Death threats received by Tony Windsor reveal that the debate over a carbon tax is not really about economic efficiency or policy effectiveness, or even about party politics. It’s about the way responses to climate change threaten the worldview and cultural identity of some groups in the community.

Here, as in the United States, rejecting climate science and resisting greenhouse policies have become lore in the resurgent movement of right-wing populism whose dominant sentiment is anger.

After calling him a “f***ing dog”, Tony Windsor’s anonymous caller said “I hope you die you bastard”, a level of aggression way out of proportion to the possibility of a small rise in energy prices.

Last year I wrote a series of articles describing how Australia’s most distinguished climate scientists have become the target of a new form of cyber-bullying aimed at driving them out of the public debate.

Each time they enter the public domain through a newspaper article or radio interview these scientists are immediately subjected to a torrent of aggressive, abusive and, at times, threatening emails. Apart from the volume and viciousness of the emails, the campaign has two features — it is mostly anonymous and it appears to be orchestrated.

The exposé of cyber-bullying was picked up in the United States. In journals like Scientific American many more stories of intimidation emerged. Stephen Schneider, an eminent climatologist at Stanford University who died a few months ago, said he had received hundreds of threatening emails. Exasperated he asked: “What do I do? Learn to shoot a magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket?”

Schneider said he had observed an “immediate, noticeable rise” in emails whenever climate scientists were attacked by prominent right-wing commentators. Most of those commentators are employed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

The violence of the language is disturbing and designed to intimidate scientists into silence. I have spoken to Australian climate scientists who have upgraded their home security in response to the threats, and a number have taken the more serious ones to the police. Some parliamentarians, including Windsor, have also felt compelled to refer death threats to the AFP.

Tony Windsor believes the hate campaign directed against him is being orchestrated. The timing and content indicate that the cyber-bullying, as well as the phone calls to parliamentarians and the comment sections of websites, are being coordinated by one or more climate denier organisations.

Whether uttered from the Opposition benches, on talk radio or in anonymous emails and phone messages, the violence of the language of those opposed to a carbon price reflects a deep cultural divide.

In his prophecies of national ruin and calls for a “people’s revolt”, Tony Abbott has adopted a level of demagoguery rarely seen in Australian politics. And this kind of belligerent rhetoric simply serves to feed the abuse and threats being rained down on climate scientists, campaigners and parliamentarians.

The only parliamentary leader in the world to agree to meet Lord Monckton, Abbott sent a signal to the Australian public that Monckton’s half-crazed theories about a plot by communists and Nazis to impose world government should be taken seriously.

When Nick Minchin and fellow deniers say that climate change science is a conspiracy by ex-communists to pursue their goal of wrecking Western civilisation and imposing world government, sensible people scoff. But there are plenty of people out there who believe it. Convinced by high profile commentators like Janet Albrechtsen and Andrew Bolt that a secretive elite of scientists, politicians and activists are conspiring to destroy their way of life, some aggressive men have violent thoughts.

One young, female climate campaigner received this email:

“Did you want to offer your children to be brutally gang-r-ped and then horribly tortured before being reminded of their parents socialist beliefs and actions?

“Burn in hell. Or in the main street, when the Australian public finally lynchs you.”

As an author I am targeted too. A couple of months ago I opened my email to read this from someone calling himself “Graeme Bird”:

“Let’s have that evidence then you Stalinist c**t. Either come up with the evidence or admit publicly that you are a fraud and kill yourself. What a complete c**t you are.”

Journalists sometimes trivialise these threats as part of the cut and thrust of politics. But they soon change their tune when they become the targets. Last year I spoke off the record to a number of journalists who had been seriously spooked by the torrent of abuse and threats in response to their reporting on climate change.

It may be only a matter of time before the rage being stoked persuades an unbalanced individual to take the step from violent words in anonymous emails to spilling real blood. If Australia’s security services are not closely monitoring the activities of denialist activists then they are failing in their responsibilities.

Let us hope that in Australia we never hear a police superintendent repeat the words of County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after US congresswoman Giffords was shot: “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

*Clive Hamilton is the author of Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change (Allen & Unwin 2010).

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off