Eminent retired physicist Freeman Dyson is perhaps the most prominent scientist to oppose publicly the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. But the widespread controversy that peaked after Nicholas Dawidoff’s New York Times Magazine cover feature on Dyson has thus far glossed over some inconvenient facts and questions about Dyson’s participation in recent anti-AGW petition projects organized by Canada’s leading climate disinformation PR operative, Tom Harris. These include the Bali Open Letter released toward the end of the December, 2007 at the UN Climate Change conference in Bali, and the Manhattan Declaration, released in March, 2008 at the Heartland Institute’s first International Climate Change Conference.
Although Dyson has been railing against the AGW consensus since at least 2005, his first prominent exposure in the mainstream press came in a fawning 2008 New York Review of Books piece on William Nordhaus’s A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies. There, Dyson evinced an extremely shaky grasp of climate science (and economics), as noted in a response by Stern Review author Dimitri Zenheles:
… Nordhaus consistently understates the threat from global warming. In a perplexing paragraph, Dyson writes:
[Nordhaus] is not concerned with the science of global warming or with the detailed estimation of the damage that it may do…. His conclusions are largely independent of scientific details.
This remark is grossly misleading. Nordhaus’s model is driven by his assumptions about the science. The problem is that his projections of events seem inconsistent with the latest science. He argues, astonishingly, that under unchecked emissions growth, the world will attain the same level of output by 2100 that would have been attained in 2099 without global warming—a “trivial” 2.5 percent difference in GDP.
In the article and subsequent aimiable exchange with Nordhaus, Dyson touted no fewer than three possible crackpot mega-schemes as contingency “low-cost backstops” against global warming: “carbon-eating trees” covering fully a quarter of Earth’s vegetated land mass, “carbon-eating phytoplankton in the oceans”, and “snow-dumping in East Antarctica” (via “a giant array of tethered kites or balloons so as to block the westerly flow on one side only.”)
Dawidoff’s recent NYT Magazine interview included more incoherent rambling downplaying the threat of global warming:
The warming, [Dyson] says, is not global but local, “making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter.” Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious — a sign that “the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse,” because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields.
It also included vicious and ill-informed attacks on James Hansen and Al Gore. In a key passage, Dyson defended himself against supposed charges linking him to fossil-fuel industry.
Dyson says it’s only principle that leads him to question global warming: “According to the global-warming people, I say what I say because I’m paid by the oil industry. Of course I’m not, but that’s part of their rhetoric. If you doubt it, you’re a bad person, a tool of the oil or coal industry.” Global warming, he added, “has become a party line.”
Yet the targets of Dyson’s criticism belied his characterization of his opponents. Hansen reasonably pointed out that Dyson “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” but then added that he had “bigger fish to fry.” Hansen later apologized for the latter comment:
I accept responsibility for the sloppy wording and I will apologize to Freeman, who deserves much respect.
You might guess (correctly) that I was referring to the fact that contrarians are not the real problem – it is the vested interests who take advantage of the existence of contrarians.
Even Joe Romm, who excoriated the New York Times for giving Dyson’s crackpot musings such wide exposure, did not question Dyson’s integrity, much less suggest that he might be in the pay of fossil fuel interests.
Indeed, I am not aware of any prominent scientist, environmental activist or commentator who has made the particular claim that Dyson is “paid by the oil industry”. One is left to wonder why Dyson’s patently false assertion was left unexplored by Dawidoff.
Of course, some of Dyson’s defenders have gone further. Andrew Revkin, the normally perceptive New York Times environmental science reporter, appeared to assert that Dyson’s views were worth considering, and implied that Dyson had too much integrity to lend his name to tawdry anti-AGW PR campaigns:
On climate, Mr. Dyson may be right or wrong, and pretty much admits that. At the heart of his complaint, he rejects the idea that an airtight case has been made that humans are dangerously disrupting, or are capable of disrupting, the climate system. His main target appears to be climate simulations on computers. (Despite this, my guess is his signature won’t show up on the “case is not closed” advertisement coming from the Cato Institute next week.)
Sadly, Revkin seems to be blissfully unaware that Dyson indeed had lent his name to at least three such recent or ongoing efforts:
- December, 2007: Bali Open Letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations (see the list of 100 signatories)
- March, 2008: Manhattan Declaration (see list of “expert” signatories)
- ?, 2008?: The Global Warming Petition Project, formerly known as the “Oregon” Petition (see list of signatories)
The particular circumstances of the Bali Open Letter are worth summarizing. The letter was organized and promoted by the Natural Resources Stewardship Project, under the leadership of longtime climate disinformation PR operative Tom Harris, as the United Nations climate change conference in Bali was drawing to a close. (Harris’s resume includes a stint at APCO Worldwide, where he organized PR projects on behalf of Talisman Oil and Exxon-Mobil subsidiary Imperial Oil, as well as co-ordinating activities of the “astrotrf” group the Friends of Science; he now heads up the International Climate Science Coalition.)
The letter of solicitation was circulated to the invited signatories, presumably including Dyson, around December 6, 2007, barely a week before the release of the letter.
The NRSP press release stated, among other things:
Endorsed by more than 100 independent scientists, engineers and economists who work in the field of climate change, the open letter calls on world leaders to abandon the goal of ‘stopping climate change’ and focus instead on helping nations become resilient to natural changes by promoting environmentally-responsible economic growth. [emphasis added]
Some obvious questions for Dyson are raised by these facts, which clearly imply that he has been used as a “tool of the oil industry”, whether wittingly or not.
First, the tight time frame of the Bali letter suggests that Dyson had little time (or inclination) to perform any due diligence. One is left to wonder whether he even bothered to ask basic questions about the NRSP, including its purpose and sources of funding. Moreover the explicit characterization of Dyson as a scientist “working in the field of climate change” is highly misleading, not to mention at odds with his express dismissal of such experts. Yet Dyson went along with the campaign anyway. It would be interesting to see the actual correspondence with the NRSP to see if Dyson raised any of these concerns.
Second, the Bali letter not only expresses doubt about the possible danger of AGW, but goes much further and explicitly asserts that natural influences on climate are much more important than human ones. It also contains the highly misleading statement that “there has been no net global warming since 1998”. But Dyson seems to shy away from such statements, so one wonders whether he actually fully supports the statement he signed.
Finally, although there is absolutely no indication that Dyson has received any direct or indirect financial payment from fossil fuel companies, one can ask if his co-operation with Tom Harris may have benefitted hin in other ways. For example, the attendant publicity may have spurred increased media coverage or writing and speaking engagements, along with an increase in book sales.
The implications of the affair for the New York Times and other media outlets are equally disturbing. How could journalists of the stature of Dawidoff and Revkin completely miss Dyson’s willing co-operation with anti-AGW initiatives, and thus the opportunity to explore the real story and ask the real questions?
The episode also betrays a shocking breach of journalistic integrity at the National Post, one that, so far at least, has gone completely unnoticed. It is clear from Tom Harris’s letter of solicitation that he had already struck a deal to with the Post to publish the open letter; indeed, his official press release on the Bali letter actually pointed to the online National Post version of the letter. Yet National Post editor Terence Corcoran’s accompanying commentary hid any hint of the involvement of the NRSP and Tom Harris. The obvious implications are described in the SourceWatch article on the matter:
On January 2, 2008, a SourceWatch contributor sent an e-mail to National Post editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly, advising him of the above facts concerning NRSP involvement in the Bali open letter. This e-mail goes on to state:
“From all this, two reasonable inferences may be drawn:
“a) Terence Corcoran played a key role in an expertly organized and well funded public relations campaign designed to discredit the work of the IPCC and indeed the entire UNFCCC process.
“b) Even worse, Corcoran deliberately witheld information about the role of the NRSP in the open letter, and misled National Post readers about the true provenance of the letter.”
The e-mail asserts that Corcoran’s behaviour “is a clear breach of journalistic ethics and damages the credibility of the National Post” and exhorts Kelly to publish a full correction and to consider appropriate sanctions against Corcoran including suspension or dismissal.
Responsible journalists are understandably reluctant to criticize their colleagues in competing outlets (a reticence not shared by the likes of the National Post or Fox News). But this episode is merely one example, albeit a particularly egregious one, of a relentless “war on science” in which mainstream media outlets are playing a key role, whether out of ignorance or ideological bias, or (as in the case of the New York Times), a misplaced sense of “balance”.
Fossil fuel company apologists like Tom Harris and Marc Morano (now of Climate Depot) are working relentlessly to sow doubt about climate change science. With the active or passive co-operation of media outlets, it looks like they are succeeding. It’s time for the likes of Revkin to stand up and start speaking out, instead of averting their eyes from the obvious and relying on a misplaced faith in the “marketplace of ideas” to make things right.