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Prominent climate scientist is suing an author and a policy analyst for defamation

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A trial wrapping up this week in Washington, D.C., involves one of the world's most prominent climate scientists. He's suing a right-wing author and a policy analyst for defamation. The case comes at a time of increasing attacks on scientists of all kinds, as NPR's Julia Simon reports.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: You may not have heard of climate scientist Michael Mann, now a professor at UPenn, but you've likely seen his research. In the late 1990s, he helped make a graph showing thousands of years of relatively stable global temperatures then, when humans started burning lots of coal and oil, a dramatic spike upwards. Mann's graph looks like a hockey stick on its side, the blade sticking up.

KERT DAVIES: It showed climate change as a picture.

SIMON: This is Kert Davies at the Center for Climate Integrity. He says because Mann's hockey stick graph was so effective at helping people understand global warming, it became a target.

DAVIES: Consequently, because it became such a powerful image, it was under attack from the beginning.

SIMON: Davies says the attacks came from groups that reject climate science, some funded by the fossil fuel industry. But in this trial in D.C., more than a decade in the making, Mann is suing right-wing author Mark Steyn and policy analyst Rand Simberg. Mann formerly worked at Penn State. In the midst of many attacks on Mann's research, including the hacking of his emails, Penn State opened an investigation. The university found his work held up, but Simberg and Steyn disagreed. In an online post, Simberg compared Mann to former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, a convicted child sex abuser.

Simberg wrote that Mann was the Sandusky of climate science, writing that Mann molested and tortured data. Steyn called Mann's research fraudulent. In court, Mann argued that he lost funding and opportunities and was defamed. Steyn is representing himself. He said if Penn State's president covered up child sexual assault, why wouldn't he cover up Mann's bad science? Mann and Steyn declined to speak to NPR. One of Simberg lawyers, Victoria Weatherford, said inflammatory does not equal defamatory and that her client is allowed to express his opinion even if it's wrong.

VICTORIA WEATHERFORD: No matter how offensive or distasteful or heated it is, that speech is absolutely protected under the First Amendment when it's set against a public figure if the person saying it believed that what they said was true.

SIMON: Mann is far from the only climate scientist facing attacks. Lauren Kurtz directs a legal defense fund that helps climate scientists under fire.

LAUREN KURTZ: I can tell you that we help more scientists every year than the year before. We actually broke a record in 2023.

SIMON: She says last year, they helped over 50 researchers. In recent years, dozens of climate scientists from the federal government reached out to her group, many alleging they were censored under the Trump administration. Kurtz says that other scientists have reached out, too, some working on COVID research.

KURTZ: The vast majority of scientists that we work with, like, they don't want to be public. The scientists like Michael Mann, I think, are actually in the minority in the fact that they're willing to be so public about what's happened to them.

SIMON: Attacks on scientists are ultimately attacks on science, says Peter Hotez, professor of pediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine. Hotez writes about anti-vaccine movements, and he sees a growing threat to scientific research itself.

PETER HOTEZ: Young people looking at future careers, looking at how scientists are attacked are going to say, well, why do I want to go into this profession? So it's going to have long-term ramifications.

SIMON: As for how to stop attacks on scientists, Hotez says he's glad Mann is fighting back in court, but he doesn't think a bunch of lawsuits is a sustainable solution. He wants to be spending his time working on new vaccines, not working with lawyers. Hotez says he's comparing notes with Mann to try to figure out something else to do.

Julia Simon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.