It's dangerous to study climate change in Australia these days. So much so that many who do it are moving to more secure offices, de-listing their phone numbers, and deleting their Facebook pages after receiving threats of death and assault. And the kerfuffle that's got them on the run seems to stem from statements by Cate Blanchett in a television spot last week. If you thought climate change was a touchy political subject in the United States, it's nothing compared to the past week's dust-up in which an appearance by an actress in a commercial led to scientists being targeted for assault and death.

Australian politicians have been wrangling for weeks over the level of a carbon tax set to go into effect July 1. A report two weeks ago by the government's Climate Commission helped ramp up the intensity of the national debate. In a Sydney Morning Herald analysis piece, Adam Morton said both Abbot and Gillard had failed to deal with the report directly, instead building it into a pre-existing pro-carbon-tax agenda (in Gillard's case), or "misrepresenting" it entirely, in Abbott's case.

But once an ad featuring Blanchett calling for a higher tax rate aired on June 1, the vitriol started in earnest. Conservative opposition leader Tony Abbot (who has in the past said the idea that humans cause climate change was "crap,") said, "People who are worth $53m have a right to be heard – but their voice should not be heard ahead of the ordinary working people of this country." Television host Andrew Bolt, who works for a network co-owned by a mining executive, called it "deceitful" and "crass propaganda," and said Tim Flannery was a "long-time global warming scaremonger," according to The Guardian.

It was after that broadcast and a number of other attacks in the national press that the threats against scientists started rolling in. The Canberra Times had the story on Saturday. 

One scientist said he was advised by police to install a ''panic button'' security alarm in his university office after receiving death threats. Others have removed all contact numbers from their work websites, and deleted social media sites after these were defaced with abusive comments and obscene photographs. One researcher told of receiving threats of sexual assault and violence against her children after her photograph appeared in a newspaper article promoting a community tree-planting day as a local action to mitigate climate change.

It still doesn't make a lot of sense why an actress's political ad should inspire somebody to threaten a scientist for planting a tree, but that's the problem with this story: It doesn't take very many violent-sounding nuts to send out some very scary e-mails. As ANU's vice-chancellor said, "I think it is totally outrageous and the vast majority of Australians would think it is totally unacceptable for anybody in society to be subjected to this sort of behaviour."

Here's the offending ad: