Climate Deniers With Clout


The other day I was teaching at university when a bunch of students called me over and asked, "What is the truth about climate change? Like, do you believe in it?"

I responded that you neither believe nor disbelieve in climate change: you look at the evidence and make an informed decision. Most of them nodded — except one, who told me that he had seen some bloke on some channel talking about how "the science is still out".

Is the science really still "out"? And who is doing the hard yards to deny climate science in the public sphere?

I Googled "Australia’s top climate change deniers" and came up with a motley cast of characters who would make any World Wrestling Entertainment cage match amusing. Let’s hope the potential field of nominees will shrink sooner rather than later. I had a read and a good think, and finally settled on some personal favourites out of those who have made a splash over the years. Unlike climate science, which is peer reviewed, and, although not infallible, is self-correcting, this is a pretty subjective list.

So here they are: My Top Five Climate Deniers — and what they bring to the debate.

1. Bjorn Lomborg
Lomborg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist and is one of the darlings of the denialist set. He gives good soundbite to other sceptical media types and travels the world with his message. His claims to credibility as a climate commentator are largely based on the fact that he was once a member of Greenpeace. That’s akin to saying that one gets a good understanding of the politics of the Middle East by driving through Bankstown.

The holes in Lomborg’s arguments are so deep and so numerous that people now make a sport of poking fun at him. Indeed, Yale University Press just published a book by Howard Friel called The Lomborg Deception. The entire book is devoted to exposing Lomborg’s shoddiness. Friel points out, for example, that Lomborg refers to tables in the IPCC reports that do not exist; that he takes estimates such as "between 4–15 inches" and turns them into exact predictions of "12 inches" and that frequently, he simply fails to back up his claims. In sum, Friel argues that "… the favourable coverage of Lomborg and his books are to global warming what the triple-A ratings for mortgage-backed securities were to the US financial system — misguided seals of approval with catastrophic consequences."

2. Christopher Walter, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley
Lord Monckton was in Australia recently and every conservative commentator, opinion leader and policy maker in the land fawned over him.

Monckton is important to acknowledge here because he wields considerable influence through his connections as a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Monckton manages to shape public debates around climate science through these connections and his ability to gain quality airtime.

He’s neither a science expert nor, as he claims, was he once a member of the House of Lords. Rather, it seems Monckton’s flimsy educational background involves a diploma in journalism. As Jonathan Holmes noted on Media Watch, he bullied his way around Australia repeatedly making the same false claims.

He also has a track record of deceptive conduct. You can take your pick from his House of Lords story, his claim to have won a libel judgment against columnist George Monbiot (no evidence there) or the bizarre declaration he was somehow acknowledged as part of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize which went to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

Why do we have to listen to him? Because he gets coverage from people like Piers Akerman.

3. Piers Akerman
Most Australians with a reading age beyond kindergarten dismiss Piers Akerman as a dinosaur: not one of those scary dinosaurs, but one of those with the small heads and big bodies that ate grass. Despite this, Akerman wields considerable influence in the Australian mainstream media and often feeds the talkback agenda and the trajectory of moral panics. Akerman also often appears on the ABC’s Insiders as a harbinger of balance.

One of the ubiquitous chestnuts about climate scientists over the last decade has been that they exaggerate their claims to get publicity. In 1996, in a column by Piers Akerman in the Sunday Telegraph, Sir John Houghton, who played a critical role in establishing the IPCC, was quoted as saying, "unless we announce disasters, no one will listen". Akerman claimed that Houghton said this in 1994 and the quote has been gleefully repeated by climate sceptics around the world.

The problem is that Houghton denies saying this — and there is no proof that he ever did.

Akerman is not a scientist and much of his climate change denial is based on the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), run by one Fred Singer — whose work has been dismissed by climate scientists from NASA as "fabricated nonsense".

4. Ian Plimer
No list of Australian climate sceptics would be complete without Ian Plimer, the author of Heaven and Earth and Lord Monckton’s consort on his recent tour of denial in Australia. Plimer is the go-to guy for Australian sceptics.

Plimer’s popularity here is based on the fact that, unlike the others on this list, he is arguably a well-credentialed scientist — he’s a Professor of Geology at the University of Adelaide. His claims about climate change differ as well: Plimer argues that climate change has nothing to do with the atmosphere and everything to do with the galaxy.

I also suspect that his popularity is also based on his claim that his book "knock(s) out every single argument we hear about climate change". That’s right, every one!

Look back over Plimer’s appearances on Lateline if you need to brush up on the arts of not answering questions and failing to defend your own arguments. (See here and here.)

There are many criticisms of Plimer’s work in circulation. Key here is Plimer’s assertion that the IPCC ignores geology and astronomy — which is actually far from the truth.

In spite of the repeated criticisms of the validity of his work, Plimer continues to attract plenty of attention — maybe because the conspiracy theorists with whom he likes to associate have jobs as politicians in Canberra.

5. Nick Minchin
Nick Minchin recently announced he will not be contesting the next election. Minchin is the final card in this hand because of his backroom politicking which brought down the ETS — a policy initiative that had, until that point, the support of both major parties. Minchin is the numbers man who helped elevate Tony Abbott to the Liberal leadership. This saw the progressives of the party, including those who want something done on climate change, lose significant ground.

While Minchin has many claims to fame, two are remarkable. He was the dissenting voice in a report that found passive smoking causes cancer and he has publicly stated his belief that climate change science is a left wing conspiracy aimed at de-industrialising the West.

So who are these conspirators? Try NASA, for starters. And well-known anti-industrialist Margaret Thatcher, and of course that pinko commie of note, Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy.

Or maybe Minchin’s conspiracy extends to include the thousands of scientists in peer reviewed journals who confirm the data that human-made climate change is happening and the consequences will most likely be catastrophic.

Peer review, as I tell my students, is what academics do to make sure we avoid plagiarism and shoddy research. It is just as important in the humanities as it is in the sciences. We are never sure whose work we are reviewing and we never know if we like or dislike the author: this is why it’s called "blind review".

Stephan Lewandowsky, a Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia, recently elaborated on the process of scientific peer review to readers of The Drum, explaining how it effectively works to exert quality control and to retrospectively self-correct earlier errors.

Lewandowsk also looked at the number of peer-reviewed articles published by scientists at the UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre which support arguments against anthropogenic global warming since 2007. The results? Zero to the sceptics — out of 110 peer-reviewed articles on climate change.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and the underwhelming bullying carried out by the sceptics, it has been widely argued that the two sides of the debate deserve equal time. I say, give them the time that their evidence deserves (not much), point out that there remains no evidence to back their conspiracy theories (except for a few emails written by panicked and frustrated scientists).

It would be nice if the last word on climate change as conspiracy theory could go to Elizabeth Kolbert and that we could then move on and work out how we’re going to tackle it:

"No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax. Nor has anyone been able to explain why Mother Nature would keep playing along; despite what it might have felt like in the Northeast these past few months, globally it was one of the warmest winters on record.

The message from scientists at this point couldn’t be clearer: the world’s emissions trajectory is extremely dangerous. Goofball weathermen, Climategate, conspiracy theories — these are all a distraction from what’s really happening. Which, apparently, is what we’re looking for."

Who are your top 5 climate sceptics? Whose influence on the climate debate in Australia do you think has been most pernicious?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.