Court Forces University of Arizona to Release Climate Scientists’ Traditionally Confidential Emails

December 1, 2018, 12:52 PM EST

Above: Protesters in San Francisco on April 22, 2017, during the March for Science. Image credit: Jeff Masters.

Science has suffered an unfortunate loss in a legal battle in Arizona, where the courts have ordered the public release of 13 years of email correspondence of two climate scientists who worked at the University of Arizona, Jonathan Overpeck and Malcolm Hughes. The plaintiff was a coal industry-funded group called Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal). The group is led by David Schnare, who has made a career of suing and harassing climate scientists by abusing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state open record laws to demand masses of scientists’ emails.

E&E’s victory was obtained via State of Arizona open records laws. These laws, which allow taxpayers to request copies of government records, have been misused by anti-science groups to target scientific research. In response to this abuse by both conservative and liberal groups that have economic, political, or ideological reasons for seeking to suppress particular types of scientific inquiry, most states where the issue has arisen have sought to make it clear by statute, regulation, or judicial decision that their public records or freedom of information laws do not destroy traditional areas of confidentiality that protect the scientific endeavor. Unfortunately, not all states have enacted such reforms.

The emails provide an opportunity for hostile groups to take phrases, including scientific jargon, out of context in order to mislead and confuse the public, and divert time, energy, and resources of the scientists involved away from science. A classic example of this occurred in 2009, with the public release of stolen climate scientists’ emails from the UK: the so-called “Climategate” incident. In an attempt to mislead the public regarding the existence and severity of the climate change problem, climate science deniers published misleading excerpts from the stolen materials to attack the integrity of the scientists who had published seminal studies demonstrating the high probability of human-caused climate change. Numerous investigations found no merit in the criticisms, and no evidence of any wrongdoing by the scientists whose emails had been exposed and distorted.

In the current University of Arizona case, Malcolm Hughes' emails were released on November 30, and Jonathan Overpeck will have his emails released on January 15. Dr. Hughes testified it took him ten weeks to go through all the emails to respond to the court order, and he lost an entire research summer to reviewing old emails as well as losing a grant that expired. Dr. Overpeck testified it took him six weeks to go through everything and he was unable to use his sabbatical. Climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann, whose email correspondence to the Arizona scientists involved has now been released to E&E Legal, posted all of his emails involved online on Friday, complete with commentary explaining their content.

Dr. Michael Mann
Figure 1. Dr. Michael Mann addresses an audience at a fund raiser on behalf of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) in 2014.

Enter the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund

This latest release of climate scientists’ emails, combined with the actions of the Trump Administration to sideline climate scientists and prevent them from doing their important work, underscores the urgent need for legal protection of climate scientists to continue their critical research in the face of threats like this. The nonprofit Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) was created seven years ago to help climate scientists fight back against politically-motivated and industry-funded harassment, and has been heavily involved in the Arizona open records case. CSLDF provides support and resources to the scientific community by offering free legal aid to scientists who are harassed, threatened or attacked for doing their jobs; educating researchers about their legal rights and responsibilities; sharing strategies and information about cases with attorneys; and publicizing attacks on science.

I'm proud to say that I'm a founding board member of the charity, which has helped over one hundred and fifty researchers since 2011. This past year, we've advised and defended scientists on issues ranging from defamation to death threats, and produced a number of educational resources to help researchers understand their legal rights. Check out our website at csldf.org, and please consider making a tax-deductible donation to this worthy cause.  An anonymous donor is currently matching all gifts to CSLDF up to a total of $20,000, so when you make a gift between now and the end of the year, your gift will be doubled.

CSLDF at the AGU Meeting in Washington D.C., December 10 – 14

CSLDF will have a significant presence at the AGU Fall Meeting in D.C., including a booth in the Exhibit Hall (Booth 1047) where scientists can pick up copies of CSLDF's educational materials and sign-up for updates on its work.

CSLDF will also offer free and confidential one-on-one consultations with attorneys for any scientist attending the conference. To schedule a consultation, please e-mail lawyer@csldf.org.  Consultations will be held December 10-13 from 8:00 a.m-3:30 p.m. in the Marriott Marquis: Anacostia Room.

In addition, the organization will host two sessions on legal issues pertaining to scientists: 

  • How to Get Involved in the Rulemaking Process on Tuesday, December 11 from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. 
  • Science in Court: Becoming an Expert Witness and Climate Litigation on Thursday, December 13, from 12:30-1:30 p.m.  

Both sessions will be held in Room 208A/B at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.  More information about these sessions is available online here.

Links

Dr. Michael Mann’s November 30 on-line release of his emails, along with a more detailed explanation of the legal case, is here.
Desmogblog took a detailed look at David Schnare and E&E Legal in a November 27 piece.
My 2009 blog post, The Manufactured Doubt industry and the hacked email controversy.
My fellow CSLDF board member, Naomi Oreskes, has co-authored an excellent book on the industry-funded attacks on science, Merchants of Doubt, which has also been made into a fascinating documentary (available on Netflix.)

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995, and flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

jeff.masters@weather.com

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