Beware of fame-hungry climate change deniers

May 4, 2007

Dissident academics are helping to give the global warming denial lobby its veneer of credibility, says Bob Ward

The most authoritative analysis yet of the options for mitigating climate change will be published today. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report will provide an overview of how best to stop the mounting concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

And, bang on cue, the climate change denial lobby will swing into action, offering The Times Higher readers the opportunity to observe an unlikely alliance of dissenting academics, professional contrarians, "free market" proponents and fossil-fuel lobbyists, united in a quest to obfuscate and mislead.

Their arguments should be familiar by now. Some will contend that the Earth stopped warming in 1998. Others will pin all responsibility for warming on the Sun. Still others will accept the concept of anthropogenic global warming but insist that the impacts will be benign or even beneficial. In past months we have seen examples of how readily these odd bedfellows bunk together.

For instance, the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing "think-tank" set up by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, is promoting Climate Change: A Guide to the Scientific Uncertainties . The document was prepared by the director of the Scientific Alliance, whose small but devoted membership is mainly drawn from British universities.

The "guide" is a sophisticated document that tries to avoid direct contradiction of the evidence, instead highlighting every area of uncertainty in climate change science in the hope that readers will conclude that it would be safer to wait than to act against greenhouse gas emissions. It mirrors the classic campaigning style so successfully used by tobacco companies to resist regulation of their products. It purports to champion the scientific method and rails against climate researchers who are intolerant of dissent and question self-proclaimed "sceptics" about their misrepresentations of the scientific evidence.

Back in 2004, the Scientific Alliance teamed up with the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington DC to produce Climate Issues and Questions , another document helpfully highlighting how uncertain the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is. The institute has received large amounts of money from ExxonMobil for "public information and policy research" on climate change, and its chief executive officer is the chairman emeritus of the Global Climate Coalition, the umbrella group for the energy industry that successfully campaigned against US participation in the Kyoto Protocol.

The style and content of both documents conform to the approach outlined by Frank Luntz, the US Republican pollster in a memo on "Winning the global warming debate", leaked to the media in 2003. It warned party workers that "the scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed", and urged them "to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate".

Such tactics appear to be central to the strategy that the Centre for Policy Studies has adopted on climate change. Its overall aim is to promote free-market ideology in the UK and its director has spoken out against the UK's compliance with "Kyoto-style" programmes. Not only does it love to draw attention to uncertainty in climate change science, but it also likes to spread the suggestion that global warming is merely an invention of green groups and "alarmist" researchers. In November, it promoted a speech by the former Chancellor Nigel Lawson in which he provided his personal reinterpretation of the scientific evidence and claimed that climate researchers were guilty of the same level of intolerance towards those who oppose what he describes as their "mantras" as Islamic fundamentalists.

But the lobby groups and think-tanks are merely the support acts behind the headlining academics who give the climate change denial lobby its veneer of credibility. They include genuine dissidents who engage with their peers through conference presentations and papers. But it also includes others who have turned their backs on academic debate and enjoy instead the plentiful column inches and airtime from editors who are delighted to give a platform to anybody with a university affiliation.

So keep your eyes open for the academic stars of the climate change denial lobby who might be lurking in your department. They may soon be out there, using their affiliation to your institution to help free-market ideologists and oil industry lobbyists to further resist the effective regulation of greenhouse gases.

Bob Ward is director of Global Science Networks at Risk Management Solutions. The views are his own.

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