Last week the Federal Department of Climate Change advertised for Australian nominees for “Coordinating Lead Author, Lead Author and Review Editor roles” for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report:


The Government is seeking nominations from relevant scientists to participate in what the IPCC says is a “demanding” five-year process of establishing the best estimates of the trajectory, impacts and capacity for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

Quite why Australia’s best climate scientists would bother, though, is a very good question. Nomination to the IPCC process is an invitation for public smears, threats and routine attacks on your credibility, not by your peers, but by newspaper columnists, bloggers and conspiracy theorists – and you receive no assistance or funding for the pleasure.

On Tuesday, UNSW Professor Andy Pitman was attacked by News Ltd blogger Andrew Bolt, who suggested Pitman was being less than truthful when he said his IPCC work was undertaken “out of hours, voluntarily for no funding”.  Bolt linked to evidence showing Pitman had been reimbursed for costs incurred as lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”.

The only remuneration IPCC scientists get – as a quick check of last week’s ad would have made clear — is travel costs and living expenses while they are at IPCC meetings.  The IPCC work is on top of their day jobs as academics and researchers. Presumably Bolt and co think scientists should pay their own way for the privilege of undertaking work at the behest of the Australian Government.

Pitman is particularly frustrating for climate denialists because of his record of working with IPCC critics like American scientist Roger Pielke, who has accused the IPCC of cherry-picking data and being too focussed on the impact of CO2.

As a result of Bolt’s attack, a number of his readers sent abusive emails to Pitman.  Some went to an entirely different, and presumably mystified, Andy Pitman. Bolt, to his credit, publicly asked his readers to desist.

In all, Pitman received 240 emails, including some threatening ones (one, evidently written from Irony Central, threatened him if he engaged in “personal attacks” on denialists).  It’s not the first time Pitman has received threatening emails from denialists.

Pitman, unfortunately, has got off relatively lightly.  Crikey understands at least one climate scientist has received death threats.  It appears to be a pattern among some climate denialists – Ben Cubby described a number of death threats received by climate change activists during the Copenhagen conference.

Given the crossover between climate denialism and some quite grotesque conspiracy theories – Christopher Monckton, when not warning of a global Marxist Government or urging the internment of people with HIV, maintains that Jackie Kennedy was responsible for the deaths of 40m people — death threats from some on the fringe of the movement who take seriously the idea that climate change action is a threat to life and freedom cannot be glibly dismissed as idle attempts to intimidate.  But it is continual personal public attacks and consumption of time that would make volunteering for the IPCC process truly unappealing.

Pitman differentiates between genuine sceptics, who are open to being convinced by evidence on climate change, and outright denialists and conspiracy theorists, with whom there is little point in engaging.  “That’s the dilemma about debating and engaging with these people. It’s hard to distinguish between the conspiracy theorists and those with an open mind looking for answers, with whom you really want to engage in debate and hopefully win over,” Pitman told Crikey.

Pitman compares the activities of the former to “Denial of Service” attacks.  “There’s a saying about how it takes a second to lie convincingly but it can take days and weeks to show that it’s a lie.  Responding to attacks and questions takes time, and I think many scientists don’t engage because it takes up so much time that they should be devoting to research,” says Pitman. “But even if you’ve responded to the same question 20 times before, if you fail to respond once you’re attacked as ‘having no answers.’”

Oftentimes scientists don’t even know they’re being smeared and attacked. One denialist blog yesterday ran a series of questions from Monckton to Pitman that the blogger didn’t actually bother to send to Pitman.  That didn’t stop blog commenters, most of them anonymous, attacking him for failing in his “duty to respond” or demanding “alarmist frauds like”  Pitman “be dragged out of their offices in straightjackets”.

There’s an interested party in this process that appears to be looking on with equanimity: the Federal Government.  Crikey understands that the Department of Climate Change does not provide any information or assistance to IPCC nominees on how to deal with media attention and attacks from denialists (not even the simple half-day “How To Handle the Media” courses that many public servants undertake).  A DCC spokesman this morning said that the Department had no plans to provide media training or even a simple (and free) briefing for IPCC nominees.

As for last week’s ad, Pitman said he had decided that, having already undertaken an IPCC role twice, he would be giving the 2010-14 process a miss.  The orchestrated assault on his reputation, though, has made him have second thoughts, and he’s considering nominating again.

Peter Fray

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