Climate researchers are silenced by harassment – Survey

More than one third of Norwegian climate researchers say they have received ‘unpleasant’ feedback, including threatening phone calls, after talking about their research in the media, according to a recent survey.

The findings of the survey, conducted by a team of Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) journalists and researchers, were published in a hard-hitting article in NRK on 6 November 2022.

Along with the statistics, the article comprises interviews with three researchers who have been at the receiving end of harassment and shares several examples of the harsh and sometimes offensive wording of comments sent to scientists via SMS, Twitter and Facebook, as well as their reactions to the harassment.

The article is based in part on the results of a questionnaire sent to climate researchers at 15 research institutions in Norway in April 2022. Out of 224 researchers – 93 women and 131 men – 35.3% said that they had received “unpleasant” reactions after their work or views appeared in the media over the last five years.

In this investigation climate research was defined as “research contributing to understanding the relationship between climate, nature and human activity”.

Researchers from the following institutions responded to the survey: the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, the CICERO Center for International Climate Research affiliated with the University of Oslo, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), independent research organisation SINTEF, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE), the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, the Western Norway Research Institute, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and the Institute of Marine Research.

Kikki Kleiven, director of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, who is one of the scientists prominently portrayed in the NRK story, said: “Some evenings I give my mobile phone to my husband and ask him to erase all messages. I cannot stand looking at it or [to] hear those messages,” she said. “The comments target my sex, how I look and sound, and are not just focused on my message,” she told University World News.

While the survey found that most of the targets of harassment are women, men are not spared. Hans Olav Hygen, also quoted in the story, has worked at the Meteorological Institute for more than 20 years. “I have been reported to the police, threatened with Child Welfare [the public authority mandated to take your child away from your care if you cannot look after him or her properly] and been characterised as a liar and an idiot,” he said, describing his harassment from members of the public.

Reluctance to enter public debate

The reactions have produced a reluctance to be publicly quoted on the part of both men and women researchers, but especially women.

Among the women respondents, 17% declined to participate in an interview about their work on climate issues because they feared the reaction. This is compared to 9.9% of the men respondents. As much as 46% of women climate researchers reported having felt uncomfortable as a result of their participation in media coverage. This is compared to 20% of men.

The NRK article has enjoyed wide exposure and has led to heated debate in the media, as evidenced by several opinion articles and editorials in newspapers, as well as articles in university newsletter Khrono and others.

The issue was also the subject of an episode of “The Debate”, a television programme broadcast on 6 November.

Dag Hessen, professor of biology at the University of Oslo and the writer of several popular books on climate issues, and one of the most high-profile climate scientists in Norway, said on his Facebook page after the programme:

“The debate after ‘The Debate’ has been surprising and unpleasant. There have been many good feedback messages, but very many [are] not only critical, but with an aggressive tone from both sides. The one side [being against climate research] I am used to and can stand, but it is much worse when the critique is coming from the side to which you think you belong yourself.

“To come under fire from two sides at the same time is becoming a double burden. I am taking this into consideration and have reflected on what went wrong in the debate. The time is now ripe to take a break – both from Facebook and from participating in the climate debate,” he wrote.

However, while Hessen told University World News his harassment was not at the level of that experienced by Kleiven, he would still encourage scientists to participate in debate and to popularise their research. “We must not let [ourselves] be scared away from the debate … I have no intention to be,” he said.

A planned seminar

In the wake of the controversy, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Association of Researchers said the association would arrange a seminar to discuss the issue of harassment of scientists in February 2023.

President of the association, Guro Elisabeth Lind, told University World News the seminar would encourage researchers who have received harassment to share their experiences and receive support from others with similar experiences.

“Unfortunately we often see that more researchers are exposed to harassment and threats after having participated in public debate. This is the case for climate researchers but notably also in areas [such] as gender research, migration and salmon production. In short, themes that are characterised by political conflict,” Lind told University World News.

“We are advocating that higher education institutions get in place structures that can serve these researchers better … It is very essential for our society that they dare to continue to convey their research. We are also engaged in telling politicians that they need to give researchers better support and recognition. We have seen some examples of politicians contributing to the pressure against researchers, and that is very serious.”