An official fighting fund for climate scientists battling freedom-of-information requests from well-funded climate denier think tanks has been established in the United States.

The Climate Science Legal Defence Fund (CSLDF) was established last year after Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College put a plea on his blog for the scientific community to help fund the legal costs of University of Virginia climatologist Dr Michael Mann. Mann fought against FOI requests from the American Tradition Institute — a think tank that aims to battle “radical environmentalist junk science head on” — for his emails.

Within 24 hours the science community had raised $10,000 to help Mann’s legal costs and the CSLDF was born.

So far private individuals have raised $25,000, which has been mainly used to offset Mann’s legal costs. The CSLDF has also grown its network of law firms that will offer pro bono work to scientists on the state and federal level.

The CSLDF last week announced that it had teamed with the non-profit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which will provide fiscal sponsorship (its legal and tax-exempt status) and logistical support to CSLFD.

Crikey spoke to Mandia, one of the co-founders CSLFD, about the need for such an organisation. Think tanks including American Tradition Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Southeastern Legal Foundation have used Freedom of Information laws in the US “to harass climate scientists”, he says.

“All of these have ties to various industry groups such as Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and others that find well-understood climate change science to be inconvenient to their bottom lines or ideological beliefs,” he said.

As Mandia wrote in his original “Dear colleagues” plea on his blog: “Many scientists do not enjoy the institutional support necessary to fight attacks from well-funded science-denying groups.  We need to help scientists to defend themselves.”

But why are FOI requests such a problem?

It’s not just about the money. “Responding to FOI requests bogs scientists down thus prevent them from actively pursuing their research,” said Mandia. “FOI requests also cause scientists to worry if every email they send might be scrutinised for a sentence that might be taken out of context and plastered all over the internet and media. We saw this a few times already with the stolen emails from Climate Research Unit.”

Mandia is referring to the Climategate email scandal from the University of East Anglia in 2009 when thousands of emails written by climate scientists were hacked and spread around the web. Lines quoted out of context — such as the infamous “hide the decline” — caused climate sceptics to believe that scientists were engaged in a cover-up of epic proportions.

The focus on scientists’ emails doesn’t help progress the science, noted Mandia: “Scientists must be able to communicate their free exchange of ideas without fear in order to further scientific understanding of important issue such as climate change.”

Currently the CSLDF is only supporting US scientists but Mandia says they hope their success will establish a model for others outside the US to follow and that the CSLDF is willing to offer guidance to any interested groups wanting to establish something similar.

But do Australian climate scientists need a similar fighting fund? Not yet, David Karoly, a professor of meteorology and well-known climate scientist at the University of Melbourne, tells Crikey. But that’s only because the nation’s universities are footing the bill.

“My understanding is that at the moment Australia does not need such a fund because my university and others have responded positively in terms of providing the university’s academic and legal resources to defend academic climate scientists in Australia,” said Karoly. “But that almost certainly is not unlimited.”

Karoly is not aware of any FOI requests against climate scientists in Australia, but says complaints about academic misconduct or threatening emails are common. Karoly has already had to report one serial complainer to the police and says although the man appears to have acted alone, he is associated with an organisation.

Complaints of academic misconduct usually come from individuals, says Karoly, “but those individuals are usually associated with what I call non-think tanks or unthinking tanks”.

“Every hour that I spend dealing with these things means it’s one hour less on either public communication or research time,” Karoly said. “And I know that there are other climate scientists in Australia that have to deal with the same sorts of issues.”

Peter Fray

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