Climate spin: Behind-the-scenes emails show profs evading questions

Newly released internal e-mails show George Mason University climate professors plotting a petition calling on government to prosecute skeptics of global warming using RICO laws designed to go after the mob. They got 20 scientists to sign their
petition and sent it to government officials before withdrawing in the face of controversy.

The new emails show GMU professors Jagadish Shukla and Edward Maibach discussing everything from how to craft their petition to appeal to conservatives, to getting warnings from others that the petition would go over poorly, to evading media questions.

In the emails, the professors decided to ignore questions from about why the lead petition author, Jagadish Shukla, used government grants to give himself and his family some $500,000 in salary and benefits in 2014 — which reported in October. The professors decided to reach out to the Washington Post instead.

“They were running a well-used page in their playbook … get the legacy media to play defense for them,” Chris Horner, who forced the public release of the emails by filing a “Freedom of Information Act” request, told

The Freedom of Information Act allows citizens to demand to see the official correspondence of government employees (George Mason University is public.) Horner works at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a think tank that is skeptical that global warming is a serious problem.

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Horner says he feel vindicated by the release of the emails, because George Mason University officials initially told him that there were “no records” of the professors discussing RICO prosecution in their official capacity.

But Horner and CEI proved that there were such emails by first obtaining some emails from professors at other universities who had corresponded on the subject with the George Mason University professors (who used their work emails.)

Armed with that proof, Horner and CEI sued George Mason University to release the emails, and a Judge’s ruling on May 13th made it happen.

The emails show GMU professors Shukla and Maibach planning to make a media splash.

"If we can find one co-signer in every one of the nation's 435 Congressional districts, we will end up sending the letter to every member of Congress -- which would be spectacular. The letter will get lots of media attention," Professor Maibach wrote Shukla while planning the letter.

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Shukla had first suggested the letter, saying he had once thought he would be most effective sticking to climate science, but that “I have changed my mind… I have decided to get fully engaged in… the larger issues of inequality and social justice.”

The emails also show that the two professors were initially cautious. Maibach sent a draft of his letter to Alex Bozmoski, who makes conservative arguments for action to stop climate change, and asked for advice on how to make it appeal to conservatives.

“I’m hoping you will highlight any language that screams “liberal drivel” and suggest ways of incorporating language that resonate[s] with conservative values, such as accountability.”

Bozmoski’s reply was cautionary.

“It’s just an impossible topic to not scream hard-core left. You’re talking about prosecuting conservatives… Sorry to not be sunnier :-)”

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The emails also show that Maibach reached out to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which worries about climate change. But the group declined to support the petition.

“After taking a close look, we’ve decided to not pursue this opportunity with you,” Peter Frumhoff, the group’s Director of Science and Policy, wrote.

“Here’s why: In reaching out to climate scientists to sign on, we feel that we’d need to give them some firmer grounding for believing that a federal investigation under the RICO statute is warranted,” the email read.

That prompted Maibach to email Shukla with doubts, saying, “perhaps it would be best if we first found a lawyer with RICO experience… if there really is no basis, then I feel we would be unwise to engage other scientists in recommending a baseless action.”

The two still proceeded with the petition, and got some 20 signatures. After a media firestorm ensued, Maibach admitted in internal emails that it had been a mistake.

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“I somewhat foolishly signed on to the attached letter,” Maibach wrote to Bozmoski, whom he had previously consulted, and Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman who argues that action to stop climate change is needed.

In that email, he also defended himself.

“Many of them [critics] allege that we are proposing to have dissenting scientists locked up in prison. What we actually proposed was financial penalties against corporations tha[t] fund climate denial.”

Specifically, their letter called for the “investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people.”

Further emails show the professors discussing how to get out of their predicament.

“Shukla wants to retract the letter, or at least propose the possibility… I advised him that retraction is unlikely to make the pain go away for the signers, and it is likely to help (and embolden) climate denial,” Maibach wrote.

The petition was soon pulled from Shukla’s group’s website, and Shukla explained that while “we stand by our request” for investigations, he removed the petition because it had been “misinterpreted” by some and it had “needlessly complicated” the planned dissolution of his organization, "The Institute for Global Environment and Society."

That group got 99 percent of its revenue from government grants in 2014 and came under fire for funneling some $500,000 in salary and benefits to Shukla and his family that year.

Shukla, Maibach, and GMU’s Director of Strategic Communications Michael Sandler did not respond to questions from

Chris Horner says he is glad the emails are now public and says he sued for their release “to educate the public how taxpayer resources were used” to push for the censorship of climate change skeptics.

“Ring-leading GMU is funded by my tax dollars, and is now exposed,” he said.

The author, Maxim Lott, can be reached on twitter at @maximlott