I had been opening mail at my desk that afternoon in August 2010 when a dusting of white powder fell from the folds of a letter. I dropped the letter, held my breath and slipped out the door as swiftly as I could, shutting it behind me. First I went to the bathroom to scrub my hands.
Then I called the police.
It turned out to be cornstarch, not anthrax. And it was just one in a long series of threats I’ve received since the late 1990s, when my research illustrated the unprecedented nature of global warming, producing an upward-trending temperature curve whose shape has been likened to a hockey stick.
All of this must ring familiar to professors who find themselves on a watchlist or are facing online harassment for what they teach, write, or say. I’ve faced hostile investigations by politicians, demands that I be fired from my job, threats against my life, and even threats against my family. I I thought those threats would have diminished as human-caused climate change has become recognized as the overwhelming scientific consensus and as climate science began to receive the support of the federal government. But with the broader political climate that has accompanied the Trump administration, my colleagues and I are facing a renewed onslaught of intimidation, from inside and outside the government.
The AAUP is collecting stories about online harassment of faculty to get a sense of the prevalence of such instances at colleges and universities around the country. Submit an incident here.
One thing is different now than when I faced similar attacks nearly a decade ago: a very rapid and concerted pushback against the disinformation and misinformation. As a member of the AAUP and a steadfast supporter of the fight for academic freedom, I am heartened by the strong response that faculty have taken against some of the most dangerous elements of this new watchlist and science-denying culture.
That’s not to say that obstacles don’t remain. We face an unprecedented assault on science by the government that should be supporting and promoting it. The disrespect that the nominee to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, displays for science is deeply distressing. And he is just one of a group of ominously anti-science advisors and notorious climate change deniers who now hold key positions in the Trump administration.
I worry that younger scientists might be deterred from going into climate research (or any topic where scientific findings can prove inconvenient to powerful vested interests). As someone who has weathered many attacks, I would urge these scientists to have courage.
The fate of science and academia hang in the balance.
Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science