A hearing today has implications for academic freedom across the country. Prince William County, Virginia Circuit Court Judge Gaylord Finch granted climate scientist Michael Mann the right to intervene on his own behalf in a lawsuit filed by a climate change denial group seeking to get his private papers and emails from the University of Virginia. While this is an important victory for American-style freedom and privacy, its background is a story of just the opposite — attempts at authoritarian repression of science for political purposes.
In 2010 newly-elected Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a climate change denier, sued the University of Virginia to get Mann’s private papers. Cuccinelli wanted to sift through them in the wake of “climategate” to see if he could find anything he could spin into a case under the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, arguing (pdf) that while an employee of UVA, Mann’s work on climate change may have used public money to perpetrate a fraud.
Mann has become a political target because he helped create the “hockey stick” graph, which shows global temperatures stable for a thousand years and spiking since about 1950. It has the iconic power of e=mc2, and discrediting him has become the holy grail of climate change deniers.
This is why Mann was at the center of the climategate attacks in late in 2009. Climate deniers illegally hacked into scientists’ emails and claimed they showed scientists, including Mann, manipulating data. Their charges were investigated by four separate bodies, each one reaffirming the soundness of the science, and exonerating the scientists. In other words, climategate was over — nothing, it turned out. Instead of data, it was the press that had been manipulated.
Rightly, the University of Virginia, which was founded by scientist Thomas Jefferson, rejected Cuccinelli’s McCarthyite attack. Cuccinelli sued and lost. The case in under appeal.
But it didn’t end there. Next, a little-known group named Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) got into the act. WTP is a political advocacy group backed primarily by the energy industry. It was first registered as a Colorado nonprofit in 2008 by Scott Shires, a Republican operative who pleaded guilty that same year to fraudulently obtaining federal grants to develop alternative fuels.
In 2010 WTP changed its name to American Tradition Partnership (ATP), and announced that it had launched the American Tradition Institute, a think tank that would be “battling radical environmentalist junk science head on.” The “junk science” ATP seems most concerned with is what the US National Academy of Sciences says should now be regarded as “settled facts” – that the Earth is warming and humans are the likely cause.
Last year WTP/ATP fought for a Colorado referendum allowing voters to opt out of the state’s renewable energy standard. The standard requires 30 percent of electricity produced by investor-owned utilities to come from renewables by 2030. The referendum’s backers missed the filing deadline, but ATI sued Colorado over the standard, and is now targeting similar standards in Delaware, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico and Ohio.
WTP/ATP also fights laws that restrict corporate money in elections or require disclosure of contributions. In 2009, the group sued Longmont, CO over their Fair Campaign Practices Act. The city settled and agreed to drop disclosure requirements. In 2010, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, WTP/ATP successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Montana Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which prohibited independent political expenditures by corporations.
During the 2010 elections, the Montana Commission of Political Practices found that the organization broke state campaign laws by failing to register as a political committee or report its donors and spending. The state suggested WTP/ATP was involved in corruption and money laundering. They found that it solicited unlimited contributions to support candidates and then passed them through a “sham organization,” the Bozeman-based political action committee The Coalition for Energy and the Environment that ran attack ads against Democrats. WTP told corporations that it aimed to combat “radical environmentalists” and “beat them at their own game” and that their contributions would remain secret.
These actions reflect an all-too-common authoritarian goal, a goal that vested interests have pursued since the days of Galileo: forcibly silencing freedom of speech, thought, inquiry and expression that runs counter to the vested interests. In Galileo’s 1633 indictment, it was the Catholic Church, then the seat of world political power. Today the vested interests that are being threatened by the measured facts of science are at the current seat of world political power, the US energy industry. But quashing science is anti-freedom and unAmerican, so they try to do it anonymously, through groups like ATI.
ATI’s executive director is Paul Chesser (right), who WTP/ATP describes as a “noted climate scholar.” But Chesser is not a scientist. According to his bio, Chesser edited two weekly conservative North Carolina Christian newspapers, Raleigh World and Triad World. His writing has appeared in many fundamentalist and anti-science websites including The Good Steward.com, Evangelical Press, the Christian Examiner, The Home School Legal Defense Association, and antiscience evolution denier Answers in Genesis.
Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies (ISS) reported that Chesser then moved to edit the Carolina Journal, the monthly newsletter of the John Locke Foundation (JLF), a “free market” think tank in Raleigh, NC that has been a leading voice of climate denial in that state. This is ironic, since Locke is considered the father of empiricism, and defined how scientific knowledge is different from and superior to “but faith, or opinion,” something the JLF seems to have missed. The JLF ignores empiricism in favor of publishing rhetorical arguments for a predetermined conclusion – the opposite of empiricism. An example is their Citizens Guide to Global Warming (pdf), which is an antiscience publication that attacks what the group calls “global warming alarmism” and promotes the arguments of climate deniers.
The Locke Foundation was founded – and is still funded in part – by Art Pope. Pope is a national director of the Koch brothers-founded Tea Party astroturfer Americans for Prosperity. The Kochs fund several climate denial groups. Their foundations contributed at least $70,000 to the Locke Foundation, according to the Institute of Southern Studies (ISS).
Sturgis says that Chesser also worked with Climate Strategies Watch, a joint project of the JLF and the Heartland Institute, that sought to discredit the Center for Climate Strategies, a nonprofit group that helps states figure out ways to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
Sturgis’s research shows that Chesser also served as a special correspondent to the Heartland Institute, which has received at least $676,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998. Between 1997 and 2008, it also received $30,000 from foundations connected to the Kochs and another $50,000 from Pope’s family foundation. Walter Buchholtz, an ExxonMobil executive, served as Heartland’s Government Relations Advisor, according to Heartland’s 2005 IRS Form 990, pg. 15.
Chesser then became an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative think tank and propaganda dispenser funded by the Scaife Foundations, which are controlled by the family that owns Gulf Oil. He blogged at the climate denialist Cooler Heads Coalition, an industry astroturfer closely tied to the think tank and astroturfer Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). CEI opposes greenhouse gas regulations and has taken over $2 million from ExxonMobil. It also has funding from the American Petroleum Institute, Texaco, and the Amoco, Koch, Scaife and Pope foundations. ATI’s director of litigation, Christopher Horner, is a CEI fellow.
At ATI, Sturgis says that Chesser’s antiscience propaganda efforts are largely bankrolled by fossil fuel interests. According to its most recent filing with the IRS, ATI last year received $40,000 from its sister group ATP, which in turn is supported by oil, gas and coal interests. It received another $5,000 from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a Virginia-based think tank that since 1998 has received over $1 million in funding from Exxon Mobil; between 1997 and 2008, Atlas also received $122,300 from the Koch foundations and $735,000 from the Pope foundation.
ATI’s biggest funder is Montana businessman Doug Lair and the Lair Family Foundation; together they contributed over 75 percent of its total income. Lair’s fortune comes from Lair Petroleum, a family business that was sold in 1989 to William Koch, brother of Charles and David Koch. Lair still works for Lair Petroleum according to 2010 state campaign finance reports.
Today’s hearing considered Mann’s motion to intervene in ATI’s case against UVA in order to protect his own papers under the ideals of privacy and freedom that Americans have always held dear. Without this right, Mann would have had no say in what papers the UVA might ultimately release to ATI.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said lawsuits like ATI’s “have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas.” Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said “Scientists should be able to challenge other scientists’ ideas and discuss their preliminary thinking before their analyses are complete and published.” Grifo said that “scientists shouldn’t have to worry if political opponents of science will be sifting through emails” for bits and phrases to spin. “It has a chilling effect” on research, she said, and that’s not going to take America where we need to go. The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to the UVA president arguing that the Virginia public documents statute exempts scholarly data of a proprietary nature that has not yet been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented – in other words, Mann’s emails. And US copyright law suggests that the documents may be covered under common copyright.
What is at stake in Mann’s case is something much larger and more precious than papers and emails, or partisan politics — what is at stake is Americans’ freedom to investigate, debate and express ideas that run counter to those of corporations. Attacks on this basic freedom are a step away from democracy and toward tyranny.