Threats Sent to Australian Climate Scientists Fuel a Debate

The news that Australian climate scientists were relocated into secure offices after receiving death threats and abusive e-mails became a political issue in parliament this week.

The flap began with a 4 June article in The Canberra Times by Rosslyn Beeby headlined "Climate of fear," which reported that "more than 30 researchers ranging from ecologists to policy experts" had acknowledged receiving threatening e-mails. The report didn't name all the scientists but said that some had been moved for their safety. Contacted by ScienceInsider, a spokesperson for the Australian National University in Canberra said, "In response to increasing harassment, including death threats, nine staff working in the area of climate change were moved to a more secure location which requires card access." She added, that "death threats occurred over the course of the last 3 years and were passed to the Australian Federal Police."

The news came out as a parliamentary committee was considering a carbon tax proposed by the government. A member of the opposition Liberal Party who is against the tax, shadow science minister Sophie Mirabella, charged that the scientists quoted in the media "appear to have been not totally honest" about death threats. She brushed aside the revelations as "hysterics," saying the threats occurred 12 months to 5 years ago. Scientists are speaking about them now, she implied, to boost support for the carbon tax.

University of Melbourne meteorology professor David Karoly, a contributing author to reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that "abusive e-mails are nothing new." He has received death threats himself and notes that threats "have increased in intensity over the last 6 months."

The temperature of the climate change debate has risen since Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed a carbon tax in February. The details of how the tax would operate are being decided by a parliamentary committee; the plan will receive a full debate this summer. Also fueling tensions is a 23 May report released by the Climate Commission, which was recently appointed by the government to provide independent scientific advice on climate change. The report, titled The Critical Decade, warns that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced now if there is to be any hope of significantly limiting global temperature rises. Author Will Steffen, executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, is one of those who received abusive e-mails.