid of any connection with scientific research; ATI does not engage the published works of Hansen or Mann on a scientific level, ATI makes no attempt either to refute Hansen and Mann's scientific output or to extend or improve the published work of Hansen or Mann. So, no science and no scientific skepticism are visible; ATI is concerned strictly with matters of character.

These two cases stand as textbook illustrations of 'ad hominem' attacks on scientists; the target of ATI's thought and argument is not the scientific work of Hansen and Mann but rather their personalities.

Let's remember what Scott Mandia asked: 'Would gravity be overturned if we could see Sir Isaac Newton’s personal letters?' No, of course not; refuting Isaac Newton's observations and predictions would require an attack on his published findings, not on what chit-chat he wrote to whom on what date. In fact, even if Sir Isaac had not been Warden of the Royal Mint of England and instead had been a small time grifter during off-hours between bouts of inspiration such a fallibility would have left his science intact, open to legitimate attack only via scientific methods.

ATI has not found anything particularly intriguing in their fishing expeditions; we'd surely know by now if Hansen or Mann exhibited any juicy, gossipy character flaws to trumpet. No, ATI's trophy wall includes various breathlessly hyped tidbits about speaking fees, imaginative reinventions of climate scientists by ATI's senior litigator and much else. But no science-- ATI has no argument against the findings of any of the scientists in whose dumpsters it frolics.

Climate science is the foundation of ATI's entire legal fiasco. ATI offers no factual argument against climate science.

Global Cooling of Speech

Barren of useful results with Hansen and Mann, ATI now entirely abandons any pretense of interest in the practice of science. As covered in the press ATI has announced a new campaign of litigious aggression to be inflicted on scientists who dare communicate their anxiety about the increasingly urgent problem of climate change. These efforts on ATI's part are plainly naked of any connection with research. ATI openly acknowledes what many of us suspected all along: this persistent litigation campaign is about ideology, politics and-- ultimately-- preserving status quo in the energy sector.

Cues to acceptable freedom of speech vary widely. In Canada scientists bringing uncomfortable facts to the public square have been muzzled by the Harper government in a way that is quite transparent; Canada's government has made it policy that scientists must communicate with the public via 'public relations specialists' or minders, their expert words filtered by persons reporting to political appointees. In the US despite past half-hearted attempts no such policy has been made practicable. However there are alternatives for imposing silence on concerned citizens; one such means is to create instructively punitive examples of what happens when scientists convey the 'wrong' information containing uncomfortable facts to journalists.

We see from the absence of science in its legal agenda that ATI either doesn't understand or does not care about the scientific topics with which it's interfering. Knowing so, when ATI seeks to invade communications between scientists and journalists we must dismiss any notion that ATI is attempting to improve the state of science and instead consider other motivations. As described in the Guardian two scientists are presently being harassed by ATI thanks to their temerity in communicating with journalists. In the absence of other reasons we have to consider that ATI is using professors Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Dessler as teaching tools for the rest of the scientific community. While Prof. Dessler himself speculates that ATI is mainly intent on seeking damaging information, any scientist watching this process will naturally wonder if keeping clam against journalist contacts would be the wiser course. 

ATI's wasteful invasion of Hayhoe and Dessler's work is exactly the style of extra-curricular, unscientific and ad hominem attack on scientists that the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund is intended to ameliorate.

It's easy to lose perspective on just how bizarre a pass we find ourselves with regard to climate research. Let's view this situation from a slightly different angle.

We've established that unchecked climate change due to reckless fossil fuel combustion is a threat to public health. Forgetting geophysics and climate for a moment and thinking of this instead as a public health problem, imagine that a virologist had an important finding affecting public hygiene and communicated that to journalists. We'd consider it folly to have that researcher then tied up with unproductive friction having nothing to do with virology, inflicted by some oddly pro-epidemic faction of society. We'd be happy if there were an organization dedicated to protecting virologists from enthusiasts of unchecked plague. That's where we find ourselves today; scientists communicating their concern about a ballooning public health threat are encumbered by people with reckless disregard for the hazards they're promoting, but happily there's an organization in place to deal with the problem.

With each of our days measuring 24 hours in length and time being money, FOIA safaris such as ATI's impose a real cost on the productivity and efficiency of scientists and research instituions. Dr. Dessler estimates that some 20 hours of his time was pointlessly dissipated dealing with ATI while his institution (Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University) was forced to devote many more hours playing ATI's gotcha game. This is time and money that could be expended on productive work.

Fruitless waste of time is a factor for researchers to consider when wondering if they should engage the public square with their expertise. Their hesitancy becomes our loss; we support research with the expectation that findings important to the public good will be made known to us. To the extent ATI silences that process waste is compounded.

As with the imaginary public spirited virologist, with Hayhoe and Dessler vs. ATI we have a case of scientists attempting to communicate findings of vital import to journalists only to have their email exploited for op-ed fodder and their personas rebranded as suspect 'activists' by silver-tongued lawyers. For conveying facts, the persons and characters of these scientists are being smeared not on the merits of their communication but for daring to communicate. This is an entirely new low in ad hominem attacks and one that needs to be vigorously rebuffed. The Climate Science Defense Fund was created to fill exactly this need. 

Everybody Has A Hand On the Dial

In the torrid atmosphere of the climate blogosphere we read and write endless passionate words about commitment to science and the importance of science. Most of us play peripheral bit parts in the central climate science drama; we're not researchers, we're not hired guns with law degrees and we're not titans of industry. Pipsqueaks we may be but if we remember one key fact our roles easily upstage those of the leading members of the cast.

The weightiest part open to most of us witnessing this novel struggle to acknowledge facts-- the universal script for significantly affecting our future climate-- is that of readily opening or closing our wallets at appropriate moments. ATI's preoccupation with protecting outmoded industries shows us how the bones of our fortune will be cast; the ebb and flow of money will set the temperature of the world going forward.

Long ago I worked in public radio here in the US. One of my preoccupations with this work was fundraising; workers must be paid and transmitters fed with electrons and most of the money for doing those things came from listeners. Obtaining money from listeners is not easy; the fate of workers in the US public radio industry is to enjoy enthusiastic feedback from listeners for about 340 days of the year, only to have most listeners fall silent when it came time to pay for their pleasurable listening. Talk is cheap, as the saying goes.  

In the US public radio arena we considered ourselves to be doing well if 15% of our listeners contributed to the station of their choice. We can't expect better in this online world but we're left to ponder that if a small fraction of people who are angered by ATI were to contribute to the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund a powerful message would be sent to ATI and its ilk.

If each time ATI launched a character assassination attempt on another scientist they found they were once again filling the coffers of a fund dedicated to defending the very scientist in their crosshairs, what would happen? I suggest that that not many people would need to participate with CSLDF before ATI became tired of kicking the ball into their own net.

Who are the people who can change ATI's expectations? Here's a hint: don't look for them to your left or right; paradoxically, for the system to work you must assume you're the only person participating. Why not pay the Climate Science Defense Fund a visit today and make a contribution?

Posted by Doug Bostrom on Saturday, 14 July, 2012

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