Understanding Climate Risk

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More on threats

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I’ve been following the media treatment of abusive threats made to Australian climate scientists as reported in the Canberra Times on June 4. This story has been picked up by a range of blogs and media that follows environmental issues. Graham Readfearn has reproduced extracts from some of the emails received. The Conversation, an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector (although federally funded) published an op-ed from Clive Hamilton and a news article on June 6. The latter included comment from Professor Margaret Sheil of the Australian Research Council referring to potential long-term effects on research in that new researchers may be put off. It also included details of threats received by Kevin Trenberth, Kiwi researcher who has been along-term resident of the USA. Based at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) he received 19 pages of abusive emails at around the time of the CRU email leaks and continues to receive abusive emails.

On June 9, the Daily Telegraph revealed the death threat issue as an ‘opportunistic ploy’. Intrepid reporter Andrew Carswell contacted ANU to ask whether any of the threats were new. According to his source only two direct threats had been received – in 2006-07 and a year ago. And perhaps the transfer of staff to carded security was just ‘routine’ according to the article. That apparently was enough to refer to the whole episode as a diversion. Time for a bit of tone trolling:

Scientist and renowned climate change sceptic Jo Nova said the revelation of the death threats was merely a welcome diversion for climate change believers.

“It’s a great way to win sympathy. Not that I’m suggesting these scientists are feigning it themselves, but that there are billions of dollars on the table, not to mention a cult-like devotion to the meme,” Ms Nova said.

“It’s in quite a few people’s interests to help those scientists win the sympathy of the crowd, and to distract the crowd with something non-scientific.”

So there you are. A scientist and renowned sceptic has spaken. Except if the definition of scientist is a person who uses scientific reasoning and the scientific method, then Jo Nova does not qualify. The document sent to the Australian National Audit Office in December requesting an independent audit of the Bureau of Meteorologies temperature records and signed by Jo Nova amongst others is a farrago of unsubstantiated claims with no scientific merit whasoever. Most can be refuted by existing science (though not without a great deal of effort to dig up the material and cover point by point) and some are self contradictory: anao-request-audit-bom (click to download – if you have to)1. And a sceptic is someone who also uses scientific reasoning to methodologically examine evidence. Naive refutation and denial is not scepticism.

So we have two tricks. One casts doubt on the original story with a kind of equivalence – if the death threats at ANU are not recent, those elsewhere are not recent. And any other merely abusive emails without direct threats shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The other is motive. If the threats aren’t new, why bring it up now?

So now we are encouraged to believe this news story, investigated by Roslyn Beeby as a piece of journalism, is designed to garner sympathy at the precise time that a carbon ‘tax’ is being discussed, so obviously there is motive. If the scientists aren’t feigning, is it Beeby who broke the story, or the media outlets that reported the story, who are engaging in these distractions. Obviously, this is part of the warmist carbon-taxing conspiracy.

The Australian had a piece on June 7 Calls to calm a climate of fear, where representatives from the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Universities Australia and others spoke out against harrassment.

This didn’t impress the Shadow Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science who posted the following statement reproduced in full:



A shadow has been cast over recent reports that scientists received death threats over the carbon tax debate.

Some scientists appear not to have been totally honest about such threats, as it was revealed today that two scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) allegedly received death threats five years ago and twelve months ago respectively.
The Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, was the Vice Chancellor at ANU during the period when the threats were made. Professor Chubb must clarify the situation and explain that these threats were made in the past, well before the carbon tax debate, and confirm were not reported to the police at the time.
Just as it is important that science professionals are treated with respect, so is the need for there to be honest disclosure to the public.
Claims that recent revelations concerning death threats were not lies, because no dates were specified, are a little too cute. Everyone reading the initial report drew the logical conclusion that the death threats related to the current carbon tax debate. This now appears not to be the case.
The carbon tax debate is important and should be conducted without hysterics. The apparently false allegation of death threats have diminished the individuals involved and reflect poorly on the scientific community.

Senator Mirabella representing her shadow science portfolio (AAP: Alan Porritt)

Here is how Beeby opened her original piece:

Australia’s leading climate change scientists are being targeted by a vicious, unrelenting email campaign that has resulted in police investigations of death threats.

Nothing about the timing of those threats. Andrew Carswell of the Daly Tele got in touch with ANU, determined that the two most serious threats were not recent and therefore that the story was a beat-up. Ignoring David Karoly’s statement “threats have increased in intensity over the last 6 months.” And that scientists in other unversities have been moved and their names taken from staff lists. That is, ANU is not the only university where scientists have received threats and precautions have been taken.

But Senator Mirabella imputes the reputation of the scientific community because the original article talked about a pattern of events without detailing the timing of events at one university. I can’t see how the science community can remain politically neutral if the shadow minister is going to make these sorts of imputations. It is unacceptable.

The upshot of this is:

  • Violent and abusive emails are fine if not made as direct threats. After all if the recommendations in Chapter 3 of the the Climate Commissions The Critical Decade were followed Australian industry would shut down. People have a right to feel threatened and it’s understandable if they let off steam in a few ‘robust’ emails. Therefore abusive communications are a part of the job of research these days – scientists, get used to it.
  • If the direct death threats at ANU are twelve months old or older, all threats everywhere must be twelve months or older. The other abuse is irrelevant.

There are good reasons as to why the scientists who spoke to Roslyn Beeby did so on condition of anonymity. People have been threatened and do not wish to become greater targets. The tactic of attaching suspicion to everything a bona fide scientist says on climate change is an established pattern and this story has followed that pattern to the letter. Speaking to a colleague at ANU earlier this week, he described an old fashioned ransom-type note of abusive threats cobbled together with newspaper headlines that he had recently received. Another email sent to a colleague in April came from a gmail account of a user who comments on denialist blogs, and who regularly changes identity, though not IP address.

The political amplification of this issue is covered in ScienceInsider. Graham Readfearn on The Drum yesterday adds a number of recent emails to back up Beeby’s original article. Not that it should have to be so, but that’s where the level of public debate has brought us.


1. The Bureau of Met did have to respond to this request, largely because it was signed by a Senator. The results will be made available later this year.


Written by Roger Jones

June 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

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