In August this year, 74 expert scientists signed a letter addressed to the Charity Commission urging it to remove the Global Warming Policy Foundation from the Register of Charities. Since its inception in 2009, the Foundation has consistently produced material which contradicts the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, often downplaying the potential effects and putting substantial blame on non-fossil fuel causes.
Despite the eminence of the letter’s signatories – the list included Sir David King, several IPCC authors, and many other accomplished professors from climate-related areas operating within the UK – the Commission rejected the request saying it wasn’t in a position to evaluate the scientific output of the Foundation, but that it had received reassurance that the Foundation’s trustees were making sure the organisation’s output achieved its purpose as an educational charity.
It’s somewhat understandable why the Commission feels it’s in a tricky position here. They don’t have the necessary expertise to evaluate the ‘scientific’ work of the Foundation, and they even if they were in that position, it’s a tricky call to make about what counts as genuine scientific output. The Foundation’s Academic Advisory Council also contains many professors, eight of which have experience in climate-related areas. The issue is that all of these individuals don’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change as presented by the IPCC reports, which is based upon thousands of scientists’ work around the world.
One may think there’s no problem here; academic freedom is important, even when the academics are disputing the consensus view, and since many academic institutions hold status as an educational charity the Foundation should keep this status. This is likely the view of the Commission currently, and I would agree with this view if the Foundation was just a fringe academic organisation – the ability to debate in science is vital. However, debate in science is only useful if it’s built on facts and accurate analysis, two qualities which seem absent from a lot of the Foundation’ work. Combine this with the clear intention to influence the general public on these matters and you have a troubling source of misinformation.
The letter itself stated that the publications of the Foundation are not “objective” and “are detrimental to the general public from both an educational and health perspective.” To demonstrate this point, an analysis of a report by Dr Indur Goklany published by the Foundation was included. Goklany was appointed by then-President Trump to review climate policy, having been a long-term climate change denier. The report published by the Foundation contradicted the IPCC reports and the wider scientific literature, with Dr Goklany, who is not a climate scientist but an electrical engineer, trying to downplay the potential threat posed by climate change. The analysis, which was carried out by Climate Feedback, found many areas of poor analysis and highly questionable conclusions. Dr Goklany’s report is definitely not the most concerning work by the Foundation, nor the most influential. The organisation recently set up a group, Net Zero Watch, which campaigns against a transition to a green economy by arguing that the cost outweighs any potential threat posed by uncontrolled climate change. With 19 thousand followers on twitter and Conservative MPs Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay – who have set up a similar ‘Net Zero Scrutiny Group’ within Parliament – this is likely the most troubling current work by the Foundation. However, the report by Dr Goklany does nicely sum up the trend of the Foundation’s work, which has been present in climate change denial material for decades: publishing commentary on current climate science from contrarian scientists on the fridge of academia, or retired academics who formerly worked in industry, often on areas far beyond their specialism, and then presenting that commentary as credible research. Climate Feedback tagged Dr Goklany’s work as ‘cherry-picking, inaccurate, and misleading’ and these tags could be applied to most of the reports produced by the Foundation.
The fact that these patterns keep occurring with the Foundation shows that something is wrong – the Foundation’s internal workings mean it acts as a source of misinformation around the science of climate change. How are we to mitigate against this? How are we meant to stop this? It’s rare that over 70 highly respected scientists join a campaign call like the one calling for the Charity Commission to strike off this climate change denial charity, but according to the Commission this still isn’t enough. It inevitably raises the question: what would be enough? Without a line drawn between what is misinformation and what is credible scientific discussion, any report which is written and presented in a vaguely scientific manner could be promoted as science. This allows for the charitable sector to become a haven of pseudoscientific ideas, with potentially very dangerous consequences for our society.
Peer reviewing is crucial for mainstream science when making sure that work being published is credible. The peer review process in the case of the Foundation is clearly not working, and that’s no surprise when we consider the views of the Academic Advisory Council. The work carried out by Climate Feedback, and the letter sent to the Commission, could be seen as a form of peer review – in both, experts in the field outline great concern over the work presented by the charity. But this effort is only useful if the review is taken into account. The Foundation continues to publish spurious reports of the same ilk, and so it must be time for the Charity Commission to act. It is refusing to do so.
It’s not only climate change denial which has found a home in the charitable sector; alternative medicine and Covid misinformation have also managed to set up camp here. The Commission’s refusal to listen to respected scientists means that these ideas can gain credibility and promotion through these organisations’ statuses as charities.
It’s clear that this can move in two directions going forward. Either these organisations remain effectively unregulated by the Commission, and thus they’re allowed to undermine public knowledge and trust in science. Considering many of the threats facing our society today this would be a terrible consequence of the Commission’s inaction. Alternatively, the public could become more aware of the unchecked pseudoscientific claims of a sizeable minority of charities, which would result in an undermining of public trust in charities. As one of the most trusted sectors in our society, and with public trust running low for many other institutions, this would also be a very unwelcome consequence.
The Commission’s refusal in this case to act like the regulator it is meant to be leaves a gap of trust between science and the charitable sector. If we want to preserve the status of charities in our society, then something needs to be done. When the Commission ignores the calls of expert scientists when they’re saying something’s wrong, it shows a troubling attitude which could have serious consequences for our society.