As regular readers of this column know well, the past several months have been unusually good to climate skeptics, and extremely bad for the majority of climate scientists who think the scientific evidence pointing to manmade climate change is extremely robust.
The key opening salvo came last December, when several well-known scientists had their emails stolen and used for an effective assault on climate science via out-of-context quotes and baseless allegations. This dustup, referred to by many as 'climategate,' helped foster the notion that climate science is controlled by a tight-knit cabal of experts determined to rig the science to suit their best interests.
Although several investigations have since cleared these scientists of most allegations, individual researchers have come under heavy fire as a result of this episode, as well as the discovery of several relatively insignificant errors in the landmark 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. In the process, the public has grown more confused about what scientists know about the climate system and how human activities are transforming it, and public concern about climate change has declined significantly in several key countries, including the U.S.
How should scientists counterattack? One researcher, prominent Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver, thinks he has an answer: Sue the media for libel.
After all, the media is the conduit through which much of the misinformation flows, so why not target instances of journalistic malpractice?
As John Wihbey details in the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, in late April Weaver filed suit against the National Post, a Canadian newspaper that has run numerous articles extremely critical of Weaver's work and those of his colleagues. For example, according to Wihbey, the Post has called Weaver "Canada's warmist spinner in chief," and "generally impute[ed] to Weaver various views that he claims he doesn't have." (Weaver's requests that the newspaper correct the record by issuing retractions/corrections were unsuccessful).
In the lawsuit, Weaver, who was a lead author of one of the IPCC's working groups for its 2007 report, claims the articles include "grossly irresponsible falsehoods that have gone viral on the Internet." Among those claims is that Weaver has turned against the IPCC and its conclusions, as trumpeted in this story in late January.
"If I sit back and do nothing to clear my name, these libels will stay on the Internet forever," Weaver stated. "They'll poison the factual record, misleading people who are looking for reliable scientific information about global warming."
As Wihbey discusses, the lawsuit is directed at the newspaper's editor and the authors of the articles, all of which were published between December 2009 and February of this year, during the period when climategate coverage was at its peak.
Weaver has a decent chance of succeeding with his suit, according to the Yale Forum article, since unlike in the U.S., in Canada the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant, not the plaintiff.
The Yale Forum quotes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law, as stating that if a court concludes that Weaver has in fact been libeled (and by extension many other climate scientists may have been as well), it would be "a way of more authoritatively setting the record straight." Presumably this could repair some of Weaver's professional reputation, as well as that of climate science in general.
What do you think? Is Weaver's legal action likely to change any minds, and restore public confidence in climate science?
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.