Look at the science of intimidation

Published 9:05 am Wednesday, January 25, 2012

According to an old legal adage, when the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. And when neither is on your side, pound the table.

Today, conservative climate change deniers, faced with a growing and increasingly persuasive body of evidence supporting the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), have adopted a version of this approach.

Except, lacking a table, they are pounding the scientists instead.

Email newsletter signup

In the words of one climate scientist, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, “[t]here’s a well-organized campaign, primarily in the United States but also in other countries, including Canada and Australia, of bloggers, of people in the media, of basically professional climate deniers whose main goal is to abuse, to harass and to threaten anybody who stands up and says climate change is real – especially anybody who’s trying to take that message to audiences that are more traditionally skeptical of this issue.”

Dr. Hayhoe has experienced this bullying first-hand. A professor at Texas Tech., Dr. Hayhoe recently became a target due to a chapter on climate change that she had written for an upcoming book by Newt Gingrich.

While on the campaign trail in Iowa, Gingrich came under attack by Rush Limbaugh for including Hayhoe’s climate change chapter in his book.

These attacks were not limited to critiques of Dr. Hayhoe’s research; they were personal. Limbaugh, for example, taking a rather misogynistic approach, contemptuously dismissed her as a “climate babe.”

For his own part, Gingrich raced to distance himself from the story, assuring conservatives that the chapter would not be included in the book.

Dr. Hayhoe has been deluged with a torrent of angry and abusive e-mails since the story broke.

As she told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “[i]t’s not easy opening your mail in the morning and seeing a hundred e-mails, each one more hateful than the last.”

The intensity of the reaction to Dr. Hayhoe is due to the unique nature of her “sin.” As the Globe and Mail put it, she is “an evangelical Christian who is also a climate scientist trying to convince skeptics that climate change is for real.”

She frames climate change as an ethical issue- one that speaks to our responsibility for the poor and towards future generations. She addresses it from a faith-based perspective emphasizing the need for prudential stewardship of the natural world.

This makes her a heretic in the eyes of conservative climate deniers; and as we know from history, heretics always come in for the worst treatment.

Regrettably, Dr. Hayhoe’s experience isn’t unique.

For example, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, a Republican scientist at MIT, has been on the receiving end of a “frenzy of hate” from conservatives since video of a speech he delivered to a group of Republican “climate hawks” was posted on Climate Desk. The frenzy has gone beyond mere vitriol and abuse — it has included threats directed at his wife.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time researchers, or their families, have been threatened — several Australian climate scientists sought police protection last year after being subjected to what

The Canberra Times called “an unrelenting campaign” of vicious cyberbullying that included threats of “violence, sexual assault, public smear campaigns and attacks on family members.” Some of the threats even targeted children.

The abuse directed at climate researchers sheds light on a tragic political truth — a cancer is consuming the soul of American conservatism.

Conservatism is taking on many of the hallmarks of a cult — one in which information and doctrine are received, without question, from recognized authority figures or sources, and in which dissent cannot be tolerated.

The conservative cult views the political process in apocalyptic terms, and sees its opponents as demonically evil. Sadly, climate denial is a key pillar in this cult’s ideology.

Under these circumstances, conservative scientists like Hayhoe and Emanuel are particularly dangerous. They demonstrate that there isn’t a fundamental incongruity between religious faith, or conservatism, and accepting the science behind AGW.

They are heretics, calling to other conservatives from beyond the walls of the cult compound. And that’s a mortal threat to the climate deniers, and perhaps to the very existence of the cult itself.

In the end, the bullying and abuse of scientists is a sign of growing desperation. The cult must be defended, by any means. Dissenters must be intimidated into silence.

With everything else against them, conservative climate deniers have only one option left — it’s time to get personal, and pound.


Michael Stafford is a former Republican Party officer. He works as an attorney in Wilmington, Del. He is the author of the book “An Upward Calling” on the need for public policy and politics to advance the common good.