In 2006, Jeffrey Gleason and Charles Monnett, two government scientists working out of Alaska, published a report that described dead polar bears floating in the Arctic Ocean. The apparently drowned animals raised concerns about the effect of melting ice in the Arctic. As with Mann’s hockey-stick graph, the story of drowned polar bears made its way into An Inconvenient Truth and became a point of contention for climate skeptics. In 2010 both scientists came under investigation by the U.S. Office of the Inspector General for what it termed “integrity issues.”
Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, is providing Gleason and Monnett with legal representation. “After more than two years of investigations, there have been no charges, no timelines, no requests for response,” Ruch says. “It’s Kafkaesque. We don’t know what started this and what’s keeping it going. But we do know that for both men, their lives have been hell.” Monnett, Ruch says, has vowed not to publish another scientific paper, and Gleason has left his job in Alaska. Neither scientist responded to our requests for comment.
The story of Monnett and Gleason is exceptional. Few scientists have actually left their field as a result of harassment, says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA Goddard who is currently defending a case brought by the ATI. “But,” he says, “it does dissuade people from speaking out about their work. They see the harassment and intimidation and say, ‘It’s more stress than I need.’ ”
“When I get an e-mail that mentions my child and a guillotine,” Hayhoe says, “I sometimes want to pull a blanket over my head. The intent of all this is to discourage scientists. As a woman and a mother, I have to say that sometimes it does achieve its goal. There are many times when I wonder if it’s worth it.”
With scientists reluctant to speak out (and drowned out when they do), skeptics have had more room to attack climate-research programs. Last year, Republicans in the House of Representatives made a unanimous decision to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse-gas pollution threatens public health. Texas representative Ralph Hall, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, along with 10 of his Republican colleagues, also called for budget cuts and program terminations that directly targeted climate-science research, efforts to curb emissions, and preparations for climate-change impact at the National Science Foundation, the EPA and the Department of Energy.
Although many of the cuts were undone in the Senate, funding for climate-related programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did not fare as well. After launching an investigation into NOAA’s attempts to reorganize its climate services into a single unit, Hall successfully pushed through legislation to cut the agency’s climate-research funding by 20 percent, forcing it to cancel research grants.
“Now government agencies and researchers are doing anything to keep the word ‘climate’ out of their budgets and proposals,” says Rick Piltz, a former senior associate in the U.S. Climate Change Science Program Office (in 2009, it was renamed the U.S. Global Change Research Program). “And this at a time when all agencies need to be thinking about how the nation will be affected by climate change and factor it into their planning.”
Worldwide, proposals for carbon taxes, cap-and-trade programs and meaningful CO2 reductions have foundered on a lack of political consensus. In December, Canada became the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, citing the cost of compliance. The U.N.’s 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen yielded little actionable policy, and this June’s Earth Summit +20 in Brazil has been newsworthy mostly for the low expectations surrounding it.
In the U.S., local climate skeptics have been advancing their agendas. In Virginia, Tea Party–inspired residents recently derailed municipal preparations for sea-level rise around Hampton Roads, the body of water that borders Norfolk-Virginia Beach. They disrupted planning meetings and disputed as a plot NOAA’s findings that the area faces the second-highest risk from sea-level rise of any region of its size in the U.S. In April, Tennessee lawmakers passed a measure that allows teachers to question accepted theories on evolution and climate change in the classroom. Science advocates were also stunned by a recently disclosed initiative to design a school curriculum that questions climate science. Science educators say they’re increasingly worried that climate could become the same kind of flash point as evolution. The question science advocates ask now is, how do they turn the conversation back to the science?single page