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Photograph: Michael Williamson/Getty Images

Greenpeace exposes skeptics hired to cast doubt on climate science

An undercover sting by Greenpeace has revealed that two prominent climate sceptics were available for hire by the hour to write reports casting doubt on the dangers posed by global warming.

Posing as consultants to fossil fuel companies, Greenpeace approached professors at leading US universities to commission reports touting the benefits of rising carbon dioxide levels and the benefits of coal. The views of both academics are well outside mainstream climate science.

The findings point to how paid-for information challenging the consensus on climate science could be placed into the public domain without the ultimate source of funding being revealed.

They come as government ministers meet in Paris this week to try to reach an agreement to fight climate change, and one month after it emerged that ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy were under investigation in the state of New York over claims of misleading the public and investors about climate change.

Over the course of their investigation, Greenpeace posed as the representative of a Middle Eastern oil and gas company and an Indonesian coal company. In the guise of a Beirut-based business consultant they asked William Ha pper , the Cyrus Fogg Brackett professor of physics at Princeton University, to write a report touting the benefits of rising carbon emissions, according to email exchanges between the professor and the fake company.

Happer is one of the most prominent climate sceptics in the US and on Tuesday was called to testify at a congressional hearing into climate “dogma” convened by Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate and chair of the Senate science committee. He is also chairman of the George Marshal Institute in the US and an adviser to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the UK.

Reacting to the sting at the UN climate talks in Paris, US secretary of state John Kerry was dismissive of the impact of such paid-for work. “One professor or one scientist is not going to negate peer-reviewed scientists by the thousands over many years and 97% of the scientists on the planet,” he said.

The proposed report for the fake consultant was intended to highlight the negative aspects of the climate agreement being negotiated in Paris, he was told in the email approach. The physicist was receptive to the commission, and asked to donate his fee to the CO2 Coalition, a group founded this year to “shift the debate from the unjustified criticism of CO2 and fossil fuels”.

“My activities to push back against climate extremism are a labor of love, to defend the cherished ideals of science that have been so corrupted by the climate change cult,” he wrote in an email. He did not respond to a request from the Guardian for comment.

The campaign group assumed another false identity, posing as an Indonesian energy consultancy, to approach Frank Clemente, a retired sociologist formerly at Pennsylvania State University, to commission a report countering damaging studies on Indonesian coal deaths and promoting the benefits of coal, according to the email exchanges.

In both cases, the professors discussed ways to obscure the funding for the reports, at the request of the fake companies. In Happer’s case, the CO2 Coalition which was to receive the fee suggested he reach out to a secretive funding channel called Donors Trust, in response to a request from the fake Greenpeace entity to keep the source of funds secret. Not disclosing funding in this way is not unlawful under US law.

Also, in an email exchange with the fake business representative, Happer acknowledges that his report would probably not pass peer-review with a scientific journal – the gold-standard process for quality scientific publication whereby work is assessed by anonymous expert reviewers. “I could submit the article to a peer-reviewed journal, but that might greatly delay publication and might require such major changes in response to referees and to the journal editor that the article would no longer make the case that CO2 is a benefit, not a pollutant, as strongly as I would like, and presumably as strongly as your client would also like,” he wrote.

He suggested an alternative process whereby the article could be passed around handpicked reviewers. “Purists might object that the process did not qualify as a peer review,” he said. “I think it would be fine to call it a peer review.”

Greenpeace said its investigation demonstrated how, unbeknownst to the public, the fossil fuel industry could inject paid-for views about climate change into the international debate, confusing the public and blocking prospects for strong action to avoid dangerous warming.

“Our research reveals that professors at prestigious universities can be sponsored by foreign fossil fuel companies to write reports that sow doubt about climate change and that this sponsorship will then be kept secret,” said John Sauven, the director of Greenpeace UK. “Down the years, how many scientific reports that sowed public doubt on climate change were actually funded by oil, coal and gas companies? This investigation shows how they do it, now we need to know when and where they did it.”

Such practices are receiving greater scrutiny in academic circles after it emerged that Dr Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who rejects mainstream climate science, was financed almost entirely by fossil fuel companies and lobby groups and a foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers. The Smithsonian launched an investigation.

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