Climate Scientists Targeted by Loony Lawsuits

September 20, 2022


Social media savvy climate scientists have something else to worry about beside the fallout from rising global temperatures.

A loose coalition of conspiracy theorists, libertarians and conservative groups—some with fossil-fuel ties—have gone after those who have provided fact-checks used to counter misleading claims circulating on sites such as Facebook and TikTok.

The climate researchers, who often volunteer their time, have faced lawsuits designed to drain resources and dissuade their work as well as requests seeking voluminous records from the public institutions that employ them— a tool often used by journalists and others to investigative public agencies. The researchers say the public records that are divulged as a result of the requests are sometimes then used to challenge — or smear — their work and are ultimately intended to muzzle them.

“They make a point of going after the fact-checkers because, in addition to stopping regulation, they also want to prevent or discourage climate scientists from doing things that might educate the public,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director at the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Kurtz’s organization provides legal assistance to the researchers, and she said 2022 has been the busiest year yet.

Doug MacMartin is just one of the fund’s recipients. Last fall, while he juggled washing the dishes and entertaining his newborn son at home, complete with flecks of vomit on his shirt, a stranger rang the doorbell and served him with a lawsuit.

The plaintiff, Dane Wigington, runs a website called GeoEngineering Watch, which is dedicated to exposing “global climate engineering,” or using technologies to alter weather systems. Wigington made a conspiracy theory-filled documentary, called “The Dimming,” on the same topic. Among its claims is that condensation trails behind airplanes were actually dangerous chemicals being disbursed by the government to alleviate global warming. 

MacMartin described the documentary as “pure fantasy” on the fact-checking website Climate Feedback, which TikTok and Facebook employ to assess the accuracy of science-related posts.

Wigington claims that MacMartin’s comments caused Facebook to limit the visibility of his documentary, curbing its reach and the amount of revenue it generated. He sought $75,000 in damages—not from Facebook or Climate Feedback—but from MacMartin himself.

“I mostly felt disbelief,” MacMartin recalls. “A bit of shock combined with, ‘I just don’t have time for this.’”

Researchers have been hit with lawsuits and Freedom of Information requests from their public employers seeking voluminous records, which then are used, sometimes out of context, to undermine their work, the researchers say.

Such efforts to target fact-checkers with lawsuits and public records requests waste time and money, sometimes out of their own pockets, the researchers said. The campaigns can also intimidate volunteers into keeping quiet, they said.

“They make a point of going after the fact-checkers because, in addition to stopping regulation, they also want to prevent or discourage climate scientists from doing things that might educate the public,” said Kurtz.

In a little more than a decade, her group has helped 240 researchers fend off lawsuits and other types of challenges from opponents, including dozens involving fighting what they believe are requests for records that are meant for intimidation, according to Kurtz. The fund normally helps about 40 scientists a year, but has already assisted 35 so far in 2022, she said.

Public records requests, and the data they sometimes unearth, are a common tool used by journalists and others to investigate public agencies. They have been a key tool for both sides on the climate change issue, used to hold utility companies accountable but also by climate skeptics to extract information that could discredit a climate scientist.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at University of California, Los Angeles who often speaks publicly about wildfires and droughts in the Western US,  recalled his own frustrating experience dealing with a public record request. A group called Energy Policy Advocates sent a records request to UCLA seeking emails, text messages and private encrypted messages related to a fact-check by Swain and others of a Wall Street Journal review of the book, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,” by Steven Koonin, a former Undersecretary for Science in the US Department of Energy under President Barack Obama. 

Swain attempted to challenge the request with a university lawyer, complaining of the “presumptive intent of disrupting primary research and outreach activities by inundating climate scientists with requests.” A representative for the records department, while sympathetic, responded that the requesters’ motivations were irrelevant and that they were bound by law to provide the information.

“I spend nights and weekends compiling and going through thousands and thousands of emails because these requests are extremely broad,” he said. “In some cases they’re essentially open ended: they’re asking about multiple years, multiple keywords and multiple platforms.”

Swain, who receives regular death threats and hate mail, said he is secure enough in his job that he plans to continue speaking out against what he believes are bogus climate claims. But he said not everyone has that luxury.

“I think some folks view this as, ‘Why would I voluntarily make this harder for myself?’” he said. 

Emmanuel Vincent, a French climate scientist who runs Paris-based Climate Feedback, said volunteer researchers and paid staff members who conduct fact-checks receive harassing emails daily. Climate Feedback is contracted by Facebook and TikTok to advise when a post should be removed or partially blocked, part of a broader effort to curb the spread of false information. The non-profit is currently embroiled in two lawsuits from subjects of their fact-checks, he said. 

Earlier this year, for instance, the organization was sued by Libertarian journalist John Stossel, who is seeking more than $2 million from it and co-defendant Meta Platforms Inc. Among Stossel’s claims is that Facebook limited the visibility of his video about the 2020 California wildfires named “Government Fueled Fires” because Facebook and Climate Feedback fact-checkers “falsely attributed to Stossel a claim he never made, and on that basis flagged the content as ‘misleading’ and ‘missing context,’” according to the lawsuit. 

In an interview Stossel dismissed the idea that the suit would intimidate scientists. Instead, he said it was focused on forcing Facebook to reconsider the labels it had placed on his videos. Stossel said part of his legal fees were being funded by wealthy individuals but declined to disclose their names. “Climate Feedback is an activist group that wants people to be hysterical about climate change,” he said. 


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