This morning I, like any of you, was disappointed to see that the frontpage of The Times carried a story by the paper’s environment editor, Ben Wester, which read, ‘Scientists in cover-up of “damaging” climate view.‘
Variations of the story had been plastered everywhere, spearheaded by Murdoch-owned outlets, repeated uncritically by others.
The Daily Mail, much loved for its objective reporting on climate change (and other stuff), declared: ‘Climate change scientist claims he has been forced from new job in “McCarthy”-style witch-hunt by academics across the world.’
These stories were quoted approvingly by the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto as “the latest reason to distrust the authority of ‘consensus’ climate scientists.”
But even a cursory glance reveals how thin these stories are.
The latest climate denialist outburst hinges on one man – Prof Lennart Bengtsson of the University of Reading. According to the Mail and The Times, a paper submitted by Bengtsson to Environmental Research Letters, was rejected by the journal not because it was bad science, but because of political “intolerance of dissenting views on climate science” among climate scientists.
The paper purported to challenge the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) projections that global average temperatures could rise by more than 4 degrees Celsius by end of century, claiming that the climate was much less sensitive to carbon dioxide emissions than widely understood.
Bengtsson also complained that he had been bullied by climate scientists “all over the world” after he joined the notorious ‘sceptic’ think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), causing him to resign. The letter was published two days ago on the GWPF website as a press release:
“I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable to me. If this is going to continue I will be unable to conduct my normal work and will even start to worry about my health and safety. I see therefore no other way out therefore than resigning from GWPF. I had not expecting such an enormous world-wide pressure put at me from a community that I have been close to all my active life. Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship etc.
I see no limit and end to what will happen. It is a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy. I would never have expecting anything similar in such an original peaceful community as meteorology.”
Contradicting this, however, in an apparent effort to pretend that the scientific community actually agrees with Bengtsson’s claims about climate change, The Times story also reports: “Scientists from around the world sent messages of support to Professor Bengtsson.”
So which is it? Did scientists worldwide support him or bully him?
Indeed, there there seems little actual evidence for non-scientific motivations behind the rejection of Bengtsson’s work. The Mail and Times, for instance, spin the quote of an unnamed scientist who had been asked to peer-review his paper submitted to Environmental Research Letters, saying the study’s publication would be “harmful” to the climate science orthodoxy.
Both newspapers report this incredulously. How dare climate scientists worry about climate deniers exploiting junk science?
A spokesman for the journal’s publisher, IOP Publishing, told the Mail that Bengtsson’s submission:
“… was peer-reviewed by two independent reviewers, who reported that the paper contained errors and did not provide a significant advancement in the field, and therefore failed to meet the journal’s required acceptance criteria. As a consequence, the independent reviewers recommended that the paper should not be published in the journal which led to the final editorial decision to reject the paper.”
Sadly, that didn’t stop these newspapers from suggesting that the decision was motivated by concerns other than advancing and protecting science.
I asked Prof Bengtsson to substantiate his allegations by clarifying the number of scientists who had allegedly been pressurising him to the point that he feared for his safety. I also requested to see the full text of the reports of the scientists who had peer-reviewed his rejected study due its scientific “errors.” He did not respond to my request for comment.
Thankfully, IOP Publishing has decided to make the full reviewer reports publicly available so that we can all see why Bengtsson’s paper was really rejected:
“The overall innovation of the manuscript is very low, as the calculations made to compare the three studies are already available within each of the sources, most directly in Otto et al…
Summarising, the simplistic comparison of ranges from AR4, AR5, and Otto et al, combined with the statement they are inconsistent is less then helpful, actually it is harmful as it opens the door for oversimplified claims of “errors” and worse from the climate sceptics media side.”
Far from denying the validity of Bengtsson’s questions, the reviewers set out ways he could improve the work:
“A careful, constructive, and comprehensive analysis of what these ranges mean, and how they come to be different, and what underlying problems these comparisons bring would indeed be a valuable contribution to the debate.
I have rated the potential impact in the field as high, but I have to emphasise that this would be a strongly negative impact, as it does not clarify anything but puts up the (false) claim of some big inconsistency, where no consistency was to be expected in the first place. And I can’t see an honest attempt of constructive explanation in the manuscript.
Thus I would strongly advise rejecting the manuscript in its current form.”
The “unbearable” scientific isolation that Prof Bengtsson experienced as a consequence of joining the GWPF, and submitting scientifically questionable material to a leading journal, should not come as a surprise. That the climate science community roundly rejects the GWPF’s denialist rantings, and found Bengtsson’s work in this regard unfit to publish, is evidence for the overwhelming consensus on climate change - not against it.
As an illustrative example of just how isolated Prof Bengtsson and his ilk are, consider the fact reported earlier this year by Scientific American that out of more than 2,000 per-reviewed climate science publications put out over the last year from November 2012 to December 2013, the number of scientists who denied the role of human-caused CO2 emissions in current climate change “is exactly one.”
That’s right. One.
Compare that to the number of scientific authors of those 2,000 plus papers – 9,136. So over nine thousand scientists over the last year agree that our fossil fuel emissions are principally responsible for contemporary climate change, and just one disagrees. The poor sod must be feeling pretty damn lonely, I imagine. Perhaps almost as lonely as Prof Bengtsson.
Such media misrepresentation is now par for the course. According to Forbes’ denialist in residence, James Taylor, “only half of American Meteorology Society meteorologists believe global warming is occurring and humans are the primary cause” based on a new survey.
The actual authors of that survey, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society, disagreed. In a statement responding to Taylor: “Among all the respondents, about 7 out of 10 (73%) said human activities have contributed to global warming.” The survey further attempted to explore differences between meteorologists specialising in climate science, and those who didn’t.
It’s worth quoting the clarification here in detail:
“We found that more than 9 out of 10 climate science experts (93%) who publish mostly on climate change, and the same proportion (93%) of climate experts who publish mostly on other topics, were convinced that humans have contributed to global warming. We also found that about 8 out of 10 meteorologists and atmospheric scientists who publish on climate (79%) or other topics (78%) were convinced that humans have contributed to global warming. Lastly, we found that the group least likely to be convinced that humans have contributed to global warming was AMS members who do not publish research in the peer-reviewed scientific literature; only six out of 10 AMS members in this group (62%) were convinced.”
Compare that to Taylor’s flagrant misinformation.
Why would outfits like the GWPF and Murdoch-owned press engage in such absurd faux journalism? Who knows?
The GWPF barely needs much comment. One previous Guardian investigation uncovered that one of GWPF’s funders is Tory Party donor Michael Hintze, head of $5bn hedge-fund CQS which operates in the oil finance industry, among other areas. Another investigation exposed the “links between Lord Lawson and the GWPF and fossil fuel companies”, including “a large Australian coal company.”
As for Rupert Murdoch, it’s no secret that he has significant interests in the fossil fuel industry. Murdoch is a major equity share-holder in Genie Energy, where he is also a strategic advisory board member. Genie is a major investor in US and Israeli shale oil and gas projects.
Murdoch is “extremely well regarded by and connected to leaders” in the “oil and gas industry” and “the financial markets,” rejoiced Genie CEO at the time.
According to the US journalism watchdog Media Matters, Murdoch’s FOX News has frequently run news stories promoting Genie Energy’s shale projects.
What we’re seeing here, then, isn’t really journalism at all. Whatever its intent, in effect, it amounts to little more than glorified industry PR calling itself ‘news.’
The real story is how the IPCC’s projections and solutions are likely to be far too conservative, having been ‘diluted’ by pressure from the world’s biggest fossil fuel polluters.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed