Lauren Kurtz, a once-budding biologist turned accomplished attorney, is frustrated. She thinks it’s ridiculous that climate scientists have become targets of politically motivated attacks.
“I think science is very important, and I think the increased politicization of climate science is a really horrible turn of events,” Kurtz, the new Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress. “I am really excited to be able to combat that.”
On Monday, Kurtz became the first-ever Executive Director of the CSLDF, a group that works to stem and prevent harassment of climate scientists. In her new position there, Kurtz says she hopes to expand the group’s network of attorneys who will volunteer to represent embattled climate scientists in court free of charge. The end goal, she said, is to help climate scientists do their jobs without fear of politically motivated retaliation.
“One of our main goals is educating scientists on their legal rights and what they’re up against,” Kurtz said. “If and when things arise, we want to move as quickly as possible.”
The problem Kurtz hopes to address is a real one. Scientists who perform climate-related research have increasingly been the subject of personal attacks — email hacking, copious online abuse, a dead rat left on a scientists’ doorstep. At least one prominent scientist has been the subject of a failed lawsuit by a right-wing policy group, alleging manipulation of data, and demanding copies of personal emails and other communications under the Freedom of Information Act.
Many climate scientists say these attacks are political, perpetrated by people who can’t accept the policy solutions to the problem of human-caused global warming.
“I firmly believe that I would now be leading a different life if my research suggested that there was no human effect on climate,” said climate scientist Benjamin D. Santer during a Congressional hearing in 2010. “We need to follow the research wherever it leads us, without fear of the consequences of speaking truth to power.”
The CSLDF was founded with that goal in mind. It was created in 2011 by Professors Scott Mandia and John Abraham, after they learned that climate scientist Michael Mann was using his personal funds to defend himself against the now-infamous lawsuit brought by the American Tradition Institute. Mandia and Abraham formed the group, and in 24 hours raised $10,000 to allow Mann to continue his research while fighting the case.
Mann, who eventually won his case, told ThinkProgress he was happy to see Kurtz in the CSLDF’s new leadership position.
“From what I have seen, she is a premier litigator,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll serve CSLDF well as their new executive director.”
Kurtz does come from a prestigious background in law. To take the new job at CSLDF, she left her job of more than four years as a litigator for Dechert LLP, a high-ranking global law firm with more than 900 attorneys. Before that, she worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, first as a policy associate and then as a law clerk.
Though her career ended up in law, it began in science. It evolved, however, when she realized how difficult it was to get anything done with the scientific results of her studies. Kurtz, who received her undergraduate degree in biology from Bryn Mawr College, remembers specifically how she felt while working on a conservation biology study of population decline of native bee populations.
“I felt really frustrated at the time that I was studying this, that there was a well-documented decline [in bee populations], but politically it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” she said.
The feeling of wanting to change the political environment drove her to study environmental law and policy. She eventually received her Masters degree in environmental policy from the University of Pennsylvania, then went on to receive her law degree there as well.
“I have an immense amount of respect for scientists and I think it’s an interesting area to study, but ultimately what I was more passionate about was promoting science in a policy area,” she said. “This position’s got a similar thread, which is making sure policy decisions reflect what the science says, and separating people’s thoughts on science from what their political agendas are.”