A Lynchburg, Virginia, TV meteorologist for an ABC affiliate has taken the unusual task of publicly criticizing, on his blog, an elected state official, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, for initiating a legal action against former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, now at Penn State.

Cuccinelli, elected to his office in November 2009, in late April initiated a “Civil Investigative Demand” (CID) with the University of Virginia seeking a vast volume of e-mails and other communications from Mann’s 1999-2005 years with the University.

Mann, most well-known for his work on the iconic “hockey stick graph,” has been targeted by climate contrarians and some politicians for years, and has been absolved in all instances so far of any wrongdoing.

TV Meteorologist Sublette – troubled ‘very deeply as an earth scientist.’

Lynchburg meteorologist Sean Sublette, with ABC 13/WSET-TV, initially let loose with an “Exhuming McCarthy” blog posting on May 6, saying the A.G.’s effort “troubles me very deeply as an earth scientist.”

He is not alone in expressing concerns for academic freedom and inquiry and for scientific integrity, with some others also making comparisons to the “chilling” effects of what a number characterize as McCarthy-like tactics.*  The University of Virginia itself is reported to be considering its options for challenging the attorney general’s demand.

“By equating controversial results with legal fraud,” The Washington Post editorialized on May 7, “Mr. Cuccinelli demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom. The remedy for unsatisfactory data or analysis is public criticism from peers and more data, not a politically tinged witch hunt or, worse, a civil penalty.”

Cuccinelli has made no secret of his disagreement with the findings of Mann’s climate change research or of his differences with what generally is seen as the mainstream scientific view of global warming and its causes. But the Post cautioned that “For the commonwealth to persecute scientists because one official or another dislikes their findings is the fastest way to cripple not only its stellar flagship university, but also its public higher education systems.”

On May 18, some 800 scientists from across Virginia urged Cuccinelli to “halt this burdensome and entirely unwarranted investigation.”

What makes meteorologist Sublette’s public posting and his full-throated and foot-noted criticism of Cuccinelli unusual is that he and his station managers had the courage to say it so publicly – and to strongly condemn the actions of an in-state elected official from his post as a local TV station meteorologist – in the first place.

“Mann has already been investigated at great length,” Sublette wrote in his May 6 blog posting. He pointed out that the National Academies of Sciences’ National Research Council in April 2006 “suggested that Dr. Mann’s research, while not perfect, was still based in sound principles.” And he wrote too that two Penn State investigations of Mann’s work – resulting from publicity over last fall’s University of East Anglia hacked e-mails – have cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Sublette Challenges A.G. as ‘Deliberately Vague’

“No dataset is perfect,” Sublette wrote. “Raw data need to be checked for quality. Sometimes that data is smoothed or corrected. This happens every day when data is input into our weather forecast simulations. Science debate is best left to scientists …. At what point does this become a witch hunt?”

Perhaps answering his own question, Sublette returned to the subject with a May 11 blog posting, in which he characterized Cuccinelli’s reported defense of his Mann inquiry in an interview with The Washington Post. Sublette quoted Cuccinelli as telling the Post:

“In light of the climategate e-mails, there does seem to at least be an argument to be made that a course was undertaken by some of the individuals involved, including potentially Michael Mann, where they were steering a course to reach a conclusion. Our act, frankly, just requires honesty.”

Sublette didn’t buy it. “His statement is deliberately vague,” he blogged.

“These are phrases that belong in lexicon of the blogosphere, not in the Office of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he wrote. “What specifically led him to these conclusions? Has he actually examined any of the previous investigations targeting Dr. Mann to determine if there is reasonable suspicion?”

Sublette pointed to others in the scientific research community objecting to Cuccinelli’s inquiry, singling out 19 Old Dominion University (in Norfolk) professors for warning that the A.G.’s actions “echo some of the worst offenses of the McCarthy era.” He pointed out too that the American Association of University Professors and some others have expressed strong opposition to Cuccinelli’s actions, as have even some who clearly are seen as being in the climate skeptic community and not admirers of Michael Mann and his work.

Sublette in that second blog pointed to a Washington Post May 10 report that the University of Virginia, which now has until July 26 to comply with Cuccinelli’s directive, says it will comply but is “looking at some options.” Sublette, himself a Penn State B.S. and M.S. graduate in meteorology, closed with a “Go Cavs” supporting the U. Va. Cavaliers.

Meteorologist Sublette: ‘I guess I’m the media’

In a phone interview May 12, Sublette told The Yale Forum that after hearing of the Cuccinelli initiative, he had become frustrated that media news reports were not adequately addressing the issue. “I guess I’m the media,” he concluded in drafting the first posting. He said he shared it with the station’s news director and assistant news director, who supported him in posting it exactly as he had written it.

Sublette, who said he has never previously posted “anything close to this kind of strength” on a public policy issue, said he wanted to emphasize that his concerns over the Cuccinelli effort deal with the integrity of science, and not just with the issue of human-caused climate change.

“I’m in a position where, to maintain my credibility as a professional, I don’t want to put anybody off,” he said, adding “This isn’t about climate change. It isn’t about what you think of climate change.”

He said news reporters in his own TV newsroom had not heard of and have shown no interest in the Cuccinelli investigation of Mann, and he said the station had not addressed it in its own news coverage.

One Thing to Blog … ‘Another to Go On Air’

“If this happens in another state, I probably don’t write about this,” Sublette said. He pointed to concurrent widespread national coverage of a savage murder of a University of Virginia senior and lacrosse player (Yeardley Love), allegedly by another U.Va. lacrosse star, as perhaps diverting some media coverage of the A.G. investigation.

A life-long Virginian with Penn State ties, Sublette said he has never met Mann and that he communicated with him directly only to express his concerns over the Virginia A.G.’s investigation.

Asked why not do an on-air commentary about his concerns over the issue, Sublette pointed to time constraints with his weather forecasts and said “It’s a good question, I may let it play out a little farther and then decide whether to try to.”

“It’s one thing to blog or even post on the station’s website, and another thing to go on the air,” Sublette said.

Focus of Cuccinelli’s Far-Reaching ‘CID’

The 14-page Civil Investigative Demand that Cuccinelli filed with the University of Virginia, issued April 23, addresses five separate awards/grants involving Mann and other partner scientists while Mann was at U.Va. Only one of those was issued by the State of Virginia, others by federal agencies, specifically the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The fifth grant (for $214,700) was awarded by the U.Va.-Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology.

Specifying a wide range of communications to and from Mann and his associates from U.Va. and other climate scientists worldwide, the Virginia attorney general is seeking documents and data still stored at U.Va. or stored offsite, and the CID directs that no relevant documents be destroyed: “If you have a document retention/destruction program, you are asked to suspend it immediately,” and encrypted documents should be made readable by the A.G.’s office.

Among the prominent climate scientists and others whose exchanges with Mann are demanded are: Caspar Ammann of NOAA; Raymond Bradley of the University of Massachusetts; Keith Briffa of the University of East Anglia in the U.K.; John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville; Thomas Crowley of the University of Edinburgh; Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona; Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia; Thomas Karl of NOAA; Stephen McIntyre of Canada, writer of the climateaudit.com website; Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute (himself a former U.Va. climatologist, but not one targeted by Cuccinelli); Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona; Roger Peilke, Jr., of the University of Colorado; Benjamin Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Gavin Schmidt of NASA; Stephen Schneider of Stanford University; Susan Solomon of NOAA; Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR); statistician Edward Wegman of George Mason University; and Thomas Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

The filing also demands “all documents that constitute or are in any way related to correspondence, messages or e-mails involving “all research assistants, secretaries or administrative staff” with whom Mann worked while at U.Va.”

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The state’s largest newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, carried a biting commentary providing the lyrics of a spoof on Cuccinelli’s action based on Gilbert & Sullivan – “I am the very model of a mad attorney general.” The musical presentation itself is online here.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...