The accusation of McCarthyism has been thrown around for years, usually in situations where there is no real parallel with Senator Joe McCarthy’s1950s witch-hunt aimed at uncovering Communists. Now Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe has called for climate scientists associated with the IPCC to be investigated for criminal violations the spectre of McCarthy has chillingly returned.

A document prepared by minority staff of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works claims scientists mentioned in emails stolen from the Centre for Climatic Research (CRU) at the University of East Anglia are guilty of manipulating data and obstructing its release. It lists federal laws they may have violated and names 17 climate scientists — some of the most eminent in the world — who Inhofe’s staff claim should be investigated for possible criminal investigation.

The accusation of criminality against leading climate scientists takes the denialist campaign of harassment and intimidation to new heights, beyond that of cyber-bullying, character assassination and black operations.

“I am worried about it, I have to say,” Raymond Bradley told The Guardian. Bradley is the director of climate science research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and one of those named on the list.

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“You can understand that this powerful person is using the power of his office to intimidate people and to harass people and you wonder whether you should have legal counsel. It is a very intimidating thing and that is the point.”

In 1950 McCarthy famously produced a piece of paper that he said listed the names of known Communists working in the US State Department. Reputations were ruined simply by being named by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

One McCarthy tactic was to call for a blacklist of people to be banned from employment — in government, industry and, most notoriously, in Hollywood. To their eternal shame some Hollywood studio heads capitulated and denied employment to more than 300 people deemed un-American.

Today, the call for a blacklist has come not from Inhofe but from his fellow denialist Rep James Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin (McCarthy’s state), who in November wrote to the IPCC demanding that scientists whose names appear in the stolen CRU emails be blacklisted from all further work with the IPCC.

Climate denialism long ago stopped being an argument about science and became a cause of right-wing populists determined to defeat the gains of liberals and progressives. It is perfectly natural Christopher Monckton should be travelling to the United States soon to address a rally of the Tea Party, a movement close to the far right of the Republican Party.

Sarah Palin has predictably taken up the denialist cause. A woman who believed Africa was a country can now quote from CRU emails in interviews. The jihad against climate science and climate scientists has energised the populist Right in the most politically backward US states.

Two weeks ago the South Dakota legislature passed a resolution calling for “balanced teaching of global warming in the public schools of South Dakota”, the type of resolution that now sees creationism taught alongside evolution. What does Ian Plimer think of his new friends?

The draft resolution noted there are “a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological and ecological dynamics” that affect climate. The inclusion of “astrological” and “thermological” suggests buffoons run South Dakota.

And last month the Utah House of Representatives passed a resolution rejecting climate science. One supporter of the Bill said “environmentalists were part of a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life and control world population through forced sterilisation and abortion”. You can’t make this stuff up.

In 1953, after he had left office, President Truman condemned McCarthyism as “the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process law”. Inhofe is the new McCarthy; environmentalism is the new communism. Murdoch news outlets around the world light the bonfires on which scientists accused of witchcraft are to be burned.

Denialism has become mad, bad and dangerous, and people of goodwill everywhere must resist it.