Hate campaign against climate scientists has not been debunked

WHEN you say that you have evidence to “debunk” something, then it is a good idea to make sure that the evidence you’ve got is actually up to the “debunking”.

Last week, The Australian newspaper reported that claims of climate scientists at the Australian National University receiving death threats as part of an ongoing email hate campaign had been “debunked”.

The evidence for the story, under the headline “Climate scientists’ claims of email death threats go up in smoke“, was a report from Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.

Mr Pilgrim’s report concluded that 11 documents which had been identified in a Freedom of Information request, could be released to the public.

Although the commissioner concluded that 10 of the 11 documents “contain abuse in the sense that they contain insulting and offensive language” they did not contain “threats to kill or threats of harm”. Even so, releasing the documents could “lead to further insulting or offensive communication being directed at ANU personnel or expressed through social media”, the commissioner’s report said.

A spokesperson for the ANU has told me that the university is “currently reviewing the report” and is “considering its options” which, presumably, are either to accept the ruling and release the documents, or to appeal.

The FOI request had followed reports in June 2011 that ANU researchers were facing the ongoing campaign and had been moved, The Australian said, to “more secure buildings” following explicit threats. As I’ve previously written, a host of commentators and bloggers have used the report to dismiss the hate campaign entirely.

As the original Canberra Times story had pointed out, the newspaper had found evidence of a campaign against at least 30 climate scientists at institutions across the country.

Today, Canberra Times environment and science reporter Rosslyn Beeby, who broke the story, has called for a more mature debate, while outlining again the disturbing nature of the campaign. One researcher’s two young children were named and threatened.

Yet the FOI request was restricted in asking only for documents and correspondence between January and June 2011 and only those sent to six named academics at ANU.

But let’s go back to the The Australian and its original claim, repeated at popular sceptic blogs around the world, that the claims of death threats had been “debunked”. The report in The Australian claimed that Privacy Commissioner had been called in to “adjudicate” on FOI in relation to reports of the campaign which had led to staff being moved to more secure premises.

Professor Will Steffen, the director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, has now told me staff were moved to a more secure area in April 2010, well before the period covered by the Privacy Commissioners report.

He said: “I and my Climate Change Institute staff were moved to more secure quarters around March/April 2010 because of concerns my staff had about the very open and accessible premises we had at that time. I had a duty of care to my staff to respond to these concerns. The move was taken in consultation with the Vice-Chancellor and with the ANU security office. This, of course, is well before the Jan-Jun 2011 period that the FOI request is concerned with.”

I understand there were several incidents at the ANU in early 2010. On two separate occasions, individuals had walked into institute premises demanding to see particular staff members. Both individuals were acting “aggressively” Professor Steffen said. The institute’s offices were on the ground floor with open access with no security restrictions. The institute’s website had also been subjected to what Prof Steffen described as a “cyber attack”.

At the same time, other climate scientists at other institutions had been receiving abusive messages and emails.

Shortly after ANU staff were moved, there was an incident at an ANU public engagement event where a climate sceptic who had been invited to attend had become frustrated. During an exchange, the individual had showed what he claimed was a gun licence to people sitting at the table, before claiming he was a “good shot”. The individual is understood to have left voluntarily.

Whether or not any of these incidents constitute a “death threat” is, to me at least, beside the point.But you have to ask yourself. If you were their boss and the staff were concerned about their safety, what would you have done?

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What role for politics in science denial?

ONE  enormous field of inquiry which had its veneer scratched in the recent ABC documentary “I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate” was the emerging understanding of why some politically-aligned people are able to accept or deny scientific facts.

Two books published recently in the US have begun to examine this science of ideology and how it plays out in politics. Chris Mooney (a fellow DeSmogBlog contributor) is the author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. Jonathan Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided.

Watch their fascinating discussion on the msnbc show Up with Chris Hayes on the politics of science denial – touching on evolution and human-caused climate change. At one point the discussion becomes frustratingly circular, but to me it tells us something about why the climate change debate has become so polarised. The advert’s annoying.. sorry.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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Hate campaign against climate scientists hits the denier spin-cycle

RIGHT now, as I type, we’re in the middle of the global dissemination of a gross misrepresentation of facts.

The line currently being spun by climate change sceptic commentators and bloggers is that climate change scientists have lied about getting death threats.

At the same time a campaign of systematic abuse of climate scientists in an attempt to get them to withdraw from public debate is being ignored.

This spin-cycle started yesterday in The Australian, with a story reporting the findings of a report from the Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.

Mr Pilgrim ordered that 11 documents turned up through a Freedom of Information request to the Australian National University could, against the wishes of the university, be released to the public.

Mr Pilgrim concluded that 10 of the 11 documents “contain abuse in the sense that they contain insulting and offensive language” but did not contain “threats to kill or threats of harm”.

Oh. Well that’s OK then?

One email, the commissioner said, described an “exchange” during an “off-campus” event. The commissioner said the exchange “could be regarded as intimidating and at its highest perhaps alluding to a threat”, adding that the “danger to life or physical safety” was “only a possibility, not a real chance”.

In the report, Mr Pilgrim added: “In my view, there is a risk that release of the documents could lead to further insulting or offensive communication being directed at ANU personnel or expressed through social media. However, there is no evidence to suggest disclosure would, or could reasonably be expected to, endanger the life or physical safety of any person.”

Climate sceptic commentators and bloggers have taken this decision to mean that climate scientists have not received death threats and, on the face of it, that might seem like a fair conclusion.

Except they’ve ignored two key facts which undermine their conclusion.

The first, is that the FOI request only asked for correspondence covering a six month period from January to June 2011. What’s more, the request only asked for correspondence regarding six ANU academics. The report from the Privacy Commissioner made this clear.

Secondly, the original investigation which sparked the FOI request, published in The Canberra Times, found more than 30 climate scientists had received threats or abuse of one kind or another at universities across Australia and that this campaign had been going on for years. It wasn’t news to some of us. None of the emails I published on my blog were from scientists at ANU.

Despite the narrow nature of the FOI request and the foul nature of the campaign, sceptic blogger Jo Nova was utterly beside herself claiming the Privacy Commissioner’s report had shown that the campaign of intimidation didn’t exist.

Anthony Watts wrote the claims were entirely “manufactured” with “not a single document” to back it up.

James Delingpole said there had been no death threats “whatsoever” during the campaign, and then went on to trivialise reports that Professor Phil Jones, of the University of East Anglia, had considered suicide.

At Catallaxy Files, senior IPA fellow Sinclair Davidson, said the threats “never happened” and were a lie.

All of these reports, no doubt hastily compiled but with a total lack of care or compassion, failed to take into account that the FOI request was so narrow that it couldn’t possibly back up their conclusions.

Sounds to me a little bit like cherry-picking one particular piece of climate data to try and construct an argument, while ignoring all the other evidence around them.

We still don’t even know what the documents in this selective trove actually say because the ANU has not yet released them, saying instead that it is “reviewing the report” and “considering our options”.

The question of whether the abuse constitutes a “death threat” is a red herring.

When climate researchers have their children threatened with sexual abuse, have their cars smeared with excrement and get emails telling them they’re going to “end up collateral damage”, then what else is it but a hate campaign.

In my view, the campaign of abuse is designed to intimidate climate scientists, discourage them from engaging with the public and discourage them from carrying out their research. Failing to condemn it shows just how low the climate change debate has become.

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Simon Nasht tells me why he made that ABC climate documentary

“I HOPE it’s a circuit breaker,” Simon Nasht told me, the morning after the night before.

The night in question was the screening of his documentary – I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate” – to about 700,000 viewers on prime time ABC.

The circuit which Nasht was aiming to break, is the one providing voltage to an increasingly toxic debate in the media and in the public about the root causes and consequences of human-caused climate change.

Before the show had even gone to air, the program was causing controversy with commentators – myself and others including Clive Hamilton, Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley – pointing out its format gave the false impression of there being a legitimate scientific debate about fossil fuel burning causing climate change.

In brief, the show took a climate skeptic, former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, and a climate change campaigner, Anna Rose, and flew them around the world. Each could introduce the other to anybody they liked, in an attempt to change the other’s mind.

“We set out to see who Nick relies on and who Anna relies on. That’s a valid approach,” Nasht said.

As I had already written, the program gave an airing and, in turn, some

credibility, to pseudo-scientists, outlying views and consistently wrong bloggers. My argument wasn’t that they didn’t have the right to an opinion, but that the show would legitimize their debunked views.

Nasht, whose company Smith&Nasht partners him with entrepreneur Dick Smith, contacted me asking if I’d be happy to hear and communicate his side of the story. I wanted to know why he thought the format was a good idea, when I clearly didn’t. So in the interests of fairness, here we are.

“The truth is that we need new ways of framing this because we don’t have any time,” he told me.  “We have to face reality that standing on a high horse of scientific purity is not working.  The 700,000 or so people that watched the show to revisit the climate change issue were forced to consider their own point of view.”

Nasht said the show was as much about examining the social science – the reasons why the debate has become publicly polarized – as it was about examining the climate science.

“It was a thought-through strategy and we took a lot of time to think about what we were doing,” he said.

“Our great friend Stephen Schneider [the late climate scientist] came to stay with us – as he often did when he was here. We had a long chat about the program and we talked through the risks and what benefits it offered. Stephen was convinced that the debate had so spun out of control that we had to find a way to drag it back and to have some form of constructive discussion.  When ABC journalists are jostled for doing their job and nooses get held up in front of visiting scientists then things have gone nuts.  You have to find some space where there’s time for reasonable discussion. Continue reading “Simon Nasht tells me why he made that ABC climate documentary”

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I Can Engage In A Flawed Debate About Climate Change

APPARENTLY, science writer and academic Ben Goldacre would rather slam his “cock in a door” than engage in a phony debate with climate change deniers.

At least, that’s what he told former Liberal Senator and climate sceptic Nick Minchin and climate change campaigner Anna Rose during the filming for this Thursday evening’s ABC show “I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate”.

The concept of the show is simple. Get a climate sceptic and a climate advocate together and let them take each other around the world to meet people in an attempt to change each other’s mind.

Nick Minchin laid out his own position during an interview with the ABC’s Four Corners program, back in 2009. Basically, it boiled to “lefties” exploiting people’s innate fears about climate change “to achieve their political ends”.

Be warned, Mr Minchin, as secret lefties like British Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and that famous anti-capitalist Richard Branson are also in on the socialist plot.

I should admit I’ve known about the program for many months, as I was approached to act as an advisor in the planning stages. Nothing materialised. I also spoke many months ago to Anna Rose about the show.

In both instances, I said that in my view the show’s format was flawed in that it would put non-peer-reviewed, pseudo science conducted by largely unqualified non-experts alongside decades of genuine peer reviewed scientific research. It might make for engaging telly, but it creates a false sense of balance.

If I were a climate sceptic activist or a fossil fuel lobbyist designing a format for a TV show, this show is what I’d probably come up with.

In an excerpt broadcast on radio national’s The Science Show, Goldacre explains why he thinks the show’s format is questionable and how, as part of the broader treatment of the climate change issue in mainstream media, it is a “gift” for the likes of Minchin. Continue reading “I Can Engage In A Flawed Debate About Climate Change”

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Monckton, Rinehart and a plan to capture the Australian media

BACK in July last year in a boardroom of a western Australian free-market think tank, the extrovert British climate change sceptic Lord Christopher Monckton was holding court.

The topic for discussion? How to better capture the Australian media to help push a right wing, free-market and climate sceptic agenda.

At the time, Lord Monckton was in Australia at the behest of a mining association and Gina Rinehart to deliver a series of talks on climate change and spread his conspiracy theories that human-caused climate change is a left-wing plot to bring down the West.

At one point, Monckton told a boisterous partisan crowd: “So to the bogus scientists who have produced the bogus science that invented this bogus scare I say, we are coming after you. We are going to prosecute you, and we are going to lock you up.”

Lord Monckton had been invited to Australia by the iron and coal mining boss Rinehart, the country’s richest woman with a rising personal fortune in the region of $20 billion.

Hosting the meeting was the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, a group chaired by mining “Hall of Fame” member Ron Manners to promote free-market ideals and low government intervention.

Manners is also a member of Gina Rinehart’s lobby group ANDEV, which has been joined by the Institute for Public Affairs to lobby for a separate low-tax low regulation economic zone for the north of Australia to make mining projects easier to develop.

It would be safe to presume, given Manner’s background in mining and the make-up of his staff, that this aim to lower government intervention would include any regulations and taxes on mining.

As far as its position on climate change goes, Mannkal’s website only appears to promote sceptical and largely debunked views on climate science, with links to many climate change denial websites which form part of a global network.

The Lord Monckton gathering, posted on YouTube [see UPDATE  below], had all the air of a strategy meeting. Continue reading “Monckton, Rinehart and a plan to capture the Australian media”

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Plimer and Howard maintain the rage with climate science denial

ON November 24 in Melbourne, Professor Ian Plimer launched his new book which aims to spread doubt and uncertainty on the science of climate change.

Targeting school children and teachers (at least superficially), Plimer told the audience: “These children are being fed environmental propaganda and these children are too young to be fed ideology”

Yet the book – How to Get Expelled From School – is being supported by the Institute for Public Affairs, a think-tank that exists to do little else than spread its own free-market ideology.

Not only that, but Professor Plimer, a geologist at the University of Adelaide, was actively fundraising for the IPA just last month when the Federal Government’s carbon price legislation was passed. (UPDATE: The executive director of the IPA John Roskam, former corporate affairs manager for mining giant Rio Tinto, is on the editorial board of the book’s publisher, Connor Court.)

During his 20-minute launch speech, Professor Plimer criticised climate scientists for being allegedly part of a “political movement”.

Yet in virtually the next breath, he told the audience “one of the aims of this book is to maintain the rage, because we have an election coming.”

Continue reading “Plimer and Howard maintain the rage with climate science denial”

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The Australian’s own jaundiced view of climate science

In The Australian newspaper today, writer Chris Kenny clambers on to an arthritic hobby horse (and then climbs down to step into a glass house) to accuse the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of being “jaundiced and counter-productive” on its coverage of climate change.

Someone should give Kenny a job on a stone fruit orchard, such is his ability to pick cherries.

You can read his piece here.

Attempting to justify his argument, Kenny picks through a random selection of stories and issues to suggest the ABC is biased. For example:

When the ABC broadcast Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth* there was plenty of attendant publicity, sympathetic coverage and acclaim. But when it broadcast another side of the debate, The Great Global Warming Swindle, the ABC issued a disclaimer and followed it with an interview and panel discussion, largely debunking the program.

The ABC showed the Great Global Warming Swindle more than four years ago. The reason the program was “largely debunked” was because… well.. it has been largely debunked!

Kenny criticises the ABC for apparently lauding environmental scientist Tim Flannery “as an honest broker”. Yet The Australian regularly turns to “experts” on climate science or policy who have a clear and stated ideological or industry view (step forward, the Institute for Public Affairs, the Australian Coal Association and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association).

What other evidence of this ABC bias? Continue reading “The Australian’s own jaundiced view of climate science”

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Hector, the healthy lump of coal, targets kids

HE’S healthy, he juggles fruit, plays cricket, he always rides safely and kids can colour him in.

Meet Hector, the lump of coal in a hi-vis safety jacket. Apparently, Hector has been popping up at community events in the Mackay area of north Queensland for a couple of years.

He’s the mascot for the Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal and the main attraction in the “fun zone” on the terminal’s website (I was keen to do the word search but it wasn’t working, but the colouring pages are great… I’ve already run out of black crayon).

Dalrymple is the larger of the two terminals which make up the Port of Hay Point – which is laying claim to be the world’s biggest coal export port. The terminal shipped out 63.5 million tonnes of healthy and wholesome coal last year. Isn’t that great, kids?

Now I don’t want to spoil the family fun or anything, but shouldn’t someone mention.. erm… climate change?

The marketing chaps at Dalrymple Bay aren’t the first to morph environmentally questionable sources of energy into fun for kids.

Super Rock

There’s been Super Rock and his sidekick Spurt – two chunks of coal which starred in a kids colouring book to promote the Pennsylvanian coal industry described generously by Grist as “wonderfully crappy”.

I’m sure you’ll agree, though, he’s not a patch on Hector.

Earlier this year, there was Talisman Terry, the “friendly fracosaurus” [gedit?] who featured in a colouring book from the gas company Talisman Energy.

The company withdrew the colouring book after complaints it was engaging in child-directed propoganda.

A wicked parody of Terry’s exploits from American satirist Stephen Colbert probably didn’t help matters, especially the bit where Terry committed “frackicide” by standing in the shower and setting fire to the water.

But it’s not just corporations who are keen for kids to see the “cool” side of coal.

In Illinois, the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity runs an annual competition (top prize $100) where school kids draw posters about coal, the best of which are chosen to feature in the state’s “coal calendar” which is in its 23rd year.

Among the winning entries, are such marketing gems as “If Coal is Our Past… then it’s also our future,” and “You can’t say no to Illinois Coal”.

I’m wondering which industries might be next to kiddify their products? How about Uri Uranium, Billy the Brominated Flame Retardant, Calista the Cluster Bomb and her friend Lenny the Landmine?

Or we could have Asbestos Bertha, Chris the Chlorofluorocarbon or DDT Debbie? (I’m claiming copyright on all those).

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Rescued from the internet dustbin

A NOT-FOR-PROFIT organisation established in San Francisco has managed to save a large chunk of my Australian online blogging career from the internet dustbin.

Although I’ve never met them, I owe them a debt of gratitude. So to the folks at Internet Archive, who run the web archive site Wayback Machine, a heartfelt thank you.

This is why.

A few days ago, when I was researching this piece for DeSmogBlog about the questionable coverage of climate change science by The Australian newspaper, I found that none of the links to my old News Ltd blog – GreenBlog – were working.

To be precise, the links worked, but there was no content on the pages. Just a white screen where about 650 posts and 14,000 comments used to be.

The record of an online blog session with then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd? Gone. The full Q&A with former UN general secretary Kofi Annan? Gone. My catalogue of critiques of News Ltd’s climate denial bloggers, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt? All gone.

Continue reading “Rescued from the internet dustbin”

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