Climate Change Denial

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September 16, 2008

COOKING THE BOOKS: How to write a contrarian polemic on climate change.

George Marshall @ 2:18 pm

Review of The Deniers: The World-Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution, and Fraud (and those who are too fearful to do so), Lawrence Solomon, Richard Vigilante Books, 2008

There’s a flood of cookbooks in the UK, (and climate change denial books too) so let’s start with a recipe for writing a popular book undermining climate science. Fancy a go?- this is what you do…

First of all, from all the thousands of papers published every year on climate change, cherry-pick a few isolated pieces of work that draw different conclusions from those presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Then, highlight the CV’s of their authors in glowing and virtuous terms. Just think of those paragraph-long descriptions of ingredients you get in pretentious restaurants: point out that these are not just carefully picked cherries; they are sun-dried organic fair trade cherries di Modena.

Then claim that the goal of your book is not to settle the science but merely to show that the debate is active. By this sleight of hand, you can claim that scientific process depends on constant challenge without allowing any debate about the studies you cite. This then allows you to draw superficial similarities between positions that contradict each other. Modena cherries in a Bolivian Chilli and Wild Alaskan Salmon confit? So what if they don’t go together, you can say, they’re top ingredients and they’re all red too.

Finally, so that you can adopt a populist questing tone, make it clear that you have no expertise in any of these areas and are just another perplexed joe public seeking the truth. “Ok”, you can admit coyly, “I can’t cook to save my life, but I’m a free thinker. After all, only conformists say that banana doesn’t go with cheese.”

And there you go: a nice recipe for any number of articles, think tank reports, leaders in the Sunday Telegraph, talks to the Adam Smith Institute, presentations to congress, Channel Four documentaries, or, as I hold it in front of me, a cooked book like ‘Deniers’.

I must admit that Lawrence Solomon is awfully good at this stuff. Like all the best climate skeptics he is a great communicator. His prose is tight and readable. He is ironic and amusing. His own credentials are impressive: whereas Bjorn Lomborg used to boast that he was once a Greenpeace activist (in fact he was just a member) ; Solomon is the acting head of a well-regarded environmental organisation.

But there is something curious going on, and it takes a while to spot it. The book purports to show that leading scientists, taking major personal risks, are prepared to ‘deny’ the stated consensus on climate change. The lengthy byline (added, one suspects, by some keen publicity person) is “the world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution and fraud”

And yet it slowly dawns on the reader that few of these ‘world renowned scientists’ disagree in any way that climate change is happening, is serious, and is primarily caused by human emissions. They are well funded career scientists who are not standing up for anything much other than a nice round of applause from the other hysterics.

The first witness for the prosecution is Dr. Richard Tol, a critic of the Stern Report, who, as the book admits, is in every other way “a central figure in the global warming establishment”. Then we hear from Dr Christopher Landsea who argues that hurricanes are not increasing due to climate change. He is also a contributing author to the second UN IPCC report and agrees fully with its main conclusions. The book tells us that Dr Edward Wegman, who challenges the statistical basis of the famous ‘hockey stick’ climate graph, “does not dispute that man made global warming was occurring’.

So, Solomon’s key witnesses are actually leading scientists who accept the core consensus but have some important and relevant reservations about the causes and impacts. By page 45 Solomon has admitted as much: “I noticed something striking about my growing cast of deniers. None of them were deniers”.

Solomon allows himself to make this self-deprecating admission because, whilst he wishes to lionize the careers of his ‘world renowned experts’, he is also prepared to be condescending about their judgment.

He argues that they are suffering from a delusion that the whole theory stands firm despite the evidence of that own specialist work. “Affirmers in general. Deniers in particular” crows Solomon. “Like other smart people, scientists accept the conventional wisdom in areas they know little about…We know from our daily lives that the consensus can be spectacularly wrong.” According to Solomon they are in denial about their denial and he is going to drag them out of the closet.

Solomon’s cavalier strategy of ‘outing’ climate deniers has already become spectacularly unstuck. In January 2007 he dedicated his regular Denier column in the Canadian National Post, which forms the basis for this book, to Dr Nigel Weiss. Weiss, he said “believes that the science is anything but settled except for one virtual certainty: the world is about to enter a cooling period”.

Dr Weiss responded immediately and did not mince his words link…“The article by Lawrence Solomon, which portrays me as a denier of global warming, is a slanderous fabrication. I have always maintained that the current episode of warming that we are experiencing is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and that global temperatures will rise much further unless steps are taken to halt the burning of fossil fuel”. Unusually the rebuttle was accompanied by an official press release from the University of Cambridge.

Whilst the National Post issued a groveling apology, Solomon was not going to let his search for truth be derailed by accusations of slanderous fabrication. Astonishingly, the article still appears on his website without any qualification link. It has now spread all over the internet and has been repeated in the form of a faked interview in another book “Scared to Death” by skeptics and media pundits Christopher Booker and Richard North.

So let’s do some real ‘outing’. Solomon is not really an independent searcher after truth- he is a frontline communicator for a large and influential denial industry that aims to prevent political action and undermine public concern about climate change.

Start with the scientists in Denial. With each chapter, the legitimate questioning scientists I have just mentioned give way to the professional skeptics. There is Professor Richard Lindzen, who, according to the investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan, consults to oil and coal interests for $2,500 a day and whose trip to testify before a Senate committee on climate change was paid for by Western Fuels.

Lindzen, along with three of the other ‘world-renowned scientists’ in Denial, found time in their busy research schedule to appear in ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, a notorious British documentary that was denounced by the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, the Royal Society. One of the contributers threatened to sue the director for gross misrepresentation.

Six of the stars of Denial were among the the ‘A’ list of professional contrarians, lobbyists and conspiracy theorists who spoke at the New York International Conference on Climate Change in March this year. The sponsor was the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank which has received $781,000 in grants fron Exxon Mobil since 2000 for its campaign against the Kyoto Protocol.

Even if we assume that he started with pure intentions, Solomon has now fallen in with some very unsavoury people. In April this year his column for the National Post defends Fred Singer who, as usual, he calls ‘one of the world’s renowned scientists’. Singer has not had a peer reviewed paper published in 20 years and is linked to a string of oil and coal industry lobby groups. He has long operated as a hired gun for the tobacco industry giving ‘expert’ testimony that side stream smoke is not dangerous.

In June 2008 Solomon’s column praises a ludicrous and widely condemned paper on the beneficial effects of heightened carbon dioxide by the Oregan Insititute of Science and Medecine. The OISM, which has no affiliations to any recognised scientific body, is a far right fringe body that markets a home-schooling kit for “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools”.

And in April we find Solomon launching his book at an event organised by some of the most notorious anti-environmental campaigners in Washington. In his speech he congratulates his hosts; Myron Ebell, the Cooler Heads Coalition and the Competititve Enterprise Insitute (CEI) for “for the integrity and tenacity that he and they have shown during this entire global warming debate”.

For an environmental campaigner he has fallen into the worst crowd imaginable. It would be like Barack Obama speaking at a Ku Klux Klan meeting and praising them for their contribution to racial tolerance. Myron Ebell led aggressive lobby campaigns though a think tank called Frontiers of Freedom to gut the US Endangered Species Act. Ebell and the CEI ran a public campaign against higher fuel efficiency standards in cars arguing, among other things, that it would lead to more accidents. The Cooler Heads Coalition, formed by CEI, opposes any political action on climate change and brings together a host of libertarian and far right interest groups such as Americans for the Preservation of Liberty, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and Defenders of Property Rights.

Solomon gives them respect and credibility. They give him status in return, calling him ‘one of Canada’s leading environmentalists’ and an ‘internationally renowned environmentalist’. Maybe this expains how an environmental campaigner can become best buddies with the professional lobbyists who despise his own movement. Environmental campaigners are poorly paid and often vilified with few plaudits or rewards. On the other hand skeptics live in a self-congratulating world in which there are no also-rans. Everyone is a winner. Everyone is famous or world renowned. Anyone who is assertive and skilled with polemic can be a star.

If you are middle aged activist and wondering what you have really achieved in your life it must be very seductive. And dangerous.


This review first appeared in a slightly different, referenced and edited form on the website China Dialogue.

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