When death threats are made even to scientists researching esoteric aspects of global warming, it’s clear there’s a toxic strand to political debate. But is it dangerous?
The violent rhetoric and hate campaigns being proposed by many commentators as setting the context for the horrific attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which left 6 dead and 14 injured, is far from restricted to the obvious issues of abortion, gun control and federal laws.
Even the debate on climate change, where the key issues are frequently highly scientific or economic, has attracted frequent death threats to researchers and election TV ads in which a prospective Senator shoots the cap-and-trade bill with his rifle.
Jared Loughner, the man charged with the attack, is widely reported to have been mentally unstable. Some commentators argue the act was his alone.
But the example of global warming, where arguments rage over datasets, reveals the terrifying atmosphere that can be generated even in an area that lacks the visceral punch of issues such as healthcare.
The scientists revealed they have been told to “go gargle razor blades” and have been described as “Nazi climate murderers”. Some emails have been sent to them without any attempt by the sender to disguise their identity. Even though the scientists have received advice from the FBI, the local police say they are not able to act due to the near-total tolerance of “freedom of speech” in the US.
[The late climate scientist Stephen] Schneider described his attackers as “cowards” and said he had observed an “immediate, noticeable rise” in emails whenever climate scientists were attacked by prominent right-wing US commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
What causes the rise? Publication of his email addresses on the sceptic website Climate Depot presumably helped. The comment Schneider made in July make sobering reading in the light of the Giffords attack:
Schneider said the FBI had taken an interest earlier this year when his name appeared on a “death list” on a neo-Nazi website alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry.
“The effect on me has been tremendous,” said Schneider. “Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting rightwingers. What do I do? Learn to shoot a Magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket? I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted.”
Schneider was far from alone in the US with Michael Mann among others also reporting death threats. Phil Jones, the scientist at the heart of “climategate”, also received death threats but the phenomenon is generally far less frequent in the UK.
I have received a handful of threats by email and phone myself, which given my low profile is a measure of the extent of the problem. My better-known colleagues George Monbiot and Leo Hickman receive more.
So it’s clear that even in issues such as climate change there is an active fringe of people deploying violent rhetoric and hate mail against those with whom they disagree. Could that tip the balance between thought and action in the mind of an unstable individual? It’s a worryingly plausible thought.
*Damian Carrington – seen in the picture above can be reached at the website below : www.guardian.co.uk/environment/climate–change