death threats to Australian climate scientists

Back in freezing Canberra, just getting over a rather nasty cold. Still have the sniffles and a rattle in the chest, but I’m on the mend.

I was going to start catching up on travel documentation, but instead I’m going to take some time out to follow up on an email I got yesterday, about the new “Respect the Science” initiative. Apparently it’s a new thing to try to explain the scientific method, peer review and the general culture of science to the public.

Generally an admirable thing, but I had to poke around to try to figure out what it was about. And what I found out wasn’t pleasant:

June 5: Death threats fail to shake climate scientists
A climate change scientist who has been targeted by death threats says the science community must still continue to release the latest research.

June 20: Scientists hit back amid fresh death threats
Top Australian scientists have united in a new campaign to defend their credibility amid fresh death threats aimed at key climate change scientists.

It’s funny… this is the sort of thing I would expect to happen in the States. Not in, um, a first-world liberal democracy like Australia. Come on, Australians, surely you can be more civilized than this. (And so can you, Americans. For Pete’s sake. We need to expect more of ourselves and each other than threatening grievous bodily harm to the people who find out about the world for the good of our whole society.)

On talking to some of my non-scientist Australian friends working in climate change, I learned that this is actually part of a larger campaign intended to discredit not just climate change science, but the whole scientific enterprise in general. If you can’t fight the conclusions, fight the method. We’ve seen this kind of approach before — “intelligent design” being the example that comes first to my mind, as per their wedge strategy (see the original Wedge Document here). A response to the way of thinking outlined by these documents and the situation they describe deserves a whole other post, or series of posts… or a book. But I’ll add a few paragraphs here.

My own thinking about the evolution vs. creation debate, and more broadly the science-religion dichotomy, changed gradually as I became more aware of the frame of mind outlined in the Wedge Document. The primary objection to Darwinian evolution as an idea appears not to be that it is untrue (though they claim it is), but that it is harmful. If this is so, it will never be enough for scientists to continue to defend the methods and conclusions of science against such attackers — we will need to take the fight to them: to demonstrate that science, and key scientific conclusions such as evolution, are unquestionably benign, indeed can be morally and spiritually uplifting, and that in any event they certainly are not responsible for the moral decay claimed by the authors and proponents of the Wedge Strategy. We’ll need to build an incontrovertible, highly public case that agnostics, atheists, Buddhists and Muslims can, like Christians, be good people and upstanding citizens.

It occurs to me that we may need something similar for the climate debate. The concerns of climate opponents appear to miss the crucial distinction between science and policy: many attack climate science cynically and disingenuously, not because they actually believe it to be false, but because they believe the policy directions inevitably dictated as a response to the existential threat revealed by modern climate science would not benefit them personally. Of course we need to defend the science itself, but I’m also glad that numerous environmental organizations are also stressing the economic (green jobs!) and national security (stop buying oil from terrorists!) aspects of the push towards green energy.

In short, someone needs to say: Guys. The science has come in, and here’s what it says: increasing famine, drought, extreme weather events, and so on, slowly roasting us all over the next hundred years or so. We’re no longer debating whether temperatures are going up, but how much, and how many people will die because of it. As a species, we need to get on this right now, and we all need to make sacrifices to bring our greenhouse gas emissions down. That’s a moral imperative. The simpler world of yesterday where we could all emit as much as we wanted is gone, and however much you howl and scream about it, it isn’t coming back. There is nothing to do now but look forward and try our best to cope with the challenges ahead of us.

Moreover, although all of us must pitch in, those of us who lead more resource-intensive lifestyles in rich countries need to pitch in proportionally more than those in poor countries who will be unfairly flooded, burnt, and starved out of their homelands by the rising temperatures. It’s not only a question of fairness, but of actual de facto impact on the critical variables. Asking the poor of the Global South, and of our own more fortunate countries, to shoulder the burden is like trying to balance the United States federal budget by cutting Planned Parenthood: it’s a red herring which will not only continue institutionalized cruelty to those least fortunate, but also will make virtually no difference to the root problem of making our only planetary home unfit for human habitation. In the best-case scenario, one can hope we’ll innovate our way to a more comfortable future, one with a median quality of life not dramatically lower than, say, Western Europe. But it will of necessity have to be a more mindful future where we use less stuff, and are content with that, preferably truly happy with it.

With all this in mind, think about how you can have an impact worthy of the gifts you’ve been given. And don’t forget to Hug A Climate Scientist — whether you realize it or not, they’re your friends and they’re working for you.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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