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September 01, 2023

The IPCC’s latest report is downright grim—Yet climate scientists are still being silenced

Rachael Lyle-Thompson

Last spring, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international group of climate change scientists, released its final installment of an eight-year long project studying climate change and its impacts. The report, AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023, and its findings read like a nightmarish science fiction novel. According to the latest installment of this project undertaken by the IPCC, anthropogenic global warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius above the temperatures observed from 1850 to 1900 and that temperature shift has spurred changes to our climate that are unprecedented in recent human history, and future harm will ensue with every fractional degree of warming.

As examples of potential impacts, the AR6 Synthesis Report provides a summary chart (Figure 2.1) for policymakers entitled, “The causal chain from emissions to resulting warming of the climate system” that links GHG emissions to human activity and relates those to the demonstrated increase in global temperatures compared to baseline temperatures measured from 1850 to 1900. Given the degree of climate risk and current global inequities promising a disproportionate impact on economically impoverished communities, climate change and our collective efforts to mitigate it will worsen these inequities without a swift and just transition of our global economy. While the report’s projections may summon a dystopian landscape, these are disastrously real projections.

The AR6 Synthesis Report makes clear that the world must take climate scientists’ work seriously—and it must do so urgently. Yet, as calamitous as the report’s findings are, allegations made by Scientist Rebellion, an activist group that leaked an early version of the report, suggest that the report was inappropriately influenced by corporate interests. In the face of the climate crisis, lawmakers need to make it easier for scientists to continue their critical work, so that special interests are not able to silence climate scientists.

Recently, invasive open records requests, defamation lawsuits, and other misuses of the legal system threaten climate scientists’ ability to freely conduct research and openly share it with the public. In my work as a lawyer with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, I defend climate scientists against this type of harassment, which often comes at great cost to their personal and professional lives. The weaponization of these legal tools—by those whose very intent is to stymie action on climate change—derails scientific work, inhibits the free exchange of ideas, and causes immense levels of stress to climate scientists (and sometimes their families) as they must sideline their research to address these anxiety-inducing legal issues. More significantly, it hinders climate progress at a time when, as this latest IPCC report illustrates, some climate impacts are already so severe that adaptation is no longer possible.

One recent example of the misuse of the law to hamper free discussion and exploration of climate change comes from the State of Ohio. The Ohio Senate has now passed SB 83, a bill that would limit the teaching of “controversial beliefs” including “climate policy” in Ohio higher education schools. The bill is now pending in the Ohio Assembly. In chilling language, SB 83 requires that regulated Ohio schools “affirm” that their faculty will allow students to reach their own conclusions about the defined “controversial beliefs” and “shall not” seek to inculcate any political belief. But when it comes to climate change, “both sides” arguments are often false or misleading industry misinformation, and it is a fool’s errand to discern what constitutes a faculty member “inculcating” a political comment on climate policy.

At the same time that we are seeing state interference with climate change and open discussion, open records laws are being used in particularly pernicious ways against scientists. These laws provide the public with vital information about policy makers and other state and federal business, and are used to positive effects by investigative journalists, watchdog groups, and taxpayers who candidly seek information about government operations. But, because the laws permit people to request public university records, they are also increasingly used to target climate scientists and disrupt their legitimate work. In my experience, the majority of these invasive requests come from anti-science politicians and partisan groups with hostile motives and ties to the fossil fuel industry. These groups and individuals regularly abuse open records laws to harass publicly funded climate scientists by demanding emails and documents—sometimes for a period of 10 years or more—simply because of the area of research within which these scientists work.

Many of the country’s state open records laws were poorly written and did not anticipate the waterfall of documents that researchers would need to sift through given the rise of technology. Massachusetts’s public records law, for example, dates back to 1851, before public universities even existed in the state. For prolific researchers who have been working in their field for decades, open records requests can sometimes yield hundreds of thousands of documents. Fossil fuel–funded interests then cherry-pick data and conversations from these emails or studies—including “what if” arguments and devil’s advocate debates that are integral to the scientific process—and use them to confuse the public or embarrass climate scientists to prevent climate progress.

Unfortunately, universities are not always equipped to present an adequate legal defense on behalf of the researcher, even when protections and exemptions may apply. Public universities in particular may be more vulnerable to abusive public records requests compared to their private counterparts. In many such cases, my colleagues and I have had to step in. Nonetheless, these cases can drag on for years, taking valuable time away from a climate scientist’s research. And the stakes can be even higher when it comes to defamation lawsuits, bogus “investigations,” and other legal threats against scientists brought by fossil fuel–funded interests. Even when scientists are not facing outright frivolous lawsuits, many of them—and scientific journals themselves—now fear being threatened by fossil fuel–funded lawyers when publishing research findings concerning climate change.

While the IPCC’s 2023 Synthesis Report all but begs the world to rapidly shift away from burning fossil fuels—the number one cause of the climate crisis—climate scientists, especially female scientists and scientists of color, continue to be targeted simply for conducting their research and sharing it with the public. This includes receiving death threats and being inundated with the types of invasive open records requests for emails dating back years or decades.

Climate scientists have tried—and are continuing to try—to warn us. We need to listen and heed them. If you are a climate scientist in need of legal assistance due to research interference or another legal threat, please consider contacting lawyers to defend your efforts. And if you are an individual deeply concerned with the results of this final installment to the IPCC’s synthesis report, please urge your representatives to take “swift, equitable, significant, and effective” action on climate change, in order to secure a net-zero, climate-resilient future.

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Rachael Lyle-Thompson


Rachael Lyle-Thompson is a senior attorney at the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, based in New York City. Her recent coverage of environmental issues has appeared in Undark Magazine, Eos Magazine, and other award-winning science publications.