Three quarters of polled climate scientists that regularly appear in media have experienced harassment or abuse online

4th April 2023, London – A majority of climate scientists that are regularly in the public eye are victims of abuse and harassment online, according to the findings of a new poll released today by Global Witness. The poll also finds that those who do receive such abuse are experiencing negative impacts on both their health and ability to do their work.

468 climate scientists and experts from around the world, who were contacted by Global Witness through public academic contact lists, responded to the YouGov-hosted poll, with four in ten saying they have experienced online harassment or abuse relating to their work (183 out of 468). This rises to half (49%) of those who’ve published more than ten journal articles and an astonishing three quarters of respondents (73%) who appear at least once per month in the media. The most cited venues for abuse were Twitter and Facebook (by 44% and 31%, respectively, of those who had experienced online abuse).

The findings also show that this abuse is having serious detrimental impacts. Half (48%) of the 183 who had received abuse said it had made them less productive at work, 41% said they are less likely to post on social media about the climate, and over a fifth (21%) said it had made them dread work.

Meanwhile one in five (21%) of those impacted by online hate said the attacks had made them fear for their personal safety and 51% reported it has caused them anxiety. Over a fifth (21%) said it had led to depression.

The poll findings also reveal a concerning gendered dynamic to this abuse. 34% of women who’d experienced online abuse said their sex or gender was targeted a great deal or fair amount of the time, with one in eight (13%) having received threats of sexual violence.

Henry Peck, Digital Threats Campaigner at Global Witness, said:

“A key component of tackling the climate crisis is public understanding of both its cause and effects, meaning the role of scientists and experts speaking out openly is critical. It is therefore absolutely unacceptable that such vital individuals are being harassed out of the public eye by vicious online trolls. Abuse, harassment and disinformation are the antithesis to science and truth.”

“It’s not just deeply disturbing that climate scientists are being targeted with online abuse, it is also the very nature of this harassment that is of concern. No one should be forced to endure threats of sexual violence, not least for doing work that is geared towards saving humanity and the natural world from climate destruction.”

“The study makes clear that social media firms are allowing hate to thrive on their spaces to the detriment of both individuals and collective climate action. It’s time major social media companies tackled the vile undercurrent that flows on their platforms.”

Following these landmark findings, Global Witness is calling on social media companies to improve the resourcing and transparency of their content moderation systems. Companies must allow independent evaluations of their algorithms and prevent the amplification of harmful content, committing to respecting user safety and rights.

Case studies:

Alongside the results of this poll, Global Witness is publishing first hand accounts from some of the respondents. They include:

Helene Muri, a Climate Scientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and author of IPCC reports, told us:

“The more extreme cases it's comments in the direction that I should kill myself in such and such a way. Or the worst one is when they say that they are going to hunt me down and do various things to me. And what I appreciate even less than that is when they are calling my father up and saying various things to him.”

Shouro Dasgupta, originally from Bangladesh, is a Researcher at Fondazione CMCC and a Lecturer at Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia. He is a co-author of the Lancet Countdown, which addresses climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerability. He said:

“People being racist, calling all sorts of colourful names, and bullying, these are not uncommon. Most of the harassments I receive are racist in nature partly because they can't question my expertise, so they question attack what is unnatural to them, that is race.”

Summary of key findings:

468 global climate scientists contacted by Global Witness through public academic contact lists were polled in a survey hosted by YouGov, finding:

  • 4/10 have experienced online harassment or abuse because of their climate work (183 out of 468)
  • This rises to half (49%) of all climate scientists who’ve published 10 or more journal articles
  • This is as high as three quarters (73%) of all the climate scientists who appear at least once a month in media
Findings on types of abuse:

  • 34% of women who’d experienced online abuse said their sex or gender was targeted a great deal or fair amount of the time. This was just 3% for affected men.
  • 13% of affected women said they had received threats of sexual violence

Health impacts:

Of those affected by online abuse:

  • 51% said the abuse has caused them anxiety
  • More than a fifth (21%) said it caused depression
  • 1 in 5 (21%) women said the stress has caused physical illness
  • 32% of women reported sleeping problems

Job impacts:

Of those affected by online abuse:

  • 48% reported a loss of productivity in their work
  • 41% said they are less likely to post on social media about climate issues
  • 21% said it has made them dread work