Climate change deniers set Net Zero as the new target for their misinformation

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Michael Marshallhttp://goodthinkingsociety.org/
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He became editor of The Skeptic in August 2020.

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The recent BBC dramatisation The Trick, chronicling as it did the so-called ‘Climategate’ scandal of 2009, served to illustrate how far society appears to have come in accepting the reality of climate change. The film primarily focused on Phil Jones, the head of  the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit at the time its emails were hacked and pored over by climate deniers, looking for anything they could claim as proof that climate change was a knowing hoax.

The deniers at the time claimed to have found a smoking gun: one particular email in which Jones talked about how he’d used a colleague’s “Nature trick” to “hide the decline” in temperatures from tree ring analyses. What they failed to make clear is that the “trick” Jones referred to was one which allowed one graph to show data that bridged from a period of tree ring proxy measurements to the actual measurements taken. For the period before we were able to take contemporaneous measurements, we use tree ring data to estimate temperatures – once real measurements became available, the graph would switch to those data. The so-called “trick” mentioned in one email was in making that transition, so as to avoid giving an inaccurate impression when switching from the approximated data.

Nevertheless, the hacked emails came as welcome ammunition to the climate change deniers of 2009, who had previously been peppering climate change research units at institutions around the world with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, as much to slow down research as to hunt for evidence of misdeeds.

In the wake of the email leak, one particular lobby group was created: the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a registered charity whose aims were to challenge “extremely damaging and harmful policies” envisaged by governments to mitigate anthropogenic global warming. The chair of the group at the time was the well-known climate change denier and former Tory MP Nigel Lawson, who used its launch to call for a full public inquiry into the ‘Climategate’ scandal – calls that were heeded by the UK government. In fact, three inquiries into the hacked emails took place, each exonerating the CRU, but that wasn’t enough for the GWPF, whose director, Benny Peiser, told the BBC in 2010:

We (the Global Warming Policy Foundation) have now commissioned our own inquiry into the way these three inquiries have been set up and run. I don’t know anyone among the critics who has been swayed by the first two.

Peiser, it’s worth pointing out, was at the time a lecturer in sports science at Liverpool John Moores University, not a climate scientist.

The GWPF’s issue with the official inquiries was that they (quite understandably) failed to include anyone on the investigating committee who thought that climate change was a hoax. In order to address this perceived bias, the GWPF’s own investigation was to be conducted by Andrew Montford – a committed climate change denier who had written extensively of his doubt about the realities of climate change. Montford, perhaps unsurprisingly, gave the GWPF the conclusion they’d been looking for.

It’s worth pointing out that the GWPF spent a long time trying to use FOI requests and public pressure to enforce total transparency on climate change researchers, but when it comes to their own affairs, they’re a little less keen on transparency, rejecting multiple requests to disclose the sources of their funding. Their 2010 accounts showed just £8k of their £500,000 income came from paying members, the rest came from undisclosed sources – sources they didn’t have to disclose, because they were, and remain to this day, a registered charity.

Stacks of silver coins

One of the few donors we do know about is Michael Hintze, who is also a major donor to the Conservative party. We also know that the board of the GWPF includes Neil Record, Chairman of the Institute for Economic Affairs, has given over £300,000 to the Conservative party, including £18,000 to Matt Hancock when he was the Energy and Climate Change Minister. A director of the IEA, which shares an office with the GWPF on Tufton Street, admitted to an undercover reporter that the group receives funding from BP to lobby ministers on matters of taxation and environmental standards. A Guardian article recently showed that the UK government had received £1.3m worth of funding from climate change denialist organisations in the last two years.

The upshot of this is that while the UK government played host to COP26 in Glasgow, the world’s largest summit on the pressing concerns and threats of climate change, it was at the same time accepting large sums of money from climate change deniers, while effectively subsidising through charity exemptions organisations whose existence is dedicated to persuading the public and, crucially, members of parliament that the threats posed by climate change are overstated and alarmist. Or that the reality is that the earth isn’t warming. Or it is but not by very much. Or it is rising by quite a lot, but that’s not caused by human activity. Or it is but there’s nothing we can really do about it anyway.

In fact, that was the central theme of the report published in February last year by the GWPF, entitled “Impacts of Climate Change: Perception and Reality”, which was reported by climate change denialist James Delingpole in Breitbart in an article titled “Study Disputes That Earth Is in a ‘Climate Emergency’”. The GWPF’s study wasn’t peer-reviewed, contained no previously unpublished data, and was penned by Dr Indur M. Goklany – an electrical engineer with no relevant expertise in the field of climate science.

Advancing public misunderstanding

As a registered charity, the GWPF must state their charitable purposes, which are:

The Global Warming Policy Foundation is an educational charity. Its main purpose is to advance the public understanding of global warming and of its possible consequences, and also of the measures taken or proposed to be taken in response to such warming.

Quite clearly, the GWPF exists to advance the public misunderstanding of global warming, and to cloud any understanding of its consequences. It campaigns against renewable energy and says it is “deeply concerned about the costs” of climate action. Its goal appears to be to ensure whatever responses are taken to climate change don’t affect the bottom line of the businesses and individuals who fund it – whoever they may be.

Still, surely the public won’t be swayed by climate change deniers now that the science is unequivocal? Not least given a recent analysis by Mark Lynas and Simon Perry which reviewed 90,000 studies to conclude that the scientific consensus on climate change was actually up to 99.9%. Perhaps not – which is why a new group has been launched called Net Zero Watch, who claim to be:

A campaign group set up to highlight and discuss the serious implications of expensive and poorly considered climate change policies.

What will they do?

Our new campaign group will shake the tree; scrutinising policies, establishing what they really cost, determining who will be forced to pay, and exploring affordable alternatives…

Net Zero Watch

And

Increasingly conversations about climate and energy policy are becoming narrow and polarised. Net Zero Watch is here to give you a clear view of the reality of climate and energy policies and what they mean for you.

Net Zero Watch – Who We Are

They claim to be in favour of a balanced and open debate, and campaigning for achievable and cost-effective solutions, saying:

The UK and other European governments have burdened households and businesses with hugely expensive climate and energy policies. As a result, energy prices and fuel poverty are rising in many countries. To meet the energy needs of today countries across the world need secure, reliable and low-cost forms of energy generation. If millions are left poorer and colder by flawed climate policies other countries are not going to adopt failure. Net Zero Watch will be campaigning for cost-effective alternatives that will make our societies greener, more resilient and more competitive.

You might, at this point, be wondering who this group are. Handily, they publish a list of their board of members, which includes their Chairman, Neil Record chairman of the GWPF and IEA, and their board member, Lord Lawson, former chairman of the GWPF. Their Director is Benny Peiser, director of the GWPF. Their Deputy Director is Andrew Montford, who wrote the GWPF’s appraisal of the CRU’s leaked emails. They make it clear on their site:

Net Zero Watch is funded by private donations. In order to make clear its complete independence, neither it nor the GWPF accept gifts from either energy companies or anyone with a significant interest in an energy company.

This may well be true, but a more important thing to disclose would be: do the people who fund Net Zero Watch them accept donations from those companies? Or do the people who happen to share their Tufton Street offices? Given that the chairman of Net Zero Watch also works for the IEA, who admit that they accept money from those sources and give it to the people that Net Zero Watch want to influence, it’s hard to take this disclaimer too seriously.

Will the rebranding work?

It remains to be seen whether Net Zero Watch will have any impact, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. Climate change denial is an untenable position, self-evidently anti-science, and totally out of step with what the public think and will accept. But net zero scepticism? It’s easy to see how “We know we need to do something, but we can’t let the solution be worse than the problem” might give more plausible deniability to those looking to halt progress. Right wing opportunist Nigel Farage took to GB News to declare Net Zero his next campaign. Tory MP Steve Baker took to contrarian publication The Critic to call Net Zero a fantasy that will be paid for by the poor – unsurprisingly, given Baker’s role as Trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The new lines of attack seem to be getting through – when asked about Net Zero, Baker’s fellow Tory MP Philip Davies wrote to a constituent to explain that the UK is now responsible for less than 1% of global carbon emissions (missing that the UK is also responsible for less than 1% of global population), before adding:

Even if we were to reduce that number to 0% it would make no difference at all to global temperatures… such action would be utterly futile, virtue signalling, gesture politics which would also bankrupt the country along with many families. The estimated cost of getting from less than 1% of global carbon emissions to net zero is estimated to be £1trillion in the UK – that is money that the country and many of my constituents can ill afford

It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of the “solution is worse than the problem” rhetoric – under the guise of caring for those who are much less fortunate. Missing from the analysis is the likely cost of climate change, and the degree to which those costs will be shouldered by the poorest communities, both in the UK and internationally.

Davies continued:

It would be much more sensible to spend money on adapting to changes in the climate rather than a unrealistic view that we are going to change the world’s climate (sic). That change in the world’s climate is just not going to happen – anyone who thinks every country in the world is going to take these measures are in cloud cuckoo land.

It is interesting to note that climate change denial has gone from “people can’t change the climate” to “people can’t stop their change to the climate” in the course of a decade. Striking too is the use of dismissive terms such as “gesture politics” and “virtue signalling” – phrases designed to tie climate action to culture war positions, in order to provide cover for those who want to dismiss the realities of the climate crisis in the same fashion as they are encouraged to dismiss issues such as Black Lives Matter, the rights of trans people, the wearing of masks to prevent Covid, and even getting vaccinated.

These culture war issues can feel organic, but watching the Global Warming Policy Foundation – with its opaque funding and decades of dodgy science – morph into Net Zero denialism seems much more calculated and cynical. It is an attempt to enforce the status quo and to avoid having to spend money dealing with the climate crisis, and it is being subsidised by the UK government through pseudoscience charities, which in turn are subsidising the government through sizeable donations… all the while as the climate crisis worsens.

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