THE BLOG
05/18/2014 03:25 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2014

Climate Contrarians Cook Up New 'Controversy'

Misplaced cries of McCarthyism: an attempt to muddy the climate change waters.

Recently, a somewhat obscure scientific journal rejected a paper. Somehow, that made the front page of the London Times and spawned a number of articles in the right-wing press. How in the world does a rejected manuscript warrant front-page media coverage? Here's how.

A number of recent developments -- widely covered reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a popular new cable television series The Years of Living Dangerously produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger and featuring prominent figures like Harrison Ford, Leslie Stahl, Matt Damon and Jessica Alba, a report by a blue-ribbon panel of National Security experts, and record drought and a catastrophic, early California fire season -- have dominated the climate change media narrative for months, raising public awareness about the reality and threat of human-caused climate change.

Without the facts on their side or an objective case to be made, the usual suspects behind the climate change denial campaign -- industry front groups and their hired hands -- have once again resorted to their preferred means of distraction: invent a fake scandal, get help trumping it up from sympathetic right-wing media outlets (e.g. The Murdoch-owned London Times and the infamous Drudge Report), and hope to once again dupe the mainstream media into covering the matter as if it had actual merit or significance.

In the latest such instance, the (fully justified) rejection of an academic paper was subject to an intentional effort to politicize climate science, casting legitimate scientists as McCarthyites and a contrarian, "stealth advocacy" group as a victim of a massive conspiracy. Sadly, a few contrarian figures in the scientific community, such as Judith Curry of Georgia Tech and Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, have directly facilitated this smear campaign.

Here's the full story: in April, a respected Swedish atmospheric scientist named Lennart Bengtsson joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation's (GWPF) Academic Advisory Council. The GWPF is ostensibly a charity, although it recently owned up to its advocacy, starting a purely political wing (possibly to avoid the requirement that their "educational materials" be accurate). Even climate change contrarian Roger Pielke Jr. described GWPF as engaging in "stealth advocacy" -- presenting themselves as an educational group when their true aims are political. Essentially, they distort science in order to argue against action on climate change. That applies not just to the GWPF but the handful of scientists and commentators who facilitate their activities, such as Richard Lindzen, Richard Tol, Matt Ridley, and Ross McKitrick.

When Bengtsson joined GWPF, there were stories (at least in sympathetic press outlets) about how "A Famous Scientist Becomes a Skeptic." The flaw in this headline is that Bengtsson has been a climate change contrarian for some time; he was active on a Swedish climate blog originally named "The Climate Scam" (but renamed with a much more inconspicuous "Climate Enlightenment."). That's the first distortion of reality to this story.

As you might expect, an academic like Bengtsson joining a group like GWPF doesn't elicit a pleasant reaction from the scientific community. He received a number of messages from colleagues questioning his move and advising against it. Going one step further, a researcher working with Bengtsson was no longer willing to co-author a paper. Some say these researchers overreacted, but it is their right to distance themselves from Bengtsson -- just as it was his right to join GWPF.

After this less-than-warm-welcome, Bengtsson resigned just weeks after accepting the position. Instead of recognizing that joining an anti-science organization may be met with contempt from scientists, however, Bengtsson cried foul. He claimed to be scared for his career and his health after suffering at the hands of a McCarthy-like witch-hunt.

We don't know the extent to which Bengtsson has been exploited by the GWPF or was just naive, but when a scientist aligns himself with a politically driven anti-science front group, he should be ready for those committed to the goals of true science to react. Scientists expressing their disappointment in a colleague's decision to embrace a science-distorting stealth advocacy group is not McCarthyism. It's normal. Part of science is recognizing your own errors, as is pointing out the errors of others. If his peers believed he erred in joining GWPF, they were well within the bounds of scientific normalcy to express their opinions.

The term "McCarthyism" refers back to the campaign against alleged communists conducted by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, wherein many accused were blacklisted or lost their jobs, even though they did not in fact belong to the Communist Party. In common parlance, the term denotes a scenario wherein someone in a position of power uses his or her authority to harass someone through prosecutorial accusations of wrongdoing.

For example, an Attorney General attempted to subpoena all of one climate scientist's personal emails based on accusations the scientist created fraudulent work with public funds. The Washington Post called it a "witch hunt." The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said the attack had "echoes of McCarthyism." A climate scientist also came under scrutiny from the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a leading recipient of fossil fuel money whose intent was, according to the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "to discredit... rather than a search for understanding." It too was called a "witch hunt" by the Washington Post. It was referred to as an "inquisition" by the New York Times.

If you know my story (as told in my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars), then you know that it is I who was the researcher at the receiving end of the harassment. So I hope you'll forgive my lack of sympathy for Bengtsson, who complains of threats and McCarthyism yet has endured no formal inquiries or attacks from Capitol Hill, no death threats against him or his family (that I am aware of), nor any suspicious packages in the mail requiring FBI quarantine and testing. I guess I'm just lucky.

But right-wing media, not content to merely cry "McCarthy," went further. At some point, Bengtsson authored a paper and submitted to Environmental Research Letters (ERL), a respectable if somewhat obscure academic journal. ERL rejected it due to poor quality. One reviewer, however, mentioned that if it were to be published, it would "open the door for oversimplified claims of 'errors' and worse from the climate sceptics media side."

Said skeptic media took that minor and mined quote and (as the quote itself warned would happen,) spun up a controversy claiming the paper wasn't printed because of a "cover-up" to prevent a "damaging review" of climate science.

To shine the light of truth onto this darkly misleading story, ERL took the unusual step of issuing a public response to the spurious accusations, and decided to release the full text of the reviewer's thoughts on Bengtsson's paper. The text shows the reviewer felt the paper wasn't original, provided no new insight and offered no explanation for its main conclusion. And most telling of all? Bengtsson himself disavowed the media's skewed portrayal: "I do not believe there is any systematic 'cover up' of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics' work is being 'deliberately suppressed,' as The Times front page suggests."

So there it is. The man himself doesn't believe the cooked-up controversy presented by conservative media. Any objective examination of the situation finds absolutely no validity to either the claims of McCarthyism or of conspiratorial suppression of science. In fact, the reviewer that "suppressed" Bengtsson's paper offered a number of suggestions to improve its odds of being published. Certainly not something you'd do to a paper you're trying to "suppress."

All that said, I wish the best for Bengtsson, and hope he never has to experience real McCarthyism. But in any event he is a pawn in this affair. The real story here is how desperate the professional climate change denial machine is to fan this dubious matter into yet another faux scandal, even as the observations of climate change come more sharply into focus, from drought to wildfires to flash floods to ice sheet collapse. History will not look back kindly on those who sought to sow false doubt about the growing threat of climate change at the expense of all humanity.

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Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (now available in paperback with a new guest foreword by Bill Nye "The Science Guy")