When Grownups Bully Climate Scientists

Bullying is thuggish no matter who is doing it. So why are grown adults engaging in it?

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Chris Carlson / AP

Rush Limbaugh speaks during a news conference at The Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu, Jan. 1, 2010.

We spend lots of time these days focused on children bullied by their classmates at school, at play, and online. Appropriately enough — bullying is heart-breaking, even life-threatening behavior. A lauded documentary, Bully, takes a look at the national epidemic among children. But how about some serious soul-searching on the subject of grown-up (if you can call them that) bullying of their peers?

Bullying is the nicest word to use in describing the recent spate of irresponsible attacks on climate scientists. Just this week, University of Oregon professor Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, returned from a conference in London only to find that she was being pilloried on-air by Rush Limbaugh, who wondered, referring to climate scientists, why “nobody stands up and says they’re nuts.” At Rush’s urging, hundreds of people flooded her with hateful, vitriolic emails.

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Her crime? This line, not even written by her, but from a press release from the University of Oregon:  “Resistance [to climate change] at individual and societal levels must be recognized and treated before real action can be taken to effectively address threats facing the planet from human-cause contributions to climate change.” Not a felicitous description of Norgaard’s highly respected work; she herself suggests that climate denial should be recognized and addressed through “dialogue.” But still, not worthy of the mushroom cloud of response that exploded among deniers.

Reading about the recent assault of bullies on Norgaard reminded me of an interview I watched earlier this year with Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University. Hayhoe, the mother of a young child — her husband is a pastor at a church in west Texas and her parents are missionaries — is an evangelical Christian, and the author of a book called A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.  She is a proponent of taking action to stop greenhouse gas pollution before we do irrevocable harm to our planet.

After Newt Gingrich dropped a chapter Hayhoe had written about global warming from his book — and she protested — the denier blogospher went nuts. She was called, by an anonymous poster, a “Nazi bitch whore climatebecile” and far worse. Her science is not discredited, she points out, in these attacks; her person is. Norgaard says the same thing.

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Climate scientists have described death threats, threats to their safety, and the safety of their children. The bullying is coming from the highest levels of government: Senator Inhofe — R, Oklahoma, and self-described “planet’s number one worst enemy” — has sought to criminalize and prosecute 17 leading climate scientists. McCarthyite tactics from the ranking member of the environment and public works committee, Inhofe, Limbaugh and others attacking scientists upend the old childhood reply to bullies: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Being called a liar is, in fact, harmful to scientists, and the stick and stones — legal maneuvers, criminalization — do hurt; it is expensive to defend against them. The bullying and intimidation tactics have gotten so out of hand that a donor-funded climate science legal defense fund has been established to help defray the costs of fighting the bullies.

The Internet of course makes such bullying much easier to do, and it amplifies the impact of the messages by adding the element of anonymity. You don’t know where your enemy is coming from. But bullying is thuggish and destructive, no matter who is doing it. And we wonder where our kids are learning how to behave?

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