After 12 Years, Climate Scientist’s Lawsuit Against Alleged Defamers Begins Trial

Michael Mann asserts that conservative pundits defamed him and attempted to discredit his “Hockey Stick” graph in 2012.
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Professor Michael E. Mann's lawyer called attacks on the scientist "vile." Credit: Julian Meehan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A defamation lawsuit 12 years in the making brought by climate scientist Michael Mann opened January 18th in Washington, D.C. Superior Court. The two conservative commentators accused of defamation mounted separate defenses, and both continued to disparage Mann during the first day of this long-anticipated trial.

The case centers around statements made in 2012 by right-wing blogger Rand Simberg and Fox TV personality Mark Steyn that attacked Mann, a scientist and professor who holds a doctorate from Yale. Simberg is an analyst at the far-right think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has a long track record of platforming climate science denialists. 

In his opening statements, John Williams, Mann’s lawyer, claimed that Steyn and Simberg “attacked [Mann] because of his defense of science.”

The defendants “broke the bounds of common decency and any First Amendment right” when they challenged Dr. Mann’s integrity, Williams added. “They were hostile to his findings and warnings about climate change, which showed climate change was real.”

Simberg’s lawyer, Victoria Weatherford, objected to Williams’ comment that climate change was real, halting the trial for a few moments.

This case has a long 12-year history. Simberg first claimed that Mann should and could be compared to Jerry Sandusky, the dishonored Penn State assistant football coach who was tried and convicted of child sexual abuse contemporaneously in 2012. Steyn then quoted Simberg’s words comparing Mann to Sandusky in a column attacking Mann in the conservative magazine National Review. 

In court, Williams came down hard on the two, stating “their comparisons to a sex predator were simply vile.”

In 2012, Mann originally asked Steyn and Simberg to retract their inflammatory statements and apologize. When they didn’t, Steyn challenged Mann to sue him, which is how the lawsuit started, according to Williams.

Along with comparing Mann to Sandusky, the two also attempted to discredit Mann’s pioneering 1998 “Hockey Stick” research that showed rising temperatures due to climate change would continue. That research has been continuously upheld as accurate.

A Decline in Funding for Mann

Williams traced the twists and turns of the lawsuit, arguing that Steyn and Simberg’s comments have caused Mann, who 12 years ago was a distinguished professor of meteorology at Penn State University, to lose funding support for his scientific work. Back in 2012, Williams said Mann received about $3.5 million in funding a year. Today, that number is at $500,000, which Williams claimed is a direct result of Steyn and Simberg’s attacks on Mann and his personal and professional reputation. Mann is now a professor of atmospheric science at University of Pennsylvania.

Williams also noted that Mann has been excluded from research projects because of reputational concerns stemming from the climate deniers’ comments, and emotionally harmed by the comparisons to Jerry Sandusky.

Today’s trial coincides with an increase in online propaganda and falsehoods about climate change and a rise in attacks on climate scientists and their research. 

Public science communicator Bill Nye, who sat with Mann’s legal team throughout the day, told DeSmog that the trial is important because it will get people talking about climate change and attacks on the science behind it.

“We have people running for president who won’t talk about the phenomenon of climate change, they won’t even address it,” Nye said. “If this trial raises awareness and gets people talking, that’s a great value.”

Throughout the opening statements, Steyn, who chose to defend himself, and Simberg’s lawyer, Weatherford, argued they were protected by the First Amendment to state opinions. However, they both also continued to repeatedly make connections between Mann — an upstanding climate scientist — and Sandusky, a convicted sex predator. Steyn spent a good portion of his statement going into great detail about Sandusky’s crimes and claiming the two men shared an institution, they both “drew from the same pension plan,” and benefited from Penn State’s so-called “corrupt culture.”

A “Whitewash”?

Steyn targeted the culture of Penn State, alleging its leaders whitewashed the investigation into Sandusky and an investigation into Mann’s Hockey Stick research. The 2010 investigation into Mann’s famous graph arose after a circle of climate deniers claimed Mann’s research was false. However, in 2011, the National Science Foundation and Penn State both dismissed the climate deniers’ allegations for lack of evidence. 

Both Steyn and Weatherford characterized the trial as a David vs. Goliath tale, with Simberg and Steyn as David and Mann as a powerful Goliath. They showed a photo montage of Mann with numerous celebrities, from politician Al Gore to actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Then they screened a graph showing how Mann’s salary as a professor has grown over the years, using icons of rockets to highlight each raise he received.

But linking Mann with the powerful elite, and casting Steyn and Simberg as underdogs obscures the fact that National Review, where Steyn quoted Simberg’s Sandusky comparisons, and Fox News, where Steyn worked, are powerhouse outlets with heavy influence in the U.S. Steyn, in particular, has been a substitute host for Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, and for the syndicated Rush Limbaugh show, which at its peak was the most-listened to talk radio show in the nation.

Steyn represented himself with much bravado. Both he and Weatherford promised the 10 jurors that the trial would be “entertaining.” In comparison, Williams’ opening statement consisted of straightforward facts, citing harassing emails and online attacks Mann received after Steyn and Simberg’s 2012 comments.

The trial is expected to run through the first week of February. The defense plans to call well-known climate deniers Steve McIntyre and Judith Curry to testify. Mann’s legal team is expected to have testimony from Raymond Bradley, one of Mann’s co-researchers on the Hockey Stick graph. 

Stay tuned for future coverage as DeSmog follows the trial.

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