After Death Threats to Climate Researchers, Australian Universities Take Tough Protection Measures

Lisa Maree Williams, Getty Images

Protesters in Sydney rallied this spring against a proposed carbon tax. Threats against climate scientists appear to intensify if they speak up in the nation's policy debate.
June 09, 2011

In Australia, the climate for climate-science researchers has deteriorated to an alarming state.

At least a dozen university climate scientists have in recent months received messages threatening death or violence against themselves and, in some cases, their families. The threats—which came as Australian lawmakers prepared to debate imposing carbon taxes in an effort to discourage the emission of climate-altering greenhouse gases—appear considerably more serious than those against researchers at American universities, and Australian authorities have reacted accordingly.

Scientists at several Australian universities have been moved to secure buildings after security personnel concluded the threats were credible enough to warrant heightened protection. Their names have been removed from telephone and online directories, as well as from signs outside their office doors. They reportedly can meet only students and visitors who have made appointments, shown photo identification to security guards on the premises, and been escorted through the building door to door.

Australian National University "takes the safety and well-being of staff very seriously," Vice Chancellor Ian Young said in a written statement, adding that climate research had become "an emotive issue" recently. "It's completely intolerable that people be subjected to threats like this."

The affected researchers work at four universities spread across the country: Canberra-based Australian National, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, and the University of Queensland, in Brisbane. Faculty and administrators were reluctant to provide many details, and it is unclear if they believe the threats are being made as part of an orchestrated campaign or if they might come from a single source.

A public-affairs officer at Australian National said the death threats there had occurred over the course of three years and had escalated in recent months. As a result, nine scientists were "moved to a more secure location that requires card access." The added security, the officer continued, "means students may have to plan ahead to make an appointment to see these researchers and general staff."

Australian media accounts suggested these robust security measures had been taken recently, and that the threats had escalated in response to the continuing parliamentary debate on carbon taxes and a television advertisement in support of them featuring the Australian actress Cate Blanchett, which was broadcast last week. Online publications in the United States—including The Atlantic Wire and Grist—have framed the threats to researchers as coming in response to Ms. Blanchett's ad, which itself has been the subject of heated criticism from climate-change deniers in the Australian Parliament and punditocracy.

But university sources say they took the actions earlier this year, long before the ad existed.

'Offensive and Abusive'

One of the scientists who received death threats is David J. Karoly, a professor of meteorology at the University of Melbourne and a lead author of recent assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who has appeared regularly in the Australian media to convey the current scientific consensus on the issue. He says he started receiving "an increased number of offensive and abusive e-mails" following media appearances in connection with the release of the panel's 2007 report, escalating to a death threat "in the last 12 months." The intensity and volume of the threats appeared to him to be "closely related to scientists like myself appearing on the media."

"My assessment, and the advice I have from the university, is that these are not imminent threats but were indications of increasing threats, and that they appear to be coming from multiple sources, not from an individual person or organization," Mr. Karoly said. The university has worked "to improve security measures for not just myself but at least one researcher." He said he was not compelled to remain behind "secure, locked access doors" but that his colleague—who was not named for security reasons—was.

A spokeswoman at the University of New South Wales didn't respond to questions about the threats but noted in a press release that scientists there had "reported receiving abusive e-mails and phone calls, including threats of violence, sexual assault, or attacks on family members." A recent article in the university's magazine, Uniken, described the ridicule and vitriolic personal attacks heaped on one professor, Andrew J. Pitman, director of the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, as a result of his media appearances.

"I have a very, very thick skin, and the probability of science being wrong is roughly equivalent to evolution being wrong," Mr. Pitman was quoted as saying in response to whether he would be intimidated or worn down into silence. He was not available to be interviewed.

Mr. Karoly said younger scientists and those at government research centers had strong disincentives to "take a high public profile on anything to do with policy" because of the damaging personal attacks that often follow.

"In my own situation, the increasing volume and intensity of this discussion has the reverse effect on me, in that it indicates the issue is important," Mr. Karoly said. "Because there are a limited number of people who are both willing and able to communicate the best information on climate change, it reinforces my perception that we need to do this."

University and government officials have rallied behind the scientists. Sen. Chris Evans, federal minister for tertiary education, told reporters that "no one should feel intimidated about expressing their views openly, irrespective of which side of the debate they are on." Glyn C. Davis, chair of Universities Australia and vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, said the "systemic and sustained threats" to the scientists represented "a fundamental attack upon intellectual inquiry."

"Aggressive abuse and hate campaigns make no helpful contribution to a crucial policy debate. They simply seek to silence unwelcome voices," Mr. Davis said. "Fortunately, academics at Australian universities continue to refuse to be intimidated by the few who grasp neither the principles of academic freedom not the urgent imperative of independent research."

Some Reticence in U.S.

Prominent climate researchers in the United States, contacted by The Chronicle this week, said they had not been subjected to serious threats. Nor, to their knowledge, had most of their North American colleagues.

"I do occasionally get e-mails that are not nice, but they don't come very often and, frankly, the ones I do get are from people who are clearly not believing in climate change but are curious and write nice probing emails," says James W.C. White, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. "The kind of vitriol that we hear about in Australia is not something I have experienced."

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, said, "I know from talking to my colleagues here and in Canada that threats and harassment by e-mail are real, though I can't say for sure whether the innuendo can be unambiguously taken to the level of death threats." Mr. Pierrehumbert, who warned in a recent guest commentary on The New York Times' Dot Earth blog that climate scientists might one day have to hire bodyguards, said that to his knowledge, none of his American university colleagues had been placed in a security cocoon yet. "So it hasn't come to that yet, and let's hope it never does. But with the increasingly vitriolic tone of U.S. political rhetoric, anything is possible."

There is precedent. American biomedical researchers have for decades been literally attacked by animal-rights activists, although for the methods —rather than the conclusions—of their research. "Our scientists have endured everything from firebombings of homes and cars, to breaking and entering, to vandalism, to stealing property, to direct acts of intimidation," said Liz Hodge, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Biomedical Research, in Washington. "It is unacceptable that any scientist, no matter their area of study, would have to suffer intimidation and threats from extremists."

"There's a little bit of reticence among climate scientists to get too involved in the public discourse because of the downside," said Mr. White, of the University of Colorado. "It doesn't stop me, because I think it's very important for climate scientists to speak out. Academic freedom is something we need to take very, very seriously, and it's not freedom unless we are speaking out."


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