News | Amicus Briefs

CSLDF Files Brief to Protect NOAA Climate Scientists

On Friday, January 27, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) asked the District of Columbia federal District Court to rule in favor of safeguarding scientific research.

In partnership with the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), CSLDF filed a brief as amici curiae (also known as “friend of the court”) urging the court to protect scientific correspondence and preliminary drafts from indiscriminate disclosure to adverse groups.

In the case, the conservative group Judicial Watch has sued for the private emails of nine National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate scientists who authored a June 2015 study published in Science. The study, since replicated by other researchers, found that global temperatures have increased faster than previously thought.

When the lawsuit was filed in December 2015, Judicial Watch issued a press release claiming that the research was politically motivated, and that it believed the scientists’ emails “will show the Obama administration put politics before science to advance global warming alarmism.”

Judicial Watch’s lawsuit followed on the heels of an attempt by Congressional Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (TX) to use congressional subpoena powers to obtain the NOAA emails, because — in his words — NOAA has “altered [climate] data to get the results they needed to advance [the Obama] administration’s extreme climate change agenda.”

NOAA gave some documents to Rep. Smith, but has steadfastly refused to produce the NOAA scientists’ email correspondence. (Previous coverage of that dispute is available here and here.)

In a press release explaining its decision to protect the emails, NOAA explained that “the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse” and it “is a long-standing practice in the scientific community to protect the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discourse.”

Public letters signed by major scientific groups, including our fellow amici AMS and UCS, and letters signed by over 600 individual scientists — including former NOAA scientists — thanked NOAA for protecting the free exchange of scientific ideas.

Yet Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, is now using the civil litigation system to try to obtain these same emails: roughly 8,000 pages in total. Under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Judicial Watch seeks access to the same private emails, confidential peer review correspondence, and preliminary drafts that NOAA successfully protected against Rep. Lamar Smith.

Unfortunately, this is a growing trend. Groups who disagree with researchers’ conclusions increasingly use FOIA lawsuits to target scientists and gain access to their private communications. These lawsuits do not ask for the data, methodologies, or research results that are the basis of the scientific studies — and which can be used to better understand or critique the science. Instead, they seek only troves of researchers’ private correspondence.

Forcing the release of researchers’ private emails limits communications among scientists, who temper their candor for fear that their personal conversations could be disclosed to adverse groups; it makes researchers at private institutions wary of collaborating with scientists at public institutions; and public dissemination of these emails tends to confuse the public because highly technical conversations are taken out of context, inadvertently or on purpose (as happened with the so-called “Climategate” manufactured controversy).

For these reasons, CLSDF believes that researchers’ confidential communications should remain private except in extreme circumstances, such as where a prima facie showing of crime or fraud has been made.

CSLDF remains committed to defending against the misuse of the legal system to target individual researchers. The coming years are likely to be some of the toughest faced by the climate science community, and we are preparing to address these challenges.

Learn more in the press release CSLDF issued with AMS and UCS, and from this Inside Climate News article about the case. 

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