Denialist Agenda (Part 3): Think tanks, oil money and black ops

Clive HamiltonHere is the part 3 of Clive Hamilton’s expose of the denialist movement.  He explores the role of special interests funded ‘think tanks’ …

Clive Hamilton, ABC Unleashed.

The army of denialist bloggers and cyber-bullies is sometimes accused of being the tool of fossil fuel companies. Although there is certainly a concordance of interests, that is as far as the relationship goes. The bloggers are motivated not by financial gain (indeed, their activities may have a financial cost) but by political grievances and an anti-elite worldview at odds with the mainstream.

Nevertheless, it is true that the raw material that feeds their anger is generated overwhelmingly by a network of right-wing think tanks and websites in part funded by Big Carbon. These links, which have been heavily documented, are close enough to provoke the Royal Society to take the unprecedented step of writing to Exxon Mobil asking the company to desist from funding anti-science groups.

Yet the funding continues, often through foundations that in effect launder oil and coal money to make it more difficult to trace to its sources. One of the more important conduits is the Washington-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Atlas supports financially a network of some 200 libertarian think tanks around the world, including (according to an investigation by US magazine Mother Jones) the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia.

Atlas co-sponsored the Heartland Institute’s climate sceptic conference in Washington last June attended by a number of prominent Australian skeptics. The Heartland Institute has received funding from Exxon Mobil and earlier received funding from Philip Morris to campaign against smoking restrictions. It has superseded Frontiers of Freedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute as the foremost US “think tank” working to discredit climate science and stop action on climate change.

Black ops

The deployment of think tanks and sceptic websites to attack climate science has been a carefully planned strategy that was developed in the United States in the mid-1990s. It was refined with the advice of political consultant Frank Luntz who in 2002 urged the Republican Party to undermine the credibility of climate science by commissioning “independent” experts to “make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”. The strategy is comprehensively exposed by former PR insider Jim Hoggan in hisrecent book Climate Cover-Up.

The strategy’s use of operations that fall into the “grey area” of political campaigning – such as the creation of fake citizens groups to advance the interests of fossil fuel companies – is well-known and continuing. Only now is light being shone on a far more sinister campaign of black operations.

The hacking into computers at the Climatic Research Centre at the University of East Anglia is only part of a more extensive campaign of black ops organised by elements of the denial industry in the run-up to the Copenhagen meeting. Others include break-ins to the offices of climate scientists, an attempt to infiltrate the computer system at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria by two people posing as technicians, and industrial espionage directed at US green groups.

The think tanks

Although Australia does not have the proliferation of well-funded conservative think tanks that have been so influential in US politics, local counterparts have served effectively as conduits for the stream of anti-science pouring out of their kindred organisations in the United States. They have also been instrumental in publicising and promoting the work of Australian sceptics such as Ian Plimer and Bob Carter. There are three established think tanks and a new one emerging.

Lavoisier Group: Perhaps better described as an advocacy group than a think tank, theLavoisier Group was founded in 1999 by Hugh Morgan, then CEO of Western Mining Corporation and a former president of the Mining Industry Council, and his long-time political operative Ray Evans. Its board consists mostly of mining industry figures. Evans has close links with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, for some years the most active denialist think tank in the United States.

Evans, with Morgan’s backing, had created a string of organisations promoting conservative causes, including the anti-union H.R Nicholls Society (with which the Lavoisier Group shares a postal address) and the Samuel Griffiths Society, committed to defending states’ rights.

The Lavoisier Group brings together leading sceptics at its conferences, promotes sceptics’ books, and publishes material such as “Nine Lies About Global Warming”, penned by Evans and parroted by sceptical columnists in the newspapers. A book edited by Evans was last year launched by Senator Barnaby Joyce, now the shadow finance minister.

Institute of Public Affairs: The oldest think tank in Australia, and with close links to the Liberal Party, the IPA took up the denialist cause early. The IPA is coy about its funding sources, but is known to have received the bulk of its income from mining, resource and tobacco companies. In addition to promoting the work of Australian sceptics like Ian Plimer, the IPA has hosted international visitors such as Bjorn Lomborg and Mark Steyn, events attended by Liberal Party heavyweights.

The IPA also sponsored the visit to Australia of President Putin’s former adviser Andrei Illarianov who fulminated against “fraudulent science” and described the Kyoto Protocol as a “death pact”, “an interstate Auschwitz”, “a sort of international Gosplan, a system to rival the former Soviet Union’s”, an argument bizarre even in the world of climate denial, but reasonable enough to be reproduced by The Australian.

Centre for Independent Studies: The CIS projects itself as a more moderate conservative think tank, but has not been able to resist promoting climate scepticism. After struggling in its early years, it was reprieved by a major funding boost from six mining companies, a rescue facilitated by Hugh Morgan. Among its board members is Sir Rod Eddington, a senior business adviser to the Labor Government. It has hosted a string of climate sceptics from overseas and Australia.

Brisbane Institute: The Brisbane Institute has for some years been a middle-of-the-road think tank but appears to have been taken over by climate sceptics. Some of its followers were shocked to hear that the Institute would host the Brisbane leg of Christopher Monckton’s Australian tour.

Last year the Brisbane Institute hosted a public lecture by Dr Jay Lehr, Science Director of the Heartland Institute. As we saw, the Heartland Institute is now the most active climate denialist organisation in the United States. Lehr was presented by the Brisbane Institute as an “internationally renowned” scientist, which is simply untrue; he has been heavily criticised for distorting and misrepresenting climate science. He is better known for spending three months in jail for defrauding the US Environmental Protection Authority in 1991.

The Brisbane Institute is perfectly entitled to take the denialist road. The puzzle is why the University of Queensland, the Institute’s primary sponsor, would support an organisation that promotes anti-science. Paying for Monckton and Fehr to trash climate science in Brisbane does not seem compatible with the University’s aim “to achieve internationally-acknowledged excellence in all forms of research”.

Several scientists from the University serve as authors or reviewers for the IPCC, a body attacked as fraudulent by Monckton and Lehr. The University of Queensland appears unconcerned about linking itself with climate denial. In 2008 it accepted a donation of $350,000 from a climate change sceptic, channeled through the IPA, who wanted it to be spent on funding doctoral research on climate change. Of course, the University said there would be no strings attached.

These think tanks are at the heart of the denial movement in this country. They provide funding and organisational capacity, they convene conferences and private meetings, they commission sceptical scientists to write papers, they publish and promote sceptical papers and books, they supply “experts” to the media and they lobby at every opportunity.

Every sceptical scientist, no matter how independent he starts out, is sooner or later drawn into the web formed by these think tanks. In Australia, Bob Carter is a favourite of the Heartland Institute and the Lavoisier Group, Ian Plimer is an associate of the Institute for Public Affairs and an adviser to Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, and William Kinninmonth (the Australian sceptic with perhaps the strongest claims to being a climate scientist) allowed his book to be launched by the Lavoisier Group.

The links of these sceptics to political organisations with strong ideological agendas stands in sharp contrast to the vast assemblage of legitimate climate scientists who have no political connections. Yet it is the latter who are accused of being politicised.

Backlash against the 60s

Despite their financial support from Big Carbon, it would be wrong to believe that the conservative think tanks operate solely at the behest of the fossil fuel industries. Their objectives are principally ideological and they would still be campaigning against climate science without funding from Exxon Mobil and others; they would just be less effective. In the United States and Australia, it is probably true that they have received more funding from right-wing foundations with no links to Big Carbon than from oil and coal companies (although some, like the Scaife Foundations, owe their wealth to oil).

So, in the end, their motives are political rather than commercial. The arms of the denialist war on climate science – the bloggers and letter writers; the right wing columnists like Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson and Miranda Devine; the Murdoch broadsheets; and the conservative think tanks – are united by one factor, a hatred of environmentalism. Environmentalism is variously seen to be the enemy of individual freedom, an ideology of smug elites, an attack on capitalism and consumerism, and the vanguard of world government.

This antagonism towards the real or assumed ideas of environmentalism is spiced with a loathing for “green culture” represented by the image of the long-haired tree-huggers who want to impose their ascetic lifestyle on others.

Politically, climate denialism represents a backlash against the advances begun by the social movements of the 1960s and their destabilisation of traditional social structures and beliefs, including those of the right of humans to exploit the natural world, which helps explain why its activists are overwhelmingly older. Raging against climate science fits perfectly with the worldview, style and audience demographic of populist shock-jocks like Alan Jones, Australia’s answer to Rush Limbaugh.

To turn back the tide of denialism, perhaps the most significant step would be for those conservative leaders who accept the science to speak out loudly and clearly about the need to take action. It is in their hands to break down the belief that global warming is somehow a left-wing cause.

Tomorrow: How to manufacture a scientific scandal.

Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain

Jeffrey Sachs,,          Friday 19 February 2010 12.47 GMT

In the weeks before and after the Copenhagen climate change conference last December, the science of climate change came under harsh attack by critics who contend that climate scientists have deliberately suppressed evidence — and that the science itself is severely flawed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), the global group of experts charged with assessing the state of climate science, has been accused of bias.

The global public is disconcerted by these attacks. If experts cannot agree that there is a climate crisis, why should governments spend billions of dollars to address it?

The fact is that the critics — who are few in number but aggressive in their attacks — are deploying tactics that they have honed for more than 25 years. During their long campaign, they have greatly exaggerated scientific disagreements in order to stop action on climate change, with special interests like Exxon Mobil footing the bill.

Many books have recently documented the games played by the climate-change deniers. Merchants of Doubt, a new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway set for release in mid-2010, will be an authoritative account of their misbehaviour. The authors show that the same group of mischief-makers, given a platform by the free-market ideologues of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, has consistently tried to confuse the public and discredit the scientists whose insights are helping to save the world from unintended environmental harm.

Today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer. Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain.” Then, when it was discovered that certain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, the same groups launched a nasty campaign to discredit that science, too.

Later still, the group defended the tobacco giants against charges that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. And then, starting mainly in the 1980s, this same group took on the battle against climate change.

What is amazing is that, although these attacks on science have been wrong for 30 years, they still sow doubts about established facts. The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market ideologues opposed to any government controls.

The latest round of attacks involves two episodes. The first was the hacking of a climate-change research centre in England. The emails that were stolen suggested a lack of forthrightness in the presentation of some climate data. Whatever the details of this specific case, the studies in question represent a tiny fraction of the overwhelming scientific evidence that points to the reality and urgency of man-made climate change.

The second issue was a blatant error concerning glaciers that appeared in a major IPCC report. Here it should be understood that the IPCC issues thousands of pages of text. There are, no doubt, errors in those pages. But errors in the midst of a vast and complex report by the IPCC point to the inevitability of human shortcomings, not to any fundamental flaws in climate science.

When the emails and the IPCC error were brought to light, editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal launched a vicious campaign describing climate science as a hoax and a conspiracy. They claimed that scientists were fabricating evidence in order to obtain government research grants — a ludicrous accusation, I thought at the time, given that the scientists under attack have devoted their lives to finding the truth, and have certainly not become rich relative to their peers in finance and business.

But then I recalled that this line of attack — charging a scientific conspiracy to drum up “business” for science — was almost identical to that used by The Wall Street Journal and others in the past, when they fought controls on tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion, second-hand smoke, and other dangerous pollutants. In other words, their arguments were systematic and contrived, not at all original to the circumstances.

We are witnessing a predictable process by ideologues and right-wing think tanks and publications to discredit the scientific process. Their arguments have been repeatedly disproved for 30 years — time after time — but their aggressive methods of public propaganda succeed in causing delay and confusion.

Climate change science is a wondrous intellectual activity. Great scientific minds have learned over the course of many decades to “read” the Earth’s history, in order to understand how the climate system works. They have deployed brilliant physics, biology, and instrumentation (such as satellites reading detailed features of the Earth’s systems) in order to advance our understanding.

And the message is clear: large-scale use of oil, coal, and gas is threatening the biology and chemistry of the planet. We are fuelling dangerous changes in Earth’s climate and ocean chemistry, giving rise to extreme storms, droughts, and other hazards that will damage the food supply and the quality of life of the planet.

The IPCC and the climate scientists are telling us a crucial message. We need urgently to transform our energy, transport, food, industrial, and construction systems to reduce the dangerous human impact on the climate. It is our responsibility to listen, to understand the message, and then to act.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010

Scientists Defend UN Climate Change Report From Right Wing Assault

This was posted at TechPulse360 by Mark Boslet this morning.

Scalding critiques of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report run hotter than Ronald Reagan’s temper when confronting a Vietnam War peace demonstration.

Mistakes, these right wing critics, claim, undermine the entire U.N.-sponsored study, Al Gore’s Nobel Prize and the entire body of scientific evidence supporting global warming.

Return to the do-nothing policies of the Bush years, they scream.

It is shocking the force that several rather trivial errors have in undermining a massive three-volume report totaling more than 3,000 pages. Welcome to the nonsense of the climate change debate (or rather non-debate).

It was the IPCC report that forcefully told the world the burning of fossil fuels was warming the globe and action had to be taken. The study was immediately assailed as over reaching. Now right-wingers and Republicans are feasting on several errors that have come to light, including an incorrect date for the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. It was said to be 2035, but it more probably later.

Another incorrect statement describes the Netherlands as more than 50 percent under sea level. A final comes because the IPCC relied on non-scientific source to claim that 40 percent of the Amazon rain forest will become to savanna if the warming trend from CO2 accumulation is not reversed.

None of these mistakes should have appeared in the scholarly work, people from both sides of the aisle agree. But they are relatively minor points considering the scope of the work, according to climate scientists interviewed about the controversy.

“I’m not surprised that a report which involves three massive volumes (each over 1000 pages of smallish print), written by over 450 lead authors and 800 contributing authors (and reviewed by 2,500 expert experts who submitted 90,000 review comments on the draft document) (could) have a few errors in it,” says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.

“When you compare it to the gross errors of fact which are promulgated by people claiming that climate change is not occurring, these few errors in an otherwise very watertight document are relatively insignificant,” he says.

Presenting errors like these should be a major concern for the IPCC, Hoegh-Guldberg wrote in an e-mail. But do they justify throwing out the rest of the work?  “Of course not.”

A Down-Under Journalistic ‘Wipeout’ In Covering Risks to the Great Barrier Reef


BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA — Growing tensions between scientists and major news outlets in Australia center around scientists’ concerns over coverage of the potential effects of climate change on coral reefs.

Many of the environmental scientists point to what they see as biased and misleading reporting, leaving them frustrated and wondering how they can best engage in a public debate that seems to have left them behind.


Unlike anywhere else in the world, national media coverage of coral reefs in Australia is a near-daily occurrence. The primary reason? The close proximity of theGreat Barrier Reef (GBR), a natural wonder made by the accumulation of calcareous skeletons of countless billions ofcoral polyps over the last 8,000 years. The GBR is more than 2,000 km long and consists of thousands individual reefs. The biodiversity of the GBR is bewildering; a single reef can easily house many times more coral and fish species than the entire Caribbean Sea, the global center of biodiversity.

Across this vast island continent, citizens have a genuine and broad sense of national stewardship of the GBR, in part because this natural tourism magnet is valued at $51.4 billion, nearly 5 percent of Australia’s annual GDP.

A threat to the reef 40 years ago by exploratory oil drilling and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns-starfish, a voracious coral predator, largely inspired the beginning of the now global reef conservation movement. Cars since the 1970s have criss-crossed the nation sporting “Save The Reef” bumper stickers. This popular movement led to establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and to what is now in many regards the world’s largest and best managed marine reserve.

Over those three-plus decades, coral reefs around the world have declined as the result of a range of impacts. Local threats include activities like dynamite fishing and damage from boat anchors. Globally and in the longer-term, threats mount from ocean warming and from acidification.

Coverage of the GBR and reef science on radio and television programs of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and some other outlets is generally sympathetic to conservation efforts and in alignment with the findings and perspectives of reef scientists.

In contrast, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, The Australian, frequently reports on and champions aggressive opposition to coral reef science and management and to the Labor government’s proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent example is a front-page February 4 story bylined by reporter Jamie Walker and headlined “Report undercuts Kevin Rudd’s Great Barrier Reef wipeout.”

Australia’s pro-environment Prime Minister, Rudd recently spoke to the parliament of potentially devastating future effects of anthropogenic global warming on the Great Barrier Reef. Temperatures only 1 or 2 degrees C above normal summertime highs can cause “coral bleaching“. If such warming lasts for weeks or goes much higher than that, corals can die en masse, having cascading impacts on all the reef inhabitants.

The well-documented temperature sensitivity of corals leads to theexpectation that if tropical ocean temperatures increase by 2-3 degrees C, as they are predicted to do even under the more conservative IPCC emissions scenarios, coral populations would be reduced and the overall reef ecosystem could be degraded.

A Journalistic Wipeout

The lead of Walker’s story was “Kevin Rudd’s insistence that the Great Barrier Reef could be ‘destroyed beyond recognition’ by global warming grates with new science suggesting it will again escape temperature-related coral bleaching.”

The new science purportedly undercutting Rudd’s warning came from theAustralian Institute of Marine Science, an internationally respected research institution. The report indicated that as of mid-January, there was no sign of mass bleaching on 14 reefs on the southern GBR. According to Hugh Sweatman, PhD, leader of the AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program, the absence of any mass bleaching is attributable to several recent cyclones and current atmospheric conditions having reduced local water temperatures.

The point is that the reef has not (yet) bleached this summer, a simple consequence of the fact that temperatures around the Reef had not increased to more than 1 degree C above the long-term average (the well-documented trigger for coral bleaching and the basis for the satellite “hotspot” detection program run by NOAA in Washington D.C.).

Furthermore, the first sentence of the second paragraph of the report states “median reef-wide live coral cover declined on the majority of sampled reefs [10 of 14] since previous surveys [in 2009].” That finding does not jibe with the rosy description of recovering and resilient reefs painted by the newspaper’s “wipeout” story nor in recent Australian stories tellingly titled “Scientists ‘crying wolf’ over coral” and “How the reef became blue again.”

Besides getting the science wrong, The Australian’s February 4 article illustrates what appears to be a new approach to media news coverage in Australia of climate change: The central interpretation was not corroborated by the text of the report or by any scientist. This fact and Walker’s tone make this front-page article better suited for the opinion pages.

These examples of recent coverage illustrate that the once-honored wall between news pages and opinion pages in Australia appears increasingly porous. This is probably not surprising given the strong influence of the British Broadsheet format on Australian papers.

Reporters around the world in fact appear to be getting more assertive and openly subjective in their role as arbiters of the frenzied debate over climate change science, further blurring the line that for many had long separated news and opinion pieces.

A typical example is coverage of the snowstorms in Washington D.C., suggesting (falsely) that such localized weather events indicate global warming has ended.

Among reporters seeing through the fog of weather/climate confusion,Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank correctly wrote, “As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution.”

Journalistic Accountability

AIMS CEO Ian Poiner, PhD, in a letter to The Australian published online one week after the February 4 “wipeout” story, wrote, “This year the Australian Institute of Marine Science has observed that there is no mass coral bleaching on the southern Great Barrier Reef.” He said The Australian’s front-page story “uses these observations to contradict the view that the reef is threatened by climate change. This is not the case. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the healthiest coral reef ecosystems in the world, but climate change is a significant long-term threat … One or two seasons of no bleaching do not mean that the GBR is not threatened.” (AIMS has also issued an easy to read white paper on its home page, outlining its major findings related to coral reefs and climate change.)

Given the recent focus by some media on development and review processes of IPCC reports and of scientific peer-review more generally, scientists find the absence of rigorous review or accountability in the mass media ironic and frustrating.

Reacting to such coverage, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane said, “The recent unprofessional and unethical behavior of journalists has all of us very concerned. Not only does there seem to be a lack of accountability for telling fibs, but there seems to be a concerted effort to harass and intimidate some of our best scientists as well as the institutions to which they belong.”

Unequal Media Access

The only major news outlet in Australia regularly and responsibly reporting on climate science and openly challenging reporting by The Australian has been the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Veteran ABC reporter Jonathan Holmes followed up a hard-hitting segment of his Media Watch program that dissected the flaws in the newspaper’s story with a broader editorial about the disproportionate prominence in Australian mass media of climate change “deniers”:

There’s no denying that the climate change deniers, or sceptics, (the term you prefer depends which side you’re on) have succeeded, to a degree that orthodox climate scientists find baffling, in persuading a large proportion of the public that the science of global warming is, in the Opposition leader’s words, “absolute crap”.

The opinion pages – and as we showed on Media Watch last Monday, sometimes the news pages – of our only national broadsheet have heavily favoured sceptics over proponents of the scientific consensus.

The Melbourne-based Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt responded with an editorial of his own, disagreeing with Holmes’ assertion that journalists unfriendly to science are dominating Australian newspapers.

I’m flattered, but Holmes is kidding himself. Warmists have for years had unrivalled access to the mass media. Even better, they’ve had their cause taken up by the most powerful outlets … Every newspaper environment reporter pumped out warmist scare stories about polar bears and collapsing glaciers …

Perhaps. But the tide has clearly turned, and in the news columns and not solely on the editorial pages. The Australian has been running a campaign ofnear-daily articles andeditorials sharply critical of the IPCC and evidence of anthropogenic climate change.

The relative frequency of “denialist” and “warmist” pieces in Australian media could be quantified. Yet that would miss Holmes’ central point: there is a big difference between merely describing the science in the dry and balanced tone of an environmental reporter and vehemently attacking it and its practitioners from a pulpit of populist outrage and scorn.

There is no Aussie media watcher comparable to the liberal climate analystJoe Romm, nor a nationally syndicated columnist like The New York TimesTom Friedman, forcefully advocating green energy policies, often from a centrist economic or national security perspective. Climate change scientists simply lack an adequate platform to communicate directly with the public the way agenda-driven critics of their research do. Like many of their science colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere, they are also stuck on the defensive and are sorely in need of training on how to work more successfully with the media.

The battle of words among reporters and opinion makers in Australia goes on, with neither scientists nor the science playing any discernable role. Despite some knowledgeable media coverage of threats to the GBR and reefs around the world, scientists sense their findings are being drowned out and misrepresented by partisan and agenda-driven advocates with daily access to hundreds of thousands of readers.

The consequences are sobering, Hoegh-Guldberg cautions. “You might write bad journalism off as simply an acceptable consequence of our freewheeling society. The implications, however, are extremely serious. It threatens to undermine our ability to respond to the challenges of climate change. In my mind, the media must devise mechanisms to deal with such journalistic practices or we will all suffer the consequences.”

Ice Shelves Disappearing on Antarctic Peninsula

From ScienceDaily:

ScienceDaily (Feb. 22, 2010) — Ice shelves are retreating in the southern section of the Antarctic Peninsula due to climate change, according to new data. This could result in glacier retreat and sea-level rise if warming continues, threatening coastal communities and low-lying islands worldwide, experts say.

Research by the U.S. Geological Survey is the first to document that every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level.

“This research is part of a larger ongoing USGS project that is for the first time studying the entire Antarctic coastline in detail, and this is important because the Antarctic ice sheet contains 91 percent of Earth’s glacier ice,” said USGS scientist Jane Ferrigno. “The loss of ice shelves is evidence of the effects of global warming. We need to be alert and continually understand and observe how our climate system is changing.”

The Peninsula is one of Antarctica’s most rapidly changing areas because it is farthest away from the South Pole, and its ice shelf loss may be a forecast of changes in other parts of Antarctica and the world if warming continues.

Retreat along the southern part of the Peninsula is of particular interest because that area has the Peninsula’s coolest temperatures, demonstrating that global warming is affecting the entire length of the Peninsula.

The Antarctic Peninsula’s southern section as described in this study contains five major ice shelves: Wilkins, George VI, Bach, Stange and the southern portion of Larsen Ice Shelf. The ice lost since 1998 from the Wilkins Ice Shelf alone totals more than 4,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The USGS is working collaboratively on this project with the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt fűr Kartographie und Geodäsie. The research is also part of the USGS Glacier Studies Project, which is monitoring and describing glacier extent and change over the whole planet using satellite imagery.

The report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947 — 2009” and its accompanying map is available online (

The other completed reports in the Coastal Change and Glaciological Maps of Antarctica series can be viewed online (

This image shows ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. USGS scientists are studying coastal and glacier change along the entire Antarctic coastline. The southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula is one area studied as part of this project, and is summarized in the USGS report, "Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947--2009" (map I--2600--C). (Credit: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

IWC planning to allow commercial whaling

Several newspaper are reporting that the IWC is planning to overturn the current ban on commercial whaling, despite the Rudd governments strong opposition:


From the ABC:

IWC flags compromise on commercial whaling

By environment reporter Sarah Clarke

Posted 5 hours 28 minutes ago

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has released a compromise plan that could overturn a 28-year ban on commercial whaling.

The whaling body has been involved in negotiations to try to break an ongoing deadlock.

A small group of IWC nations, including Australia, have spent the past two years negotiating a way forward for the troubled IWC.

The group has released draft recommendations which include bringing scientific whaling under the commission’s watch, reducing catches from current levels, establishing caps on whale takes over a 10-year period, and improving the animal welfare aspects of whaling.

Japan currently conducts its scientific whaling through a loophole in the IWC’s rules.

Over the past five years it has killed up to 1,900 whales in the Southern Ocean as part of its research program.

The IWC says its plan would reduce the catch and bring it under a tighter watch.

And from our friends, The Australian:

COMMERCIAL whaling would be reintroduced on a limited basis and Japan would be able to continue hunting in the Antarctic, under a proposal released today by International Whaling Commission chairman Cristian Maquieira.

The Maquieira proposal cuts across Kevin Rudd’s demand for Japan to end its Southern Ocean scientific whaling program by November, before the scheduled start of the next summer hunt.

Mr Rudd has threatened Japan with a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice if it does not accept his ultimatum.

Greenpeace International today described the Maquieira plan as a “disaster” for whale conservation, “send(ing) shock waves through international ocean conservation efforts, making it vastly more difficult to protect other rapidly declining species such as tuna and sharks”.

“The proposal rewards Japan for decades of reprehensible behaviour at the IWC and in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary,” said John Frizell, head of the Greenpeace whales campaign.

Canberra is expected to reject Mr Maquieira’s plan, aimed at securing the future of an IWC at risk of collapse over Japanese so-called scientific whaling and the refusal of several other members to honour the 24-year-old international moratorium on commercial whaling.

Mr Rudd and embattled Environment Minister Peter Garrett are expected to unveil an alternative Australian proposal to the IWC as early as today.

The Maquieira proposal, developed but not endorsed by a “support group” of 12 countries including Australia and Japan, calls for suspending scientific whaling, the means by which Japan gets around the 24-year-old IWC ban on commercial whaling, this summer with quotas to catch up to 990 Southern Ocean whales.

Japan and the other IWC member countries that currently kill whales, however, would receive quotas for the next 10 years, set within sustainable levels for each hunted species.

The support group has not established what quotas would apply in the Antarctic, where only the Japan hunts, but has left the way open for targeted species to include the iconic humpback and still at-risk fin whales, as well as the numerous minkes that make up the overwhelming bulk of the Japanese fleet’s catch.

In effect, this is a return to limited commercial whaling, although only open to countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland that by one means or another have flouted the whaling moratorium.

The proposal, part of a wide-ranging suite of reforms to the IWC’s moribund rules and procedures, would operate until the end of 2010.

It goes early next month to an IWC working group meeting in Florida and, if approved, from there to the commission’s annual meeting where, if approved, it would become the operating regime for governing both whaling and whale conservation activities.

Denialist Agenda (Part 2): Who is orchestrating the cyber-bullying?

Here is part 2 of Clive Hamilton’s series on the right-wing denial movement:

The floods of offensive and threatening emails aimed at intimidating climate scientists have all the signs of an orchestrated campaign by sceptics groups. The links are well-hidden because mobilizing people to send abuse and threats is well outside the accepted bounds of democratic participation; indeed, some of it is illegal. And an apparently spontaneous expression of citizen concern carries more weight than an organised operation by a zealous group.

Without access to ISP logs, it is difficult to trace the emails to a source. However, it is clear that hard-line denialists congregate electronically at a number of internet nodes where they engage in mutual reinforcement of their opinions and stoke the rage that lies behind them.

Those who operate these sites retail the “information” that reinforces the assertions made by their followers. They often post highly personal attacks on individuals who speak in favour of mainstream science and measures to combat global warming, knowing from experience that they will stimulate a stream of vituperation from their supporters.

The posts on these sites often provoke an outpouring of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and vilification of individuals. There is no restraining influence and, in the middle of one of these frenzies, it would be a brave sceptic who called for caution and moderation in the ideas expressed or the language used.

In Australia, a handful of denialist websites stand out. They include the blog of Herald-Suncommentator Andrew Bolt, Bolt’s stable mate Tim Blair at the Daily Telegraph, the website operated by sceptic Joanne Nova (a pseudonym for Joanne Codling), and the community forum site operated by the Queensland farmers’ organisation Agmates. Denialists also flock to the e-journal Online Opinion.

On these sites discussion of the “global warming conspiracy” seamlessly segues into a hodge-podge of right-wing populist grievances and causes, including defending rural property rights, the martyrdom of farming hunger-striker Peter Spencer, the errors of the Club of Rome, blood on the hands of Rachel Carson for causing DDT to be banned, the evils of Al Gore, the plan by the United Nations to dominate the world, and the need to defend freedom and democracy from these threats. Sceptics are explicitly or implicitly portrayed as freedom fighters battling attempts by scheming elites to shore up their power or impose a world government.

Recently, this stew of paranoia has been given a boost by the media exposure granted to Christopher Monckton in his recent Australian tour. Monckton propounded his extraordinary theory about climate change being a conspiracy by communists – assisted by the Hitler Youth and a craven scientific establishment – to seize power through a world government hidden in a climate treaty. A few months ago a fantasist like Monckton would have attracted only eye-rolling from news editors.

I am not suggesting that the individuals and organisations I have mentioned are responsible for organising the cyber-bullying attacks on scientists and others. However, they do create an environment that encourages them. The effect of these sites is three-fold.

  1. They supply the ammunition that confirms and elaborates on climate deniers’ beliefs.
  2. They provide a forum in which deniers can participate in a like-minded community that reinforces their views.
  3. And they identify the individuals responsible for promoting climate lies, stimulating participants to make direct contacts with “warmists”.

Andrew Bolt’s blog deserves special mention both because it has become the most popular meeting place for deniers in Australia and because it is sponsored by a mainstream media outlet, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, a Murdoch tabloid.

Bolt specialises in posts of angry ridicule directed at climate scientists and any others who publicly accept the science. Recent targets have included Ove Hoegh-GuldburgAndy Pitman, and the CSIRO as a whole.

Bolt has admitted that his posts bad-mouthing climate scientists have incited his readers to send abusive emails to them.

Mainstreaming denial

It might be thought that vilification of climate scientists and others engaged in the climate debate is confined to the nether-world of the Internet. In truth, the most influential source of misrepresentation and ridicule resides in the “heritage media” in the form of the Murdoch broadsheet, The Australian. I will consider its long-running war on science later, but here it is important to draw attention to its role in identifying hate figures for deniers and fueling their aggression.

As an illustration of the newspaper’s tactic, at the Copenhagen conference in December an Australian named Ian Fry, representing the Government of Tuvalu, made an impassioned intervention from the plenary floor that captured the mood and made headlines around the world. Fry is a shy man who has for many years devoted himself to representing the tiny island state for minimal financial or reputational reward.

The day after his intervention The Australian published a story ridiculing his “tear-jerking performance” and suggesting he is a self-seeking hypocrite because he lives a long way from the sea. The story appeared on the front page alongside a photograph of Fry’s house.

At a time when climate campaigners were receiving grisly death threats, the editors of the national daily decided to expose Ian Fry and his family to danger by publishing information about where he lives that enabled people to work out his address. When challenged, the journalist responsible for the story showed no understanding or remorse.

In 2005 The Australian used the same tactic on Indigenous leader Mick Dodson, publishing a photo of his house under a headline claiming he lived comfortably in the suburbs while depriving other Indigenous people of the opportunity to own a house. Dodson, already the subject of death threats, said he feared for the safety of his family.

The Australian‘s grubby tactic was unwillingly revealed by one of its journalists, Caroline Overington. During the last election campaign, a Labor candidate decided he did not want to be interviewed and photographed, so she threatened to send a photographer around to stake out his house. She sent the following text message:
“Either you say yes to a photograph smiling and happy and out campaigning, or we stake you out at … Bondi Junction, and get you looking like a cat caught in a trap, in your PJs. Your choice.”

What drives denial?

What motivates the legion of climate deniers to send hate-mail? In recent years a great deal of evidence has come to light linking fossil fuel corporations with organisations that promote climate denial, but it would be a mistake to believe that the army of sceptical bloggers is in any sense in the pay of, or directly influenced by, the fossil fuel lobby.

Climate denialism has been absorbed by an older and wider political movement, sometimes called right-wing populism. Emanating from the United States, and defined more by what it fears than by what it proposes, the movement’s enemies were helpfully listed in a 2004 TV ad attacking Democrat Howard Dean, whose supporters were characterised as a:
“tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”

Although the targets are adapted to Australian conditions, in both countries the movement is driven by feelings of angry grievance. Those who identify with it see themselves as anti-liberal, anti-elitist and anti-intellectual. They are resentful of their exclusion from the mainstream and at the same time proud of their outsider status.

Since the mid-1990s, anti-climate forces associated with the Republic Party and oil-funded conservative think tanks have successfully linked acceptance of global warming and the need for greenhouse policies with those groups despised by right-wing populism.

In more recent years, the denial movement has been joined by some hard-line conservative Christian groups, including the notorious Catch the Fire Ministries and its witch-hunting pastor Danny Nalliah. According to Paul Colgan, these groups were heavily involved in the lobbying to have Tony Abbott elected as Liberal Party leader.

As this suggests, becoming a denialist does not follow from carefully weighing up the evidence (that is, true scepticism) but from associating oneself with a cultural outlook, taking on an identity defined in opposition to a caricature of those who support action on climate change. It is the energy in this wider movement that has seen climate denialism morphing into a new form of political extremism.

Some active climate deniers possess a distinct “mindset” comprised of a certain worldview, including a narrative centered on secretive forces – variously encompassing elected leaders, scientists, scientific organisations, environmental groups and the United Nations – that are using climate science and climate policies as a cover to accumulate power with the objective of creating a world government that overrides national sovereignty and deprives citizens of their rights.

Those who hold to this worldview often feel marginalised and persecuted. It attracts the unstable and fanatical as well as those with more legitimate political grievances. For political leaders so inclined, the energy being mobilised by climate denial is a golden opportunity. Although it remains necessary for these leaders to evince a concern for the environment, and even to pretend to accept climate science, they can speak to the denialist minority using dog-whistling techniques to signal that they are really on their side.

This explains the decision by new Opposition leader Tony Abbott to meet Monckton when even one of the country’s most conservative columnists wrote of the dangers of associating with his extreme views. Although he had been forced to repudiate his pre-leadership claim that climate science is “absolute crap”, in meeting Monckton Abbott sent the message that his real views have not changed. Of course, he can respond to accusations of giving succour to denialism with the dog-whistler’s device of “plausible deniability” – he is happy to hear all views.

A more subtle message was sent by Abbott earlier this month when he gloated over the recent recall of the Toyota Prius; for him and others hostile to environmentalism, the tarnishing of a green icon is a reason for celebration.

Tomorrow: The Exxon-funded think tanks that feed climate denial.

Part 1: Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial

Would you like to fry with that?

Guy Pearce has written a brilliant commentary on the current political confusion (deliberate or not) over Australia’s greenhouse policy direction.  If you haven’t read his insightful book on the Howard era, coal and climate change (‘High and Dry‘) then it is worth picking up a copy.

Dr Guy Pearse, February 14, 2010, The Age

IF YOU want urgent action on climate change and want to transform Australia into a low carbon economy, you won’t be able to resist our Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, screams Labor. Available for a limited time only, it’s the only greenhouse policy burger that caps carbon pollution in Australia, makes big polluters pay for their emissions, and leaves almost no one worse off.
Don’t touch the Coalition’s alternative, the Rudd government warns: it’s a great big con that increases rather than caps Australia’s emissions, can’t achieve ambitious targets, and lets polluters off scot-free. It can’t be funded, it doesn’t think beyond 2020, and you can’t trust a party that has backflipped on emissions trading and replaced a leader who is passionate about action on climate change with one who believes the scientific case for action is ”absolute crap”.

Try our Emissions Reduction Fund, counters the Coalition. It’s a greenhouse policy that tastes a whole lot better and costs a whole lot less. Drizzled with ”direct action” incentives, it achieves the same emissions savings as the government’s scheme but at a fraction of the price. And there’s no need to interfere with ”business-as-usual” from those emission-intensive industries that ”keep the lights on”.

Beware Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Coalition warns. It is no more than a vainglorious attempt to save the world from climate change by imposing a Great Big New Tax that will cost $120 billion, increase the cost of everything, cripple the economy, export emissions and jobs, and punish Australian families.

Sounds like a stark choice. But look more closely at the ingredients, brush aside the political garnish and rhetorical flavouring and the great surprise is just how similar and unhelpful the burgers really are.

The first thing you notice is that both parties’ policies hide rather than cap Australia’s carbon pollution – it’s the meat in both sandwiches. Emissions reduction targets for Australia don’t necessarily mean less carbon pollution in Australia. By 2020, our emissions are projected to rise from around 600 million tonnes a year today to 664 million tonnes. Both parties have committed to an unconditional 5 per cent cut relative to 2000 levels, which means getting ”net emissions” down by 138 million tonnes to 526 million.

Roughly speaking, ”net emissions” equals greenhouse pollution here in Australia, plus the extra CO2 we put into the atmosphere when we cut down vegetation or degrade soils, minus any offsets we can generate here or overseas by, for example, planting trees or protecting forests that might have been logged. The potential to generate vast quantities of these carbon credits means we can increase industrial greenhouse pollution while reducing our ”net emissions” and still hit our targets. In fact, it is much cheaper to hide our growing emissions behind carbon offsets than it is to cut them.

The Coalition plan is to hide 85 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2020 by burying it in Australia’s rural soils, and another 15 million tonnes by expanding timber plantations and by displacing some fossil-fuel-based energy with energy from wood waste. This is roughly equivalent to the emissions of half of Australia’s existing coal-fired power stations.

Absurd as it seems that farmers might offset this much pollution without planting a single tree, Ross Garnaut told the Rudd government in his 2008 report on climate change that Australia’s depleted soils might store more than 300 million tonnes of CO2 annually for 20 to 50 years.

Some soil scientists say Australia’s entire annual emissions until 2050 can be offset by planting perennial pastures (which store more carbon), reducing tillage and fertiliser use, and better fire management. If that is only half true, it means that soil carbon might hide enough emissions to enable the Coalition to meet a much more ambitious emissions reduction target than 5 per cent for many years beyond 2020, even as the actual greenhouse pollution emitted in Australia marches upward.

While the Coalition is looking to Australia’s backyard to hide emissions growth to meet emission targets, Labor is looking mainly offshore. Contrary to the Rudd government’s claims that its reduction scheme caps carbon pollution in Australia, it will allow an unlimited quantity of carbon credits to be imported, meaning our targets might be met not by a cut in domestic pollution but by, say, paying to protect rainforests in Brazil.

The government could outsource all 138 million tonnes of emissions reduction needed to meet a 5 per cent target, even as actual emissions in Australia increase. To return to the junk food analogy, it’s a bit like paying the person behind you in the queue to settle for that garden salad so you can upsize your own meal. Between the two of you, the calorie intake might be 5 per cent lower, but you’re not really doing yourself any favours.

The government denies that it wants to outsource all of its emissions cuts, saying that modelling of its scheme by Treasury shows that most emissions reductions would happen in Australia. In fact, Treasury’s modelling has simply assumed this will happen.

Like the junk food contest, there’s plenty of me-tooism when it comes to hiding greenhouse pollution. Labor is quietly eyeing the soil as a cheap hiding place for industrial emissions, too. The government’s clear intention is to count soil carbon farming towards its targets by 2020.

Similarly, there is every reason to expect the Coalition to buy offshore credits to allow increased industrial pollution at home. Tony Abbott says now that all abatement required to meet the 5 per cent will occur in Australia. Mindful that Kevin Rudd is relying on 100 per cent outsourcing to meet his emissions target, Abbott knows that his down-home brand of environmental nationalism has extra electoral appeal.

But the Coalition originally championed the idea of using offshore forest protection deals as a cheap way out and these deals are likely to be available whether or not there is an emissions trading scheme or a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. In the absence of a new global agreement, we’ll still see a plethora of poorly regulated bilateral carbon storage deals between countries like Australia and Indonesia. The Coalition is unlikely to ignore these opportunities.

THE second main similarity between the climate polices being dished up by the major parties is that they both pay the polluter as their emissions keep rising. Having offset 100 million tonnes of greenhouse pollution in soils and forests, the Coalition plans to use a mix of direct action incentives and penalties to deliver the remaining 38 million tonnes needed to meet a 5 per cent target. In practice, it will be all carrot and no stick, partly because the penalties will be drawn up with the ”help” of the biggest polluting industries, but mainly because they are linked to emissions intensity, not overall emissions.

In other words, businesses won’t be penalised for increasing their overall emissions. They will only face penalties if they increase their emissions per unit of output faster than expected.

Since energy efficiency is improving all the time, almost no business is increasing emissions intensity, hence the stick won’t come into play – except, says the Coalition, in ”exceptional circumstances”. However, there will be lots of carrots for companies that can show that, with the help of a taxpayer subsidy, their emissions will grow more slowly than would have been the case.

Try thinking of the big polluters as morbidly obese junk food addicts. The Coalition’s policy is like the climate equivalent of a health policy that combats chronic weight-related disease by paying such people to gain weight more slowly.

Labor’s scheme is equally ineffective but the approach is different. It is the climate equivalent of imposing a fat tax at burger joints, but letting the fattest customers eat free more than 80 per cent of the time. Other customers pay the fat tax in full at the counter, but most receive a full rebate later on – hardly a system likely to drive behavioural change.

When the government says it makes the biggest polluters pay, it means the worst polluters pay for 5 per cent of their pollution and get 95 per cent of their emissions permits free. Other big polluters will get 65 per cent of their permits for free.

The rate of assistance might fall by 1.3 per cent each year, but as Assistant Climate Change Minister Greg Combet stressed in a speech to the Minerals Council last year, ”there is no upper limit on the share of free permits being provided to emission-intensive trade-exposed industries”.

In contrast to the cap proposed in the US, he said, the share of free permits given to the worst polluters here would rise over time as those sectors grew (as would their emissions), no matter what target Australia eventually accepts.

The next big similarity between the Coalition and Labor greenhouse policy burgers is that they are covered in garnishes – highly visible greenhouse programs that have a relatively tiny impact on greenhouse pollution.

To name just a few of these, the Rudd government complements its scheme with a $6.2 billion green car plan, a 20 per cent renewable energy target, solar hot water on 400,000 homes and insulation in 2.7 million homes.

Even if the scheme allows all that outsourcing, you might think these programs would ensure that a very large quantity of greenhouse pollution is cut here in Australia. Yet, the total impact of all the programs that explicitly require emission cuts in Australia is negligible.

According to the government’s own estimates, the programs will cut projected emissions in 2020 to about 660 million tonnes from around 680 million tonnes. Just on its own, the recently announced deal to export another 40 million tonnes of coal from Queensland annually will generate five times as much CO2 as all the emissions the Rudd government is guaranteeing to cut in Australia.

The garnish on the Coalition’s greenhouse policy burger is much the same. Twenty million trees will be planted, and there are lots of small grants – a study here, a pilot project there; just enough activity to declare emissions intensive regions as ”clean energy hubs”, green-minded schools as ”solar schools”, and towns close to large untapped renewable resources as ”geothermal towns” and ”tidal towns”.

The renewable energy target doesn’t increase beyond the 20 per cent targeted by Labor, but a slice of it is set aside for larger renewable projects and specific technologies, like solar, geothermal and tidal power. Still, it sounds impressive – the Coalition says that an additional 1 million solar roofs will save 2.4 to 3 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020 and planting 20 million trees could reportedly save another 1.2 million tonnes a year. Yet it’s less impressive when you realise that the addition of one new steel mill would completely erase the emissions saved; that they are the emissions equivalent of suspending Australia’s coal exports for two days.

Bipartisan backing for coal is the final thing that makes the two greenhouse policy burgers so similar. There’s no concern whatsoever that coal exports are on track to double within a decade, adding another 700 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. The emissions count where the coal is burnt, so coal exports are not part of Australia’s ”net emissions” and are thus quarantined from our emissions targets. So long as we can find enough places to hide our emissions, and enough garnish to keep up appearances, there seems no end to the amount of coal we can squeeze into Australia’s greenhouse policy burger.

Try as they might to pitch their greenhouse policies as radically different, both parties are determined to accommodate the interests of the worst polluting industries so that smokestack and exhaust pipe emissions can keep growing in Australia.

Instead of cutting this pollution, the policy contest is reduced to choosing the best hiding place: Labor relies mainly on foreign forests, the Coalition on Australia’s backyard. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with drawing down carbon from the atmosphere any way we can, but the science says we can only get the climate back to safe territory by cutting industrial emissions too. If the developed world’s biggest-per-capita polluter does the former rather than the latter, as both major parties propose, Australia is simply helping to lock in the worst impacts of climate change.

Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, and the author of High & Dry andQuarry Vision (Quarterly Essay 33).

Denialist Agenda (Part 1): Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial

Clive HamiltonClive Hamilton has uncovered some disturbing information on how the right-wing climate denial movement operates through the bullying and threating of Australia scientists.  This article should be of great concern to anyone who believes in the freedom of speech and our ability to heed the inconvenient truth about climate change.  This is the first of five articles examining the sordid underbelly of the denialist movement.  Read on …

Two years ago the Labor Party won a decisive election victory in part by riding a public mood demanding action on climate change after years of stonewalling.

The new Government promised to spearhead world efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Today it’s on the run, retreating from a surge of militant anti-climate activism that believes climate science is a left-wing plot aimed at promoting elites, wrecking the economy and screwing the little man. What happened?

Part 1: Climate cyber-bullying

Australia’s most distinguished climate scientists have become the target of a new form of cyber-bullying aimed at driving them out of the public debate.

In recent months, each time they enter the public debate through a newspaper article or radio interview these scientists are immediately subjected to a torrent of aggressive, abusive and, at times, threatening emails. Apart from the volume and viciousness of the emails, the campaign has two features – it is mostly anonymous and it appears to be orchestrated.

The messages are typically peppered with insults. One scientist was called a “Loudmouth, arrogant, conceited, ignorant wanker”.

The emails frequently accuse the scientists of being frauds who manipulate their research in order to receive funding, such as this one to Ben McNeil at the UNSW:

“It’s so obvious you are an activist going along with the climate change lie to protect your very lucrative employment contract.”

They often blame the recipients of being guilty of crimes, as in this one received by Professor David Karoly at the University of Melbourne:

“It is probably not to (sic) extreme to suggest that your actions (deceitful) were so criminal to be compared with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. It is called treason and genocide.

“Oh, as a scientist, you have destroyed peoples trust in my profession. You are a criminal . Lest we forget.”

Receiving emails like these is unsettling and at times disturbing, which of course is the point. They become worrying when they cross the line to personal threats, such as these sent to Professor Andy Pitman at the UNSW:

“There will be a day of facing the music for the Pitman type frauds… Pitman you are a f**king fool!”

And this one:

“If we see you continue, we will get extremely organised and precise against you.”

When Pitman politely replied to the last, the response was more aggressive:

“F**k off mate, stop the personal attacks. Just do your science or you will end up collateral damage in the war, GET IT.”

All threats have to be taken seriously, and at times warrant calling in the police. The police are able to trace anonymous emails to their sources and take action against those who send them. The police are now advising those who received abusive and threatening emails to resist the immediate urge to delete them and keep them in a separate folder for future reference.

Climate campaigners have also noticed a surge in the frequency and virulence of this new form of cyber-bullying. The following was received by a young woman (who asked that her name not be used):

“Did you want to offer your children to be brutally gang-raped and then horribly tortured before being reminded of their parents socialist beliefs and actions?

“Burn in hell. Or in the main street, when the Australian public finally lynchs you.”

Another campaigner opened her inbox to read this:

“F**k off!!!

“Or you will be chased down the street with burning stakes and hung from your f**king neck, until you are dead, dead, dead!

“F**k you little pieces of sh*t, show youselves in public!!!”

Greens Senator Christine Milne told me that senators’ inboxes are bombarded every day by climate deniers and extremists, so that now they are running at least 10 to one against those who call for action on climate change.

She describes it as a “well-organised campaign of strident, offensive and insulting emails that go well beyond the bounds of the normal cut and thrust of politics”.

It was widely reported that in the days before the Liberal Party leadership challenge last November, MPs were blitzed with emails from climate deniers. Some MPs were spooked into voting for Tony Abbott, the only one of the three contenders who had repudiated climate science. Australia’s alternative government is now led by climate deniers.

Journalists hit

Journalists too have become the victims of cyber-bullying. I have spoken to several, off the record, who have told of torrents of abusive emails when they report on climate change, including some sufficiently threatening for them to consult their supervisors and consider police action.

One was particularly disturbed at references to his wife. Another received the following from someone who gave his name and identified himself as medical representative at major pharmaceutical’s company:

“You sad sack of s**t. It’s ok to trash climate change sceptics yet, when the shoe is on the other foot, you become a vindictive, nasty piece of s**t not able to face the fact that you’re wrong about climate change and you’re reputation is now trash.”

Anonymous emails are usually more graphic.

“Your mother was a goat f**ker!!!!!! Your father was a turd!!!!!!! You will be one of the first taken out in the revolution!!!!!!!! Your head will be on a stake!! C**t!”

Few of those on the receiving end of this hatred doubt that the emails are being orchestrated. Scores of abusive emails over a few hours are unlikely to be the product of a large number of individuals spontaneously making the effort to track down an email address and pour forth their rage.

While some individuals act alone, increasingly the attacks are arranged by one or more denialist organisations. It’s fair to assume operatives in these organisations constantly monitor the media and, when a story or interview they don’t like appears, send messages out to lists of supporters, linking to the comments, providing the scientist’s email address and urging them to let him or her know what they think.

One or two of the cyber-bullies have hinted at the level of organisation, with one following an abusive rant with the comment: “Copies of my e-mails to you are also being passed out to a huge network for future reference.”

Net rage and free speech
The purpose of this new form of cyber-bullying seems clear; it is to upset and intimidate the targets, making them reluctant to participate further in the climate change debate or to change what they say. While the internet is often held up as the instrument of free speech, it is often used for the opposite purpose, to drive people out of the public debate.

Unlike the letters pages of newspapers, on the internet anonymity is accepted and the gate-keepers, where they exist, are more lax, so the normal constraints on social discourse do not apply. On the internet, the demons of the human psyche find a play-ground.

If a group attempts to have a considered discussion about climate science on an open forum it is very soon deluged with enraged attacks on climate science, sometimes linking for authority to well-known denialist websites. Most scientists long ago stopped attempting to correct the mish-mash of absurd misrepresentations and lies in web “discussions”.

Is the new campaign of cyber-bullying working? Receiving a large number of offensive emails certainly wears most people down. Some scientists and journalists probably do change what they say or withdraw from debate. Others have strategies for dealing with the abuse-never replying, deleting without reading or swapping loony emails with colleagues, and cultivating a thick skin.

The effect of the cyber-bullying campaign on some scientists-including those I have mentioned-is quite opposite to the intended one. The attempts at intimidation have only made them more resolved to keep talking to the public about their research. Their courage under fire stands in contrast to the cowardice of the anonymous emailers.

Tomorrow: Who is behind the cyber-bullying campaign?