You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

It’s Never Been Harder to Be a Climate Scientist

Legal attacks, internet harassment, and a Trump-fueled "culture of fear" are making their work more difficult than ever.

Molly Adams/Flickr

One month before President Donald Trump was sworn into office, the climate scientist Michael Mann wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about the time someone sent a letter filled with fake anthrax to his office. The August 2010 scare, he recalled, was “just one in a long series of threats I’ve received since the late 1990s, when my research illustrated the unprecedented nature of global warming.” Things had gotten better in recent years, he wrote—no more anonymous mail with potential bio-weaponry, no more personal investigations by congressional committees, and far fewer death threats. But with Trump’s inauguration imminent, he wrote, “my colleagues and I are steeling ourselves for a renewed onslaught of intimidation, from inside and outside government.”

Six months into the Trump administration, the onslaught Mann feared has arrived. Scientists and science advocates say climatologists inside and outside the government are facing unprecedented intimidation from the Trump administration, conservative groups, and internet trolls. Jon Foley, a climate scientist and director of the California Academy of Sciences, said he’s more worried about the future of his profession than any time in his 20-year career. The ebbing and flowing of political currents effects science—it always has—but this is different,” he said. “This is much worse than anything we’ve ever seen before.”

Climate scientists working directly for the Trump administration are the most affected. A report published last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists describes a “culture of fear” as government scientists are gagged, sidelined, or fired, and funding cuts loom. “Some are afraid to utter the words ‘climate change,’” the report reads. The fear has pushed some agency scientists to seek advice from outside sources. Lauren Kurtz, executive director at the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, says several federal climate scientists have asked her about their legal options for speaking out. “One researcher just called to say hey, my boss has made it really hard for me to do my job. What can I do?” she said.

A timeline of “attacks on science” since Trump came into office, compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Center for Science and Democracy

Kurtz is also dealing with a problem that has existed for years: lawsuits filed by conservative groups against non-government climate scientists seeking their private communications. And just generally, Kurtz said she’s hearing from more private climatologists worried about the future of their grant funding, or the backlash they might receive from empowered internet trolls if they choose to publicly criticize against cuts that would effect their work. “It’s definitely become a more stressful profession,” Kurtz said. “Long-term, there’s room for optimism. But right now—especially when you factor in things like potential funding cuts and dealing with harassment, yes, it has become more difficult to be a climate scientist.”

As the political, social, and economic ramifications of their findings become more urgent by the day, it only makes sense that attempts to silence and intimidate climate scientists stand to intensify.

Climate scientists have been harassed since long before Trump’s rise, much of it personal and internet-based: Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has said that after a media appearance, she receives up to 200 emails and letters a day filled with threats and accusations. “One email I got said something like, ‘I hope your child sees your head in a basket after you’ve been guillotined for all the fraud you climate scientists have been committing,’” Hayhoe told InsideClimate in 2015. Personal attacks exist off the internet, too. Climate scientist Ben Santer famously found a dead rat left on his doorstep, a story he told most recently to talk show host Seth Meyers.

Climate scientists working inside and outside the government have been subject to more than just internet trolls, though. Conservative organizations, some with ties to fossil fuel interests, have for years filed lawsuits against them seeking e-mail communications and unpublished research under various open records laws. The point, Kurtz says, is “to embarrass them”—indeed, in one ongoing lawsuit against University of Arizona researcher Jonathan Overpeck and climatologist Malcolm Hughes, the coal-funded Energy & Environment Legal Institute admitted it was seeking emails that “embarrass both Professors Hughes and Overpeck and the University.” The conservative group Judicial Watch is suing the U.S. Department of Commerce, seeking the communications of former NOAA scientist Thomas Karl and former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren. Their purpose is to see whether these scientists “mishandled scientific data to advance the political agenda of global warming alarmism.”

Those groups are still at it. The difference, Kurtz said, is not that lawsuits have increased, but that the attorneys who perpetrated them have more political power. E&E Legal Institute General Council David Schnare, for instance, has sued several universities to gain access to climate scientists’ emails. He was named to the Trump transition team for the EPA and then joined the so-called “beachhead” team there, before eventually resigning because of differences with Pruitt. E&E Legal senior fellow Christopher Horner was also a member of Trump’s transition team.

Personal attacks persist as well, though it seems to rise and fall with the news. Hayhoe told me the amount of hate mail she’s received “spiked noticeably for two weeks” after Trump announced he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. (Hayhoe had spoken out against the decision.) “I mentioned it to quite a few people, [the spike] was so marked,” she said. Mann says he receives less hate mail too, and thinks the dip has to do with the fact that targeted trolling is less effective than it used to be. “The favorite approach of the climate change denial machine used to be to go after individual scientists, to try and make it seem like the consensus all depends on one person,” he said. “But I think now that the consensus has become as strong as it has, it feels like there’s been less aimed at me personally, because it’s just no longer credible to say that it’s all based on the work of Mike Mann.”

Indeed, most scientists say what’s really increased is a quieter form of intimidation: preventing government climate scientists from doing their jobs. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report accused the Trump administration of “creating a hostile environment for federal agency scientists who serve the public,” citing the anti-climate rhetoric of agency administrators like Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, proposed decimation of funding, and general interference in scientists’ work. The DOE’s International Climate Office (which has since been eliminated) asked staff in March to avoid the words “climate change,” “emissions reductions,” or “Paris Agreement” in communications. Political appointees at the EPA are reviewing scientists’ work, and political appointees at Interior Department are reviewing science-based grants and contracts. All action at the agency on climate has effectively stopped,” an EPA air quality scientist told The Guardian in June. And they’re being discouraged from interacting with other climate scientists. “There was a climate conference in Atlanta last month and EPA employees were told not to go,” the scientist said, “so even simple interactions are coming to an end.”

There’s probably good reason why that last quote is anonymously sourced: Government scientists can’t even speak about the most uncontroversial aspects of climate change without fearing demotion. Joel Clement, former director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department, and a scientist who worked on climate issues, last week said he was demoted to the accounting office after speaking out about the threat of climate change to Alaska’s Native communities. “Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “Let’s be honest: The Trump administration didn’t think my years of science and policy experience were better suited to accounts receivable. It sidelined me in the hope that I would be quiet or quit.”

Speaking out has always been the best way to ensure harassment. “There’s a target on your back if you’re a prominent communicator of climate change,” Mann said. “Sometimes it feels like the Boy Scouts fighting the marines. We face a very well-armed, determined opposition, and they don’t have to operate by the rules that we do.” As the scientific facts about climate change become more alarming, and the administration tries to keep silencing it, more scientists will feel the need to speak the truth—or so Mann hopes. “I think a lot of scientists have been cowed into submission by the assaults, the attacks,” Mann said. “The purpose of this fossil-fuel-funded attack machine is to intimidate scientists so they don’t speak out, and make an example of those who do.... The worse thing any of us can do is give in to that.”