CLIMATE:

E-mails show scientists planning push-back against 'McCarthyite' attacks

This story was updated at 2:54 p.m. EST.

U.S. scientists are planning to counter criticisms directed at them during the "Climategate" scandal and congressional debates, saying conservatives and industry groups have waged a "McCarthyite" campaign, according to e-mails exchanged by the researchers.

The e-mails obtained by E&E show the scientists are considering launching advertising campaigns, widening their public presence, pushing the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to take a more active role in explaining climate science and creating a nonprofit to serve as a voice for the scientific community.

"We need to develop a relentless rain of science and scientific dialog on the incredible, destructive demagoguery that has invaded the airwaves, the news media and the public forum and has prevented a rational discussion about political solutions to human perturbations on the environment," wrote Paul Falkowski, a professor at Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, wrote that the scientific community has been subjected to "neo-McCarthyism" fueled by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his staff. "I am hopeful that all the forces working for honest debate and quality assessments will decry this McCarthyite regression, and by name point out what this Senator is doing by a continuing smear campaign," Schneider wrote.

Schneider was among 17 scientists whom Inhofe said may have violated federal law in connection to last year's hacked e-mail controversy, which has been called "Climategate."

Though the scientists' strategy e-mails show a desire by the scientific community to push back against attacks from climate change critics, it is not clear that they have produced a consensus on what steps to take.

The messages, which were distributed mostly in late February through a listserv maintained by the National Academy of Sciences for members in its environmental sciences and ecology division, involved a dozen or so scientists who are academy members. Their e-mails to the list appear to have been forwarded outside the group by an unknown person.

An NAS spokesman said that the discussion was a private conversation between individuals and does not represent the views of the organization as a whole.

"The discussion was among scientists who are elected members of the NAS, but they were speaking on their own behalf and realized the NAS had never considered placing an ad," said spokesman William Kearney, in reference to a call by one of the scientists for an NAS-backed newspaper ad. "The NAS addresses issues such as climate change through the reports of its operating arm, the National Research Council."

The exchange took place among members of "Section 63," which is one of many organizational divisions in NAS and has 61 members, according to a NAS directory.

The exchange was seemingly sparked by an e-mail from Falkowski that urges members of NAS to back an effort to refute the notion that the scientific basis for climate change has been undermined by the Climategate controversy and various efforts from opponents.

Specifically, Falkowski calls on NAS members to sign a declaration saying "there is clear scientific evidence that burning of fossil fuels by humans will alter the climate" and says that it should be placed as an advertisement in The New York Times and other major newspapers. Falkowski says he is willing to spend $1,000 of his own to make that happen and calls for at least 50 other NAS members to do likewise.

Later in the exchange, he reveals that about 15 scientists have already pledged to contribute to the effort.

Falkowski then goes on to say that he wants to initiate a conversation with the Public Broadcasting Service to develop a prime-time science program, saying there must be a "face on TV and Radio that is real science."

Other scientists, however, questioned the benefit of spending money on a newspaper ad, arguing that their message would be lost among numerous public relations efforts by the better-funded industry groups and their allies. They maintained that the community should encourage greater direct connection between scientists and the public.

"I think our efforts as NAS members are better spent supporting the speech of such scientists vs. using our trivial personal funds for ephemera such as newspaper ads," wrote Steve Carpenter, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Wisconsin.

Carpenter goes on to say that scientists should work on producing a report with "the authority of NAS" that summarizes the status and trends of the global climate in a manner that can be understood by a broad audience.

Falkowski acknowledges that he views the advertising as part of broader effort to "develop a collective, independent voice as NAS members -- outside of the NAS boundaries -- on the critical issue of climate change and the urgency of developing a national energy strategy."

He adds that his effort may not go over well with some scientists but said he believes it is needed to push back against "the wall of disinformation." "I realize that my initiative is probably unsettling for some, and probably downright unseemly," Falkowski writes.

Rick Piltz, director of the watchdog organization Climate Science Watch, expressed concern over the continued public exposure of private discussions among scientists but also said he was proud of the effort the scientists were looking to undertake.

"I think they're doing exactly what needs to be done; the communications exude intellectual integrity and public concern," Piltz said. "Clearly, nobody in the political and corporate elites of this country believe that the global warming denial machine is right and the National Academy of Sciences are wrong about climate change."

Consequences beyond climate debate

The e-mail discussions appear to be fueled by concerns over the fallout from the Climategate investigation, but several individuals also point out that the broader well-being of the scientific community is at stake.

Indeed, some argue, public discourse over any number of health issues may take a hit because of increased skepticism toward the scientific community.

"If the public looses faith in scientists, we can see the inevitable consequences. H1N1 vaccines were taken a plot to kill our children. Regardless of the evidence, cell phones cause brain cancer," Falkowski wrote. "The political dialogue is course -- but scientists are being treated like political pawns -- and it is not acceptable."

It is not uncommon for members of the scientific community to complain about the distortion -- or at least a lack of understanding -- of their work by politicians and the press. Such complaints were common during the George W. Bush administration, when many scientists publicly claimed that their profession had been "politicized" and that sound science had been ignored or manipulated in the crafting of public policy.

Some have suggested that scientists need to become more active in politics by running for office or engaging more directly with politicians and voters.

It remains to be seen whether any such prolonged efforts will occur in the wake of Climategate, but the e-mail exchange at NAS and recent comments from a number of scientists do indicate that the community is increasingly starting to believe that its scientific goals are irrevocably linked to the political debate.

"Most of our colleagues don't seem to grasp that we're not in a gentlepersons' debate, we're in a street fight against well-funded, merciless enemies who play by entirely different rules," wrote Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University.

"Science is getting creamed with no effective response, and our colleagues involved with the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] are getting threatened with prosecution by the likes of Inhofe. It is not clear whether the NAS can ever be an effective voice, but if we don't start some action it surely never will be."

Reporter Lauren Morello contributed.

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