An Open Letter to People Who Send Hate Mail to Scientists

Background: On September 11th, 2018, I was a guest on CNN International’s Newsroom program with host John Vause. This was not the first time I’ve appeared on that program, and I’ve also been part of simulcast international and domestic programming with the network. During the segment, I spoke in my capacity as a scientist about the effects of climate change on Hurricane Florence, and about how the current administration’s policies will damage future efforts to combat and adapt to our changing climate. The next morning, I was informed by several people that Rush Limbaugh had attempted to discredit me and climate science on his radio program. This letter is a response to the hate mail and death threats I have received, and to the Limbaugh-apologizers who have since contacted me.

No one on the left is apologizing for the behavior of a man who said Hurricane Irma was fake, said he would ride it out, and then fled. I don’t know of any Democrat or Independent who would condone calling my gender into question or calling me a “babe.” Limbaugh has no credibility in the scientific arena, and yet you are making excuses and false equivalencies.

I am a scientist. I am explaining that human activities are fueling climate change, a link we have known about since 1896. If I actually launched into the technicalities I would be failing to do my job of communicating complex concepts succinctly and clearly for a general audience. The jet stream shift is driven by the expansion of warm, tropical air into regions that were not warm previously. Sea levels are rising. Sea temperatures are increasing. I am not going to give a basic physics lesson on the effects of heat on closed systems every time I’m on TV. The science is settled. We do not debate whether the sky is blue every time someone says it’s green.

Devastation in the Roseau area of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Similarly, I am not going to launch into the location and interactions of Hadley, Ferrel, and Polar atmospheric cells with ocean surface temperatures during an 8 minute TV clip. There’s no need. The public needs to know that previous presidents worked to protect our natural environment in at least some ways, and this one isn’t. His policies are adding fuel to the fire. Green tech could add up to $26 trillion to the global economy by 2030, so acting to favor fossil fuels and laxer pollution standards is straight-up un-American. Our country has led the way in tech innovation for more than a century. America is built on strong support for science, R&D, and maximizing our intellectual output. A cleaner environment, more green jobs, and economic growth are powerful reasons to take action…not to mention that climate change will destabilize entire nations as sea levels rise, storms intensify, droughts worsen, jobs disappear, and populations are displaced. The Pentagon recognizes the very real national security threat we face from the changing climate.

Rescue teams from the 920th Rescue Wing work to save people during Hurricane Harvey.

The opposition to facts, evidence, and reality comes from people who make money off of either A) creating false controversy to get viewers or B) have financial incentives in fossil fuels/polluting industries that stand to profit from relaxed environmental protections.

I haven’t made a dime for going on CNN, or for the climate change research I have conducted. I get hate mail for explaining the facts. At least when poor Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, or Tomi Lahren says something blatantly untrue or offensive and receives backlash, they can console themselves with their millions. Same with Rush. They have made careers out of pissing people off and twisting facts. My career, like the career of any scientist, is built on eliminating uncertainties to discover the truth.

We are not the same. There is no equivalency between why I work to inform people about scientific reality and why those talking heads spew inflammatory lies. I wish science didn’t need defending on TV. I wish there wasn’t a documented, concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry to spread lies about environmental & climate science that was patterned after the campaign by big tobacco to discredit the science about smoking’s health impacts. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in. Crackpots like Limbaugh and Trump can question objective reality and people believe it.

In 1984, George Orwell writes, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Trump said recently, “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”

There is now a knee-jerk reaction to attack people who point out that the science is settled on climate change, or that the GOP isn’t upholding the values it used to fight for (see McCain), that vaccines are safe, or that racism is still a problem in the US. Those are truths, and while they aren’t flattering, they need to be acknowledged and reckoned with. We are not a country that has done well by burying our heads in the sand. We won’t in this era, either.

Hurricane Florence photographed from the International Space Station.

We can deal with climate change, but it will require true leadership decisions at all levels of government. It will require society to adapt and innovate. It will require scientists, government, and communities working together like when we solved the Dust Bowl crisis. What doesn’t help solve it is making apologies for those who undermine the credibility of we who have spent our careers or our lifetimes working to understand how we can fix this.

Take away money and you’ll still get scientists speaking out about the climate crisis and defending science. Take away money and it’s doubtful you’ll hear much from the talking heads.


Jess Phoenix

Geologist, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Blueprint Earth

Volcanologist 🌋, ran for Congress, Blueprint Earth founder, Explorers Club Fellow, natural hazards expert. Sometimes on TV. 🏳️‍🌈

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