Freedom of Information Laws Used By Climate Sceptics To Rifle Through Scientists' Daily Emails

FREEDOM of Information laws across the world were introduced as a way to open governments and their agencies to public and journalistic scrutiny and to extract the kind of information that tends not to make its way into press releases and government pamphlets.

But seen through the eyes of some climate change scientists, it is a law which appears to have been hijacked by climate science sceptics and free market think tanks as a means to rifle through their inboxes in search of anything which, when taken out of context, might be used to make them look bad.

In the US, Penn State University climate scientist Professor Michael Mann - he of the famous 'hockey stick' graph -  recently fought off a long running attempt by the climate science denial think tank the American Tradition Institute to gain access to his emails.

As The Guardian has reported, the ATI, led by one of its directors Christopher Horner, has pursued several other scientists using FOI laws to gain access to their email inboxes. Mr Horner has also made specific requests for correspondence between scientists and journalists.

Mann has described such cases as an “abuse of public records and FOIA laws”, saying the efforts were “frivolous and vexatious”.  

Lawyer with the Climate Science Legal Defence Fund Jeff Ruch told The Guardian that the requests were “basically a spying operation” to “find material that is potential of use in discrediting a scientist.”

Mr Horner claims the requests are a legitimate use of the laws. That said, the Union of Concerned Scientists has gone so far as to issue a guide to help scientists respond to demands for the release of private information, “such as correspondence with peers about research”.

Climate scientists in Australia have also faced requests under the country's state and federal FOI laws which have gone relatively unnoticed.

In recent months, University of Western Australia cognitive psychology Professor Stephan Lewandowsky has been the target of four FOI requests, three of which have asked for correspondence and emails related to his research to be published in print next year in the leading journal Psychological Science.

As DeSmogBlog reported, the research found that people who rejected the science of human-caused climate change were also likely to endorse various conspiracy theories, such as NASA faking moon landings and plots to kill Princess Diana.

Two of the FOI requests were subsequently combined into one and had asked for correspondence between Lewandowsky and bloggers in relation to the paper, which used questionnaires posted on climate change blogs.

A third application requested all documents and emails relating to Professor Lewandowsky's underlying ethics application used to conduct the study and any correspondence from the public about the study.

This has resulted in a release this week of more than 300 pages of correspondence, although the applicant, “Australian Climate Madness” blogger Simon Turnill, has yet to publish the files. Lewandowsky said:

There will have been easily more than 100 person hours of publicly-funded time spent dealing with this request, which cost the applicant only $30 to submit - although I understand there was an charge of $400. Putting in FOI requests seems to be common practice now. There is no question in my mind that the intent is to intimidate and slow down research. These kinds of requests discourage scientists from doing their work.

Professor Lewandowsky said that the release actually showed that accusations made on the blogosphere about the ethical clearance for his paper were “fabricated”.

What this piece of research was doing, was simply asking people questions. The sum total of the ethical considerations, in any case, was close to zero. Any marketing company could do this without even having to ask anyone for ethical clearance.

Lewandowsky said that now the FOI request had been granted, he was happy to publish the entire dump of correspondence himself. Yet in a quirk of the law, he was unable to publish his own correspondence and so had to file his own FOI request to the university in order to access his own files. This request has been granted and the files have been made available.

Lewandowsky has also been sent a fourth FOI request in relation to his blog, Shaping Tomorrow's World.

Blogger Mr Turnill, who has said that the requests are legitimate scrutiny, made headlines earlier this year after he was given access to emails from climate scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra, which The Australian newspaper incorrectly claimed were proof that scientists there had not been subjected to death threats, as had been suggested.

The released files did reveal the scientists had been on the receiving end of a large number of foul and threatening emails.

In a separate case, I can also reveal that Mr Turnill successfully used FOI laws to access alleged abusive emails sent to academics at the University of Melbourne, but has yet to publish the 64 emails which he was given.

Part of that application included a request for correspondence between two named scientists and journalists (of which I was one) in relation to stories about abusive correspondence.

As an aside, it may surprise Australian journalists to learn that any email sent to a government agency email address, including public universities and government departments, is potentially open for release under an FOI request. As I also discovered, this is even the case if the email that you sent explicitly stated that you would protect any source providing information.

In another case also involving the University of Melbourne, FOI laws were also used to extract correspondence between climate scientists and the editors of the Journal of Climate. This came after the scientists had voluntarily alerted the journal to a discrepancy between one methodology which they had described in a paper and the one which had actually been used. The paper was resubmitted in late September.

This has led to the scientists' daily correspondence being publicly pored over by bloggers, including climate science sceptic and mining industry veteran Steve McIntyre.

Last year during the lead up to the Australian government legislating a price on greenhouse gas emissions, The Age newspaper reported that free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs sent no fewer than 750 FOI requests to the Department of Climate Change. 

And what is the result of all of these FOI requests and the hundreds upon hundreds of hours spent processing them?

Not a single issue has been found worthy of any disciplinary action by any employer. No smoking conspiratorial gun. No proof of scientific misconduct.

In my view, the methods of scientists should be open to scrutiny. Indeed, there already exists a mechanism through peer reviewed science journals, which climate science sceptics appear reluctant to engage with.

Freedom of Information laws are an important mechanism for maintaining transparency and enabling public scrutiny.

But shouldn't scientists and journalists be allowed to engage in daily and common deliberations and conversations about climate science without the prospect of every word being broadcast?