Charles Zeller

A Visionary Spirit: Our Thanks to Charles Zeller

CSLDF Co-founder and outgoing Treasurer

CSLDF would not exist as it does today without the vision, dedication, and unwavering support of Charles Zeller, the organization’s co-founder and outgoing Board Treasurer. As he transitions to a new role on the Board of Directors, we wish to recognize his significant contributions to CSLDF and to the thousands of scientists it has benefited.

As a founding Board member, Charles helped lay the groundwork for what is still the only organization of its kind in the United States, an organization that for over twelve years has been able to provide free legal aid to climate scientists facing personal and professional peril as a result of their research. His belief in the mission of CSLDF was so profound that Charles invested not only his time and expertise but also the financial resources that were vital to transforming CSLDF from a dream into a reality.

From fellow co-founder and Board member Scott Mandia:

“Charles was there for CSLDF from the beginning as a member of the public who offered very generous financial support. He then stepped up to become a Board member and served that role for more than a decade. It is fair to say that CSLDF might not be the organization it is today if not for Charles Zeller. I will miss his leadership as our Board Treasurer, but I know he will continue to be a huge supporter as CSLDF continues to support the scientific community.”

As far back as his college days, Charles always had a visionary and enterprising spirit. He was a pioneer in computing, and his interest in technology led him from the California Institute of Technology into what would be a long and successful career in the field. According to Peter Cross, Charles’ Caltech housemate, fellow researcher, and lifelong friend:

“Upon graduation, Charles dove into computer technology and spent several years working in the computation center at his alma mater. This technical focus ultimately enabled him to ride the wave and become an early employee of Dell Technologies.”

After retiring in 2000, Charles became increasingly interested in climate science, particularly the growing number of attacks on scientists. As these attacks grew more intense, so too did his support of the individuals and organizations fighting back and working to raise awareness of the crisis. Again from Peter Cross:

“In the years since leaving Dell, alarmed by the growing threat of anthropogenic climate change, he has directed his energy toward understanding the physics (and politics!) of global atmospheric warming. Among other things, this led Charles back to Caltech to join the Advisory Council of the Resnick Sustainability Institute which is carrying out pioneering research and development on a wide variety of promising approaches for amelioration of the looming climate disaster.”

Charles’ successful career gave him the knowledge, experience, and means to support a variety of climate-focused and other organizations. He threw his weight behind worthy causes, including President Obama’s first presidential campaign, providing not just financial support but the inspiration to draw others to the fight.

From Peter Sinclair, author at Yale Climate Connections and personal friend to Charles:

“Charles recognized early on the importance of defending embattled science and scientists, well before the ‘Climate Wars’ were broadly understood by most media observers – and importantly, he did more than perceive the problem, he acted.”

His recognition of the importance of taking real action to defend science brought Charles into contact with Scott Mandia and Josh Wolfe. In 2011, the three of them joined forces to create an organization that could provide legal aid to scientists facing harassment and abuse for their critical work on climate change. Thanks to this powerful combination of passion and vision, and fueled by Charles’ generosity, the organization was born.

According to Josh:

“More than a decade since its founding, CSLDF is a resource for the climate science community that has a staff and a stable financial base. It is easy to forget that it started as a grassroots effort. Charles stepped in during the earliest days of the organization, both with his own giving and by introducing the organization to other donors. It is the only reason the organization still exists today.

During those early days when momentum is difficult to sustain, Charles always made sure we reached our fundraising goals. He used to host an annual dinner of climate scientists and a few people from the tech community in San Francisco every year. He let us hijack the dinner and make it a fundraiser for CSLDF. And when we decided it was too important a cause to be run by volunteers, Charles put up the majority of the money we used to hire Lauren Kurtz as Executive Director.”

Dr. Naomi Oreskes, another founding Board member, had herself faced harassment when she published evidence of the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activity. Through a network of scientists who had been similarly targeted, Dr. Oreskes was asked to become a founding Board member of CSLDF and leaped at the opportunity to be part of an organization that could have supported her when she faced similar attacks.

“Scientists should be free to do their research and publish their findings without fear of intimidation or political pressure. If they do face harassment, however, CSLDF has their back. I am proud to serve on the Board of an organization that Charles co-founded, helping to protect researchers against anti-science attacks attempting to silence them, as I was once attacked. As Charles has recognized, no one should face this on their own.”

The organization’s first client was Dr. Michael Mann, an atmospheric scientist. He was facing a lawsuit and personal threats to himself and his family as a result of his work. Charles’ efforts helped raise over $100,000 to support Dr. Mann’s legal bills, and CSLDF provided the legal assistance and moral support Dr. Mann needed to continue this vital work.

“CSLDF and Charles were essential in helping me defend against a well-funded legal attack by fossil fuel-funded interests determined to discredit and silence my work. Because of their support, I was able to not only fight back but also to continue my climate research and my efforts to bring attention to the climate crisis.” 

For over twelve years, scientists and researchers like Dr. Mann have benefited from Charles’ support. Many have received direct legal assistance that has prevented them from being burdened and ultimately silenced by overwhelming legal threats; thousands of others have learned how to avoid legal issues through CSLDF’s library of free educational resources.

Some, like Dr. John Mashey, benefited from the legal assistance offered by CSLDF and from Charles’ personal generosity and support.

“Charles was certainly an inspiration, as another software/hardware engineer who added a second productive career as a strong defender of climate science and scientists. More personally, I’ll always be grateful, when I was hit with dubious lawsuits for $2 million, that he quickly contributed personally to help pay the legal bills.

This strongly reinforced two important CSLDF messages: it reminded members of the climate science community that CSLDF had their backs, and attackers that they would be wasting their own time and money filing such lawsuits.

Thanks, Charles, both generally for your many years of support for climate science, and personally for your help in my case.”

As Treasurer, Charles has gone well beyond fundraising and financial oversight to also play a fundamental role in program planning, policy setting, and outreach efforts. Despite challenges posed by a strongly anti-science administration and its lasting impact on scientific integrity, a global pandemic, and the deepening climate crisis, Charles’ steady hand and personal generosity have been critical to CSLDF’s success.

Since 2014, Charles and his wife have generously funded annual summer fundraising matching challenges. Their support has been and continues to be instrumental in transforming the dream of CSLDF into a life-changing reality that has helped thousands of researchers working to find solutions to the climate crisis that affects us all.

The impact of Charles’ many contributions, both financial and personal, to CSLDF and to climate science serves as a testament to the transformative power of philanthropy and visionary leadership. As Peter Sinclair put it:

“Charles’s bold initiatives in defense of science, fact, and a civil society, and indeed to preserve a liveable planet, have been immense, timely, courageous, and visionary.”

And from Jeff Masters, fellow CSLDF Board member and founder of Weather Underground:

“Charles has been a fountain of enthusiasm, ideas, and generous donations since the inception of CSLDF. His contributions as a board member have been exceptional!”

In addition to his philanthropy and fierce defense of climate science, Charles is widely known for his wonderful sense of humor and for being a kind, caring, and genuinely delightful individual. From CSLDF Executive Director Lauren Kurtz:

“Charles has a quick wit that is often combined with a fresh perspective. He is also incredibly funny. Working with him has been a true joy – in addition to the laughs, his creativity, dedication, and generosity have been such an inspiration to all of us.”

In recognition of Charles’ extraordinary support, leadership, and unwavering commitment, and on behalf of the thousands of people whose lives he has touched, we at CSLDF extend our deepest appreciation.

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