A Stanford University professor’s defamation lawsuit in defense of his green energy research has raised the temperature on the climate change debate, fueling fears that such a precedent could put a chill on scientific inquiry.
In 2015, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, did a study that said U.S. power demands could be met with 100 percent non-nuclear renewable energy by 2050.
The high-profile study was widely hailed by environmentalists, spurring calls for “100 in ‘50” and providing support for legislation introduced by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, to move the U.S. energy grid to all renewables by 2050.
Now, Mr. Jacobson has sued for $10 million after a group of researchers published a paper in June challenging his study.
The researchers charged that the 2015 Jacobson paper was marred by “errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions,” while Mr. Jacobson argued that the rebuttal contained “many falsehoods and misrepresentations of fact,” and that the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, refused to correct them.
With both sides scheduled to appear this month in court, the battle has rocked the scientific community over the specter of the legal system being used to settle research disputes, particularly on hot-button topics such as global warming.
“This is a dangerous road,” said a Nov. 29 op-ed in The Stanford Daily written by Danny Cullenward, a Stanford lecturer and a research associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
“If researchers face lawsuits over peer-reviewed technical debates, any scientist working on a controversial topic could be silenced by the prospect of costly litigation,” Mr. Cullenward said. “These risks are especially worrisome in politicized subjects like climate change, where prominent researchers have been subject to legal and character attacks from bad-faith actors who aim to disrupt scientists’ work” or its credibility with the public.
In its Nov. 27 response, the National Academy of Sciences called for dismissing the lawsuit as a violation of the District of Columbia’s anti-SLAPP law, arguing that the action amounted to “little more than an unvarnished attempt to muzzle speech and end-run the First Amendment.”
An initial conference in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia is scheduled Dec. 29 before Judge Elizabeth Carroll Wingo.
The National Academy of Sciences honored the paper last year with the Cozzarelli Prize for “outstanding scientific excellence and originality.”
Mr. Jacobson’s reputation took a hit after the rebuttal was published. The Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce called the counter-article a “scathing takedown,” while Forbes ran an op-ed headlined “Debunking the Unscientific Fantasy of 100% Renewables.”
“The resulting headlines and articles in the press made Dr. Jacobson and his co-authors look like poor, sloppy, incompetent, and clueless researchers when, in fact, there were no ‘Modeling Errors’ made in their study,” said the complaint, adding that two graduate students who worked on the study were distraught.
Mr. Jacobson has argued that he seeks only to set the record straight and that he was left with no other recourse after the journal “knowingly and intentionally published false statements of fact,” as his complaint says.
The debate now has veered into political territory.
Environmental geologist Stacy Clark suggested that Mr. Jacobson was targeted because his “breakthrough blueprints” would negate the need for fossil fuels to run the energy grid.
“These are naysayers that don’t want to see Jacobson’s plans become part of the national dialogue, so they have rallied together to obstruct Jacobson’s scientific/economic findings by accusing Jacobson of suing the PNAS because his ego is offended by the PNAS report,” Ms. Clark said in a Dec. 1 op-ed in the HuffPost.
Mr. Jacobson has also taken aim at his detractors’ motives.
“They’re either nuclear advocates or carbon sequestration advocates or fossil fuels advocates,” he told the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”
The National Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, argued that Mr. Jacobson “seeks to censor the Academy for providing a forum for robust scientific debate on one of the foremost issues of public concern today.”
What critics find particularly troubling is that the rebuttal was co-authored by 21 scientists but the lawsuit names only the National Academy of Sciences and the lead author, Christopher Clack, an independent researcher who is not affiliated with a major institution and must fund his own defense.
Mr. Clack, formerly with the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, runs Vibrant Clean Energy in Boulder, a sustainable-energy firm that specializes in wind and solar power.
“In short, a world-famous tenured professor — in response to a peer-reviewed paper criticizing his work — has threatened to financially ruin an independent researcher,” said Mr. Cullenward. “Whatever concerns Professor Jacobson has with Dr. Clack, this tactic unfairly puts the most vulnerable members of an already highly unequal profession at great risk.”
The lawsuit has drawn comparisons to Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann’s 2012 defamation lawsuit against National Review, Mark Steyn, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Rand Simberg, which remains mired in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
“In many ways, this is much worse than any of Michael Mann’s lawsuits alleging defamation of character,” Georgia Tech retired professor Judith Curry said on her Climate Etc. blog. “Jacobson’s lawsuit seeks to settle a genuine scientific disagreement in the courts.”
Michael Shellenberger, who heads the pro-nuclear group Environmental Progress, urged Mr. Jacobson to withdraw what he called an unprecedented lawsuit.
“Further, we urge all environmentalists — including those that support the 100 percent renewables framework, such as Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — to join us in denouncing Jacobson’s legal action,” Mr. Shellenberger said in a Nov. 1 statement.
Competitive Enterprise Institute general counsel Sam Kazman compared the case to the anti-Exxon campaign launched last year by AGs United for Clean Power, which led one prosecutor to file and then drop a subpoena against the Competitive Enterprise Institute asking for its climate-related documents.
“It’s interesting that the scientific controversy over global warming ends up having this incredibly chilling effect,” Mr. Kazman said.