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A Renewable-Energy Champion Is Suing His Scientific Critics

November 2, 2017

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has sued a prominent energy researcher and the National Academy of Sciences for defamation over a sharply-worded rebuttal of his work, shifting a heated scientific debate over renewable energy out of the journals and into the courts.

The suit, filed September 29 in a Washington, D.C., superior court, demands a retraction of a June paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jacobson seeks more than $10 million in damages from both the paper's publisher and its lead author, Christopher Clack, who is chief executive of Vibrant Clean Energy and a former NOAA researcher.

Jacobson was the lead author of a 2015 paper in the same journal that concluded wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources alone could supply 100 percent of the U.S. grid's needs, all at low cost.

Many other energy researchers have long argued that additional technologies, such as nuclear energy, carbon capture, and advanced storage options, will be required to decarbonize the electricity sector, particularly in a cost-competitive manner.

Earlier this year, Clack and 20 other researchers published a response arguing that, as MIT Technology Review previously reported, Jacobson's paper "contained modeling errors and implausible assumptions that could distort public policy and spending decisions." (For more details on the researchers' critiques, check out our earlier article on the Clack paper: "Sustainable Energy Scientists Sharply Rebut Influential Renewable-Energy Plan.")

The lawsuit claims that Clack and his peers' rebuttal contained false and misleading information, and that its publication and subsequent press coverage harmed Jacobson's reputation. 

In an e-mailed statement, Clack said: "Our paper underwent very rigorous peer review, and two further extraordinary editorial reviews by the nation’s most prestigious academic journal, which considered Dr. Jacobson’s criticisms and found them to be without merit."  

Several observers were quick to criticize Jacobson for taking the unusual step of turning to the courts to resolve a technical dispute of the sort that regularly occurs in science, but is usually haggled over in journals and at conferences.

"Using courts to resolve sci issues? Generally a bad idea," climate scientist Gavin Schmidt tweeted in response to news of Jacobson's court filing.

Michael Shellenberger, president of pro-nuclear advocacy group Environmental Progress, wrote: "Jacobson’s lawsuit is an appalling attack on free speech and scientific inquiry and we urge the courts to reject it as grossly unethical and without legal merit."

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