It’s deja vu all over again.
The contrarian hysteria ratcheting ever upward as a key United Nations climate conference gets underway is depressingly familiar. A case in point is the Canadian National Post’s relentless drum beat of pseudo-scientific half-truths, outright falsehoods and ideological invective, all under the hyperbolic title of Countdown to Catastrophe Copenhagen.
The National Post’s coverage of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Chamge) Bali conference two years ago was not quite as elaborate, but did feature one particularly disturbing instance of contrarian boosterism, the infamous Bali open letter.
The full story, told here for the first time, shows how editor and skeptic cheerleader Terence Corcoran crossed the line from opinionated commentary to active participation in a shadowy public relations stunt aimed at scuttling the Bali negotiations. And complaisant editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly went along with the charade, not even bothering to force Corcoran to reveal the key involvement of longtime disinformation specialist Tom Harris and his “astroturf” Natural Resources Stewardship Project.
One open letter after another
Recently, I looked at how Terence Corcoran tapped Tom Harris to lead the anti-Kyoto charge in the early days of the National Post, Canada’s contrarian newspaper of record. There I noted how Harris went straight from a stint as aide to environment critic and Canadian Alliance MP Bob Mills to become a consultant for notorious PR firm APCO Worldwide. In November 2002, he organized an anti-Kyoto press conference sponsored by Talisman Enery and Imperial Oil and later produced and promoted the Friends of Science video Climate Catastrophe Cancelled.
One of Harris’s first projects at APCO was to organize an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien calling on him to delay ratification of the Kyoto Accord. I have been unable to find that open letter in its original form or the list of signatories. However it was read into the record of Parliament by Calgary Canadian Alliance MP Diane Ablonczy on December 2, 2002, a week after its release. Here’s an excerpt:
Consequently, the views of dissenting scientists have not been properly heard or considered by the government.
Therefore, we, the undersigned climate scientists, call on the Government of Canada to delay a decision on the ratification of the Kyoto accord until after a thorough and comprehensive consultation is conducted with non-governmental climate specialists.
Ablonczy stated that the letter was “signed by a long list of climate specialists.”
Presumably, many of the same “specialists” signed the next open letter that Harris brought to Corcoran in 2003. This one was addressed to Chretien’s successor, Paul Martin, again urging consultation with “independent” scientific experts before proceeding with Kyoto implementation. That letter ran in the National Post on June 4, 2003.
Canadian signatories included many current and future Friends of Science advisors, including Tim Ball, Tim Patterson, Madhav Khandekar, Tad Murty and Chris de Freitas. Another close Harris associate, Ottawa University earth sciences professor Ian Clark, would go on to narrate the Climate Change Cancelled video. Other familiar skeptic names who have frequently reappeared on Harris’s roster included Roy Spencer of UAH satellite record fame, physicist Freeman Dyson, Richard Lindzen and SEPP founder Fred Singer.
In 2005, Harris left APCO and became Ottawa director of the High Park Group, lobbying firm representing gas and electrical industry clients. Yet another open letter, this time to newly elected Conservative PM Stephen Harper, came in 2006. Once again, the skeptics urged delay, a path Harper was already on anyway, having already scuttled his predecessor’s Green Plan of 2005.
Of course, a familiar pattern was emerging: somehow, Tom Harris’s role in these open letters never got mentioned.
Some inconvenient facts emerge
But in August 2006, the Corcoran-Harris partnership hit a major snag. The Globe and Mail published a lengthy expose of Friends of Science, and Tom Harris was fingered as the fixer behind the scenes. Author Charles Montgomery noted Harris’s hitherto hidden invovement with Friends of Science:
In his articles, he quotes several members of the Friends of Science advisory board — including Dr. Ball and Profs. [Madhav] Khandekar, [Tim] Patterson and [Tad] Murty — but he never mentions his own connections to the Calgary organization.
In 2002, for example, Mr. Harris organized the Friends’ first Ottawa press conference … and helped to make their video, according to Mr. Jacobs. And as recently as May, he organized a trip to Ottawa for Dr. Ball, paying him $2,000 to give a presentation to federal MPs.
Corcoran penned a long-winded defence of the astroturf group and Harris ( a rant which eventually resulted in a number of retractions for statements concerning writer Montgomery and leading climate modeler Andrew Weaver).
[W]e have the line that links Mr. Harris to the electricity and gas industries, as if he were an “oil industry PR professional.” As Mr. Montgomery was told by Mr. Harris in an interview, Mr. Harris has no connection with those industries. They may be clients of High Park, the company he works for, but he has no business with them. Mr. Harris says he told Mr. Montgomery that his funding for his climate activity came from Gerald G. Hatch, a distinguished metallurgist …
Mr. Montgomery nevertheless chose to create a fictional corporate connection. Moreover, Mr. Harris also says that Mr. Ball was never paid to appear before federal MPs in 2002, and that the scientists who came to Ottawa recently had no connection with the Calgary-based Friends of Science or the petroleum industry.
Of course, this glosses over the fact that Harris had worked for APCO Worldwide from 2002 to 2005, the time when he was most involved with Friends of Science projects. Thanks to a belated internal audit finally released in 2008, we now know that Barry Cooper’s University of Calgary “research” conduit paid $170,000 to APCO to “produce, promote and distribute” the FOS video – some “help”! And Cooper had already admitted receiving money from oil and gas companies.
Corcoran’s confused second paragraph appears to confuse (and swap) two events: the 2002 APCO anti-Kyoto press conference sponsored by Talisman and Imperial Oil, and the May 2005 parliamentary appearance by Tim Ball.
As I wrote in my post on the origins of Friends of Science, it’s true there appeared to be no official connection between FOS and Harris’s 2002 press conference. But two of the scientists present, Ball and Tim Patterson, were Friends of Science advisors and a third advisor, Ross McKitrick, was on the availability list. It also appears that Friends of Science, whose website was a month old at the time, was informally publicized at that event. Moreover, FOS spokesperson Albert Jacobs specifically referred to that event as the group’s “first press conference”, a point I have confirmed in personal communication with Montgomery.
Regarding the 2005 trip, Ball has admitted that he was paid by High Park to travel for another presentation in Ottawa at the same time as his parliamentary appearance, a typical PR ploy to avoid any impropriety, at least technically.
Despite Corcoran’s best efforts, though, Friends of Science was thoroughly discredited, and it would be several years before the group would return to large projects. Harris and Ball formed a new group, the Natural Resources Stewardship Project or NRSP, incorporating many of Harris’s roster as advisors or “allied experts”.
Tom Harris goes international
On December 13, 2007, towards the end of the U.N. climate change conference held in Bali, Indonesia, Corcoran published an open letter to the UN signed by over a hundred climate change skeptics under the title “Don’t fight, adapt”, along with the list of signatories. The letter cast doubt on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “hypothesis of dangerous human-caused global warming”, and argued that current climate change is within natural variations. The letter included familiar talking points, including the canard that “there has been no net global warming since 1998”.
In an accompanying commentary bearing the headline “A new call to reason”, Corcoran described the letter as having been “signed by more than 100 specialists” and having been “assembled under Robert M. Carter, a professor at the Marine Geophysical Laboratory of James Cook University in Australia.” (Even the description of Carter was misleading; he had long since retired and his adjunct position at James Cook is a “largely honorary” one, affording him perks like an office and email address).
But it turned out there was a little more to its provenance than that. In the runup to the Bali conference, an e-mail soliciting potential signatories of the open letter was circulated by the Natural Resources Stewardship Project.
On December 6, 2008, a week before the publication of the open letter, the text of that e-mail was posted at the right-wing websites canadafreepress.com, freedominion.ca and bogotafreeplanet.com, despite explicit admonishment that the email should be kept confidential and not circulated. The text was quickly removed from the Canadian websites, but remained for some time at bogatafreeplanet.com. That text was also removed eventually, but not before the original web page was archived. (You can also see the opening of the letter in the “Canada in the News” page at archive.org; scroll down to December 6).
The NRSP e-mail clearly suggests that Harris had already struck a deal with Corcoran to have the letter published in the National Post:
We are writing to invite you to join us in endorsing the following open letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon. It is intended that this letter, accompanied by a list of signatories of established professionals in science, engineering and social sciences, will also be published by a major media outlet towards the end of the current UN Conference on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia.
The e-mail also states that the open letter is “co-ordinated” by both NRSP scientific advisor Carter, and NRSP executive director Harris. In fact, all five of the NRSP Scientific Advisory Committee were also signatories, as were most of the NRSP’s 25 “allied scientists.”
After the letter was published in the National Post, the NRSP sent out a press release on the Canada News Wire. The press release did not contain a text of the open letter, but instead linked to the National Post online version of the open letter, virtually assuring that the notice would not be covered by any other news organization.
On January 2, 2008, I sent an e-mail to National Post editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly, advising him of the above facts concerning the involvement of Tom Harris and the NRSP in the Bali open letter. I summarized the situation thus:
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.
I asserted that Corcoran’s behaviour “is a clear breach of journalistic ethics and damages the credibility of the National Post” and exhorted Kelly to publish a full correction, including the true provenance of the letter, and to consider appropriate sanctions against Corcoran including suspension or dismissal.
After five weeks passed without a response, I wrote Kelly again. This time, I got a response from Corcoran himself:
As far as I can tell, your facts look to be accurate. As to who organized the letter—well, somebody had to do it, I guess. In this case, you may be right, although I don’t really know. Tom Harris did contact me and said that Bob Carter and possibly others — who were at the Bali conference—were organizing this open letter and that Carter et al hoped to stage a press conference in Bali. My only interest was in who signed the letter, which in the event included a number of eminent scientists and others who agreed to a credible statement critical of IPCC climate science and policies. The important point is the statement and the people who signed, not who organized it.
In any case, that the NSRP played a role was hardly a secret since, you point out, they issued a press release with their name on it.
So Corcoran claimed that he was still not sure who organized the letter even though he had been given the documentary evidence, and even though this was at least the third open letter that Harris had brought him.
Even if one accepts (for the sake of argument) the preposterous claim that Corcoran did not know that Harris and his NRSP were really behind the letter, there remains the inconvenient fact that Kelly and Corcoran did not see fit to correct the demonstrably misleading statement that the letter had been “organized” by Carter, once the true facts were presented.
And what are we to make of Corcoran’s fatuous statement that the NRSP role “was hardly a secret”? The NRSP press release was only posted after the fact, and the Canada NewsWire version did not even contain the actual text of the letter nor list of signatories, only links to the National Post article! Apart from those perfunctory efforts, it’s pretty clear that the publication in the Post, and getting blogs to link to that, was the real PR campaign.
And, somehow, Corcoran thinks it’s possible to simultaneously claim that even he didn’t know about the NRSP involvement, yet it “was hardly a secret”. Okaaaay.
It is obvious that the real reason that Corcoran continued to hide Harris’s involvement was the same one he had for not revealing it in the first place. Corcoran knew full well that revealing Harris as the mastermind behind the open letter would have irretrievably damaged its credibility and that of the Post. Somehow the general public is unconvinced by shills known to have profited from hidden sponsors against the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, and willing to oppose it by any underhanded means possible.
And, of course, hardly any of the signatories themselves have a credible record in climate science. Almost all are tainted by ties to various think tanks and astroturf organizations with dubious hidden sponsors.
Indeed, the Bali initiative was characterized by close co-operation between Harris and international members of CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow), particularly New Zealander Brian Leyland. (CFACT has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil and is the proud sponsor of Marc Morano’s ClimateDepot lie factory). That collaboration led to Harris’s new international network of climate contrarians, the International Climate Science Coalition and its three spinoffs, the Autralian CSC, New Zealand CSC and Climate Science America (chaired by Roy Spencer).
Those names will be familiar to Deep Climate readers as the organizations involved in the deceptive promotion of the McLean et al 2009 paper purporting to demonstrate that global warming trend could be attributed to ENSO. And Harris was also behind yet another skeptic open letter – the Manhattan Declaration released at the 2008 Heartland Institute International Conference on Climate Change in New York.
It should also be no surprise that CFACT and Tom Harris are collaborating once again – this time on something called the Copenhagen Climate Challenge.
As for the National Post, it continues on its merry way, unimpeded by logic or facts, as recent rants by Lawrence Solomon (“scientific sham of the generation”) and Lorne Gunter (“opportunity to regulate people’s lives and incomes on a global scale”) amply demonstrate.
An obvious response to the gross violations of journalistic ethics I have uncovered above would be to bring the matter before the appropriate press council. That would also be an appropriate forum to raise the issue of National Post’s continual refusal to correct obvious errors and distortions of fact in its opinion columns.
Surprise, surprise! Alone among major daily Canadian newspapers, the Post has refused to join the regional press council and answer complaints from the public in that forum. It’s easy to see why.