Federal Politics

Mature debate, not abuse, the only way forward

That scientists received death threats is sad, but irrefutable, ROSSLYN BEEBY writes


ast year, The Canberra Times broke the story that a number of Australia's leading climate change scientists were being targeted by a vicious, unrelenting email campaign that had resulted in police investigations of death threats.

The news report was based on information - including copies of a number of abusive emails - provided by more than 30 scientists in all states and territories. As the reporter who researched and wrote the story, the aim in contacting scientists right across Australia was to determine if the abuse was only being directed at pockets of high-profile scientists. If that had been the case, one could argue being a target for hostile comment is an inevitable downside of being a public figure.

Many actors, television presenters, politicians and sports figures will ruefully agree. When Australian-Samoan actor Jay Laga'aia spoke out about racial bias in casting roles for local commercial television, his comments provoked a torrent of racial abuse on digital news response forums. But by outing the issue, Laga'aia made it a subject for serious discussion. There are now calls in influential arts circles for Australian television, and culture generally, to address ''monoracialism.'' Attracting crankish comment has always been a known, calculated risk for anyone taking a principled stand. But unfortunately, the immediacy and reach of the digital world has upped the stakes. Anyone who wants to vent anger, or ill-informed opinion, can fire off an abusive comment to an online forum within seconds, and have the dubious gratification of watching those comments spark an online response. And, as most climate scientists have a university or research agency web page listing their email address along with their list of publications, it's easy to use an anonymous hotmail address to take dissenting opinions about climate change to a personal level.

In the case of the 30 or so climate scientists mentioned previously, many received hate emails that were well beyond the pale. And yes, there were specific threats of violence, sexual assault and worse. In the most stomach-churning case, a woman's children - a toddler and a pre-schooler - were named and threatened. Why wouldn't she be rattled? She received those emails because she agreed to be photographed by a local newspaper to promote a community tree-planting event, and was briefly quoted as urging people to come along and plant trees to mitigate climate change. Disagree by all means, but write a letter to the newspaper's editor, and sign it.

None of the scientists bragged about being a target, and all were apologetic about forwarding to our newspaper examples of the hate mail they received. So it came as a surprise to learn last week that a Sydney climate blogger had made a freedom of information request to obtain examples of these emails from the Australian National University. The ANU initially refused to release the documents, and in response to a formal appeal by the blogger, the Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim was asked to a adjudicate. He is reported as ruling that 10 of the 11 emails sought under FoI ''do not contain threats to kill'' and the other ''could be regarded as intimidating''. The emails in question pertain to one scientist, ANU Climate Change Institute director Professor Will Steffen. He was among the group of 30 contacted by The Canberra Times, and revealed the worst threat he received - and we will not divulge it - was made verbally to one of his staff. It was the chilling nature of that threat - and the casual way in which it was made - that prompted the ANU to question its security arrangements. If they had not, they would have been guilty of ignoring staff safety requirements.

The 30 scientists I spoke to included ecologists, environmental policy experts, meteorologists, atmospheric physicists and agricultural scientists. Perhaps Australia's farmers are more tolerant of differing views, for it was only the agricultural scientists who had not received abusive emails about their research. In fact, they seemed puzzled as to why public debate over climate research should reach such a low point.

One of these scientists pointed out that while many farmers, at public meetings, would willingly argue the toss about whether they were experiencing climate change or climate variability, it was always done with good humour and respect. And, unlike the anonymous climate-hate emailers, the farmers introduced themselves, gave out business cards, listened to explanations and rebuttals from scientists, and often pressed their case by handing over CDs and USB sticks containing weather maps, rainfall graphs and other material. They invited scientists to visit their farms, or discuss matters further over lunch. And, not surprisingly, the learning exchange was not a one-way affair.

Rosslyn Beeby is science and environment reporter.