Friday, May 05, 2006

Cindy Baxter: Climate of doubt

The British Government's chief scientist, Sir David King, has warned that climate change is the most serious threat facing the planet..

In the face of overwhelming evidence that the human race is causing the climate to change, there has been a resurgence of activity of climate science scepticism.

On Monday, the new Climate Science Coalition was launched in New Zealand. The coalition includes a member of a conservative think tank, scientists linked with the climate sceptic movement, and a former national co-ordinator of the National Party's Blue Greens.

Three weeks ago, a letter signed by 60 scientists, including members of the NZ Climate Science Coalition, wrote to the newly elected conservative Canadian Government, pushing for it to abandon the Kyoto Protocol. The letter was followed by another, from scientists, calling on Canada to stick with Kyoto.

These efforts are the latest in a campaign run by vested interests to discredit climate science and to stop the Kyoto Protocol from going forward.

But their arguments have little to do with science, and everything to do with politics and business.

In the late 1990s, US Republican Party pollster, communications guru and political adviser, Frank Luntz, proposed a strategy on climate change for the Republicans.

"The scientific debate remains open," he wrote.

"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

He went on: "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science."

This advice has been the strategy of the climate sceptic industry over the past decade, stepping up greatly once Kyoto was agreed, and then when George W. Bush came to power in 2000. They claimed a huge victory in 2001 when Bush dumped Kyoto.

What is this climate sceptic industry? Its members are the darlings of a PR and industry lobby, run out of neo-conservative organisations and think tanks based largely in Washington, who have the ears of the White House and money from the oil industry.

Greenpeace has spent considerable time investigating the sceptics, and one of their main funders, ExxonMobil. Since 1998, Exxon has spent more than US$18 million to challenge the science of climate change.

One example is the George C. Marshall Institute, established in the 1990s in response to negotiations on the climate convention. Since 1999 it has received more than US$800,000 from ExxonMobil.

Head of the institute, William O'Keefe, was an Exxon-Mobil-paid lobbyist working the White House in the crucial months before Bush dropped Kyoto. He was former chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute and former chair of the vociferous anti-climate industry lobby group in the 1990s, the Global Climate Coalition.

The institute's senior scientific adviser, Dr Sallie Baliunas, is the "dean" of the climate sceptic industry.

She is also environmental editor at the big industry-funded Tech Central Station website - a mouthpiece for industry, funded by Exxon.

Here, we find the links to the New Zealand sceptic group. Two of its scientists, Vincent Gray and Australian Bob Carter are contributors to Tech Central. Gray's book, The Greenhouse Delusion, has been touted by sceptic think tanks and websites.

Carter has been taken up by the Australian Institute of Public Affairs, which has strong links to the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Baliunas and another scientist, Willie Soon, wrote a controversial paper, part funded by the American Petroleum Institute, which challenged the work of a major climate scientist, Michael Mann.

The paper was published by Climate Research, a scientific journal. The editor who took it through the peer review process was Chris de Freitas, of Auckland University. After the paper's publication, three other Climate Research editors resigned from the journal in protest at what they considered a flawed review process.

Today, amid overwhelming evidence of climate change, and our part in causing it - Luntz's "window of opportunity" has closed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, identified by 17 national academies of sciences as the pre-eminent authority on climate science, and consisting of more than 1500 climate scientists, is clear.

It has confirmed that the links between climate change and human activity, and that the main cause is the burning of fossil fuels.

The IPCC has a long list of expert reviewers to ensure scientific credibility of its reports. These reviewers represent a range of scientific opinion and include climate change sceptics, such as Gray.

But the question remains: Why do these sceptics get such an airing?

Why are climate change stories being "balanced" by stories of bad science from a tiny group of oil, coal and gas industry-linked climate sceptics touted by the neo-conservative think tanks?

Former British chief scientist, and president of Britain's Royal Society, Lord May, noted: "There is no danger this lobby will influence the scientists. But they don't need to. It is the influence on the media that is so poisonous."

* Cindy Baxter is the Greenpeace campaign manager and co-author of the website Exxonsecrets.org

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