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Jan 13, 2014

The Big Oil-backed climate denier who hoodwinked Fairfax

"Expert reviewer" John McLean wrote a climate denialist opinion piece in the Fairfax media -- despite its papers vowing not to. Researcher Elaine McKewon asks: just who is John McLean, anyway?

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  NOTE: A complaint to the Australian Press Council about this article was partly upheld. Read the full adjudication here.

Last October The Sydney Morning Herald announced it would not publish letters from climate change deniers that misrepresented the facts. So naturally I was shocked to see an opinion piece from right-wing think tank operative John McLean published on both the SMH and The Age websites earlier this month. Not only was the piece misinformed, but McLean was falsely presented as an expert on climate science.

It’s a veritable coup for the climate denial noise machine. Most people get their information about science from the news media, so it matters who is given a voice to speak for science in the media — and it’s equally important that their qualifications and expertise are presented honestly and accurately.

McLean’s opinion piece was followed by this impressive-sounding byline:

“John McLean is the author of three peer-reviewed papers on climate and an expert reviewer for the latest IPCC report. He is also a climate data analyst and a member of the International Climate Science Coalition.”

But is that accurate? Who is John McLean? What qualifications entitle him to speak as an expert on climate science? What is the ICSC, and which groups, interests and agendas do McLean and the ICSC represent? What exactly does it mean to be an “expert reviewer” of IPCC reports?

McLean is not affiliated with any university or scientific organisation. He has no verifiable qualifications in the field of climate science. On his website McLean describes himself as a “computer consultant and occasional travel photographer”.

In 2006, McLean published his first peer-reviewed paper — a “review” of CSIRO reports — in the journal Energy and Environment. In the scientific community, E&E is regarded as a bottom-of-the-barrel journal. It is the journal of choice for loony papers, amateur enthusiasts and semi-retired climate sceptic scientists who have no credentials in the field of climatology. The journal’s editor, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, once told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “I’m following my political agenda — a bit, anyway. But isn’t that the right of the editor?”

Two years later, and still with no verifiable scientific qualifications, McLean popped up as lead author of a paper with fellow ICSC think tank associates Bob Carter and Chris de Freitas. Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, it concluded the Southern Oscillation (the atmospheric component of El Nino) was the primary driver of global temperatures, not human activities. The paper was comprehensively demolished in a subsequent comment by nine leading climate scientists.

Which brings us to McLean’s latest paper, which he and de Freitas published in an open-access Journal of Scientific Research Publishing, a vanity publisher whose journals have reportedly re-published papers from reputable scientific journals without notification or permission of the author and listing academics on its editorial boards without their knowledge or permission.

Clearly McLean has no standing or expertise in the field of climate science. So why does he persist in publishing opinion pieces as an “expert” on climate change? His affiliation with the International Climate Science Coalition holds the key to this question.

Despite its name, the ICSC does not conduct scientific research. It is funded by the Heartland Institute, an American right-wing think tank historically bankrolled by Exxon to promote climate denial. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ICSC’s primary agenda includes discrediting authoritative science on climate change, opposing regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and “educating” the public on the “dangerous impacts” involved in trying to replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Executive director Tom Harris is a former APCO public relations executive — APCO being most memorable for launching the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (or TASSC), a lobby group and crisis management vehicle bankrolled by Big Tobacco in the United States to discredit scientific studies linking second-hand smoke to cancer, while achieving legislative outcomes favourable to the tobacco industry. APCO’s media strategy to launch TASSC included establishing the lobby group as a credible source for journalists, building a grassroots social movement that encouraged the general public to “fight” the science, and targeting sympathetic journalists who would run with the TASSC message unchallenged.

Similarly, the ICSC has “concluded that the general public is our primary target audience”, and its main objectives appear to be establishing the ICSC as “an unbiased, honest broker” of information, publishing op-eds and letters in newspapers, participating in radio talk-back shows, distributing and following up on press releases, and privately engaging “receptive media players”.

When John Mclean publishes opinion pieces in Australian newspapers, he advances the agenda of the ICSC. In its media strategy the ICSC states: “To oppose climate alarmism effectively, the core messages of ICSC and its national affiliates must be simple and repeated often in as many public environments as possible.” And just what are these core messages? ICSC lists as its top two “core science principles” that “global climate is always changing in accordance with natural causes and recent changes are not unusual” and that “science is rapidly evolving away from the view that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ are a cause of dangerous climate change”.

Given the lack of science involved in the PR-dominated ICSC and the garbage trail that is McLean’s publishing record, how did he become an “expert reviewer” for the IPCC? It turns out that almost all you need to do to qualify is self-nominate on the IPCC’s website and tick a box saying that you have relevant expertise.

It seems appropriate to finally note that, as a “climate data analyst”, McLean predicted in 2010 that 2011 would be the “coolest year globally since 1956 or even earlier“. As it happened, 2011 was the coolest year since … 2008.

*Elaine McKewon is a PhD candidate in journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has published three peer-reviewed research papers (in reputable journals) on the Australian news media’s coverage of climate change.

John McLean responds:

I fear for Australian journalism if PhD candidate Elaine McKewon is typical of those who want to be journalists. She throws around epithets like “denier” without knowing what the disagreement is about, and she alleges that the Fairfax opinion editor was somehow hoodwinked rather than exercised professional judgement on the merit of a piece.

She says my piece was “misinformed” but fails to mention any errors of fact. She could hardly do that when a week later Mary Voice, former head of the National Climate Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology, repeated the IPCC charter that I quoted.

McKewon tries to assassinate my character by questioning my credibility but provides no evidence whatsoever that being an expert climatologist is a prerequisite for pointing out that despite the IPCC’s narrow charter the organisation has often been misrepresented as an authority on all climate matters. One needs qualifications and proven expertise to make such a simple observation? Of course not.

McKewon says nothing about my article and attacks only the byline. It seems to be the old story — if you can’t attack the person’s argument, attack the character of the person. I would have thought that PhD candidates in journalism were smarter and more professional than that, but apparently not. Let me take the red pen to McKewon’s article, which if submitted as a university essay would surely get a “fail”.

It takes her just 13 words before she uses the words “climate change deniers”. What are we supposed to deny? That climate changes? In the bigger picture she seems to either want to inflate a scientific disagreement to being on par with the systematic state-sponsored murder of over 6 million Jews, or to devalue those murders to make them equivalent to a scientific disagreement about the magnitude of the influence of carbon dioxide in the open atmosphere.

McKewon then tries to denigrate my published papers, but she does so with sophistry because all three papers have been published, as was stated, in peer-reviewed journals. McKewon’s opinion of those journals is utterly irrelevant. The 2009 paper to which she refers was a case where the journal broke several of its own regulations and, almost unheard of in scientific circles, denied us the right of reply to a criticism. My 2009 paper and its aftermath is discussed in a document on my website, which judging by her other comments she’s read, so why didn’t she read this document and mention it accordingly?

She claims that I am not affiliated with any university. That’s untrue. Like her I am a PhD candidate, in my case through a department of physics, and I will be submitting a PhD on climate issues. My background as a computer consultant is not a negative because it has allowed me to analyse climate data that those like McKewon probably take at face value.

If McKewon wishes to claim that scientists’ opinions can be bought by those who fund them she needs to be aware that I have never received one cent from the ICSC and whoever its backers may be (mainly privately donations). She also casts aspersions on the many scientists who receive government funding for research that somehow endorses the IPCC view, a corruption that’s more logical because one can argue that the significantly greater government funding forces any budding climatologist who wants employment into tacitly supporting the IPCC view whether he wants to or not.

Next McKewon denigrates my expert review (IPCC terminology). She has no idea of either the number of comments I raised or the subject of those comments and yet she somehow feels qualified to dismiss them. Her position is absurd and unsustainable. Finally, she dismisses a prediction that I was brave enough to make and for which I showed my reasoning. That my reasoning has failed has exposed further issues for detailed investigation.

McKewon, for all her verbiage, fails to refute my argument, one that could be made by anyone with a modicum of intelligence. She labels me a “denier” but fails to show anything that might be disputed in my article. Indirectly, she accuses the Fairfax opinion editor of incompetence for allowing the publishing of a well-reasoned argument not about climate per se but about the role of the IPCC. 

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102 thoughts on “The Big Oil-backed climate denier who hoodwinked Fairfax

  1. tonyfunnywalker

    The discussion on Flannery and what he said and did not say has cluttered my inbox for days.

    1. This article was not about Flannery in the first place.
    2. It was about John McLean and his claimed credentials – when challenged to name the University / thesis topic and title – he has failed to do so so I assume that he is like so many deniers a charlatan.
    3. If you question Flannery’s integrity – I would love to have your opinion on Ian Plimer especially as he is a Gina Reinhardt Board Member – Perhaps a discussion on his book which as a fellow geologist I can assure you is equally flawed.
    4. Parliaments approved the desalination plants not Flannery – they made the decision – they need not have done so and voted the proposal down – we do live in a democracy although the actions of the deniers suggests totalitarian strategies funded by vested interests are being deployed to both de-fund and discredit climate change science.
    Hitler used the same tactics to discredit academia and closed the universities. The Cultural Revolution in China did the same; setting Chinese Science and technology back decades as a result.
    It was Islam and China that during the great period of denier domination in Europe maintained learning without prejudice and persecution which the West then plundered for their own benefit in particular the printing press / gun powder and the compass.
    It was the printing press that promulgated science and scientific thinking — now it is setting out to destroy it — by building a culture of fear of vilification by misinterpreting data and facts to create a no go area of investigation by the brightest and the best.
    Are we entering a new era of the Inquisition — it would seem based on Climate Denial? With Creationism in the ascendancy in the US and in Pyne’s new curriculum you never know.

  2. David Hand

    Here’s an example of Flannery at work.

    Point’s 1 and 2 in their latest report on bushfires.

    “• Extreme fire weather has increased over the last 30 years in southeast Australia.”

    “• Hot, dry conditions have a major influence on bushfires. Climate change is making hot days hotter, and heatwaves longer and more frequent. Some parts of Australia are becoming drier. These conditions are driving up the likelihood of very high fire danger weather, especially in the southwest and southeast.”

    There’s their comments about the data to back it up on page 36 of the report.

    “Furthermore, few datasets on fire activity spanning multiple decades are available in Australia (Cary et al., 2012), so our ability to measure long-term trends is limited.”
    “At a regional level, the most comprehensive analysis of fire trends available points to a complex picture. Analysis of a 35-year dataset … for 32 bioregions in southeast Australia shows that for seven of the eight forest regions examined, the area burned has increased significantly … However, in the drier woodland and more arid regions, trends were far more variable, with either declines or no change shown. These results are consistent with predictions that in areas where water availability limits productivity, no trends or even decreases in fire activity might be expected during periods in which long-term drying has been observed.”

    So the ABC widely broadcasts the unqualified statements by Flannery from page one, but when you go to the data you find

    1. It’s not in the report.
    2. It only goes back 35 years.
    3. The report specifically states that lack of datasets limits our ability to measure trends.
    4. They even try to explain a decrease in fires in the limited data they have.

    The ABC didn’t bother to give any coverage of page 36.

  3. iced volvo

    Aidan Stanger @70

    “Of course I’m serious! But are you? You seem to be blaming Tim Flannery for everything”

    No just wasting BILLIONS of dollars!

    “without any evidence,”

    Plenty of that

    “and your figures seem to have been “pulled ut of thin air.

    Public record

    “When exactly was Tim Flannery awarded HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of taxpayer dollars? There were grants to Geodynamics, but AIUI they only totalled about a hundred million.”

    Flannery was a shareholder/advisor to Rudd and GD; but there are other grants not only to GD but to other “related” entities as well. Origin also lost $~200 million (just passed onto consumers as electricity price rises i.e. another ” carbon tax”).

    “We can now say the money could’ve been better spent, but it’s easy picking winners in hindsight.”

    No! it will not work for very good chemical reasons which were well known beforehand (related to the hydrogen/salt at the depth needed). There were much more promising areas of research at both Sydney and ANU which were just ignored.

    “His comments regarding water supplies (made long before the Climate Commission existed) reflected the consensus of opinions among water engineers.”

    BS! He made the comments starting from about 2005 until 2012. His political appointment as AotY gave him press coverage and his appointment as Climate Commission was farcical (he was a museum curator FFS). Thankfully the media and politicians now ignore him.

    “He wasn’t resoonsible for the building of the desalination plants.”

    In 2007, Flannery (as Australian of the Year and Rudd advisor) predicted global warming would so dry our continent “that desalination plants were needed to save three of our biggest cities from disaster. …. In Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, water supplies are so low they need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months.”

    “Desalination plants are designed to be mothballed when theylre not needed, so your comment about corrosion is just silly.”

    The white elephant on the Gold Coast is almost trashed and the centre of a massive lawsuit (do a quick search). Now who’s silly!

    Again the point is that while lefty cultists like MCKEWON take their vicious ad hominen attacks to McLean they leave revere their precious Messiahs (like Flannery, Steffen, Hamilton etc etc) on the quasi relgius pedestal no matter how false their prophecies of doom are shown to be! Remember what this was about: objectivity and balanced debate in journalism.

  4. Aidan Stanger

    iced volvo @ 65 –

    Of course I’m serious! But are you? You seem to be blaming Tim Flannery for everything without any evidence, and your figures seem to have been pulled ut of thin air.

    When exactly was Tim Flannery awarded HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of taxpayer dollars? There were grants to Geodynamics, but AIUI they only totalled about a hundred million. We can now say the money could’ve been better spent, but it’s easy picking winners in hindsight. And althugh the remoteness of the Cooper Basin currently makes large scale geothermal energy recovery there uneconomic, thiere is still a lot of potential for geothermal energy in Australia (unlike nonbiological CCS schemes which will never be ecnomic in Australia).

    His comments regarding water supplies (made long before the Climate Commission existed) reflected the consensus of opinions among water engineers. He wasn’t resoonsible for the building of the desalination plants. But hypothetically if the government had been so negligent as to ignore what everyone else said and just listen to him, he would’ve been irresponsible not to make those comments. A reliable water supply is absolutely essential, and that means a diversity of sources was needed as existing sources were inadequate or failing due to the drought. There was no guarantee – indeed no indication – that the drought would break when it did, so gambling our future on that happening would be the dumbest policy imaginable!

    Desalination plants are designed to be mothballed when theylre not needed, so your comment about corrosion is just silly. And in Adelaide at least, just having a desalination plant reduces the amount of water we need to pump from the Murray, as knowing we can use it when required means we don’t have to keep our reservoirs as full as we otherwise would.

  5. Russell Cook

    “… the ICSC does not conduct scientific research. It is funded by the Heartland Institute, an American right-wing think tank historically bankrolled by Exxon to promote climate denial.”

    ‘historically bankrolled’ – entertaining, isn’t it, that writer Elaine McKewon can’t bring herself to mention the actual fact here, that Heartland hasn’t gotten a dime from Exxon since 2006. That’s something around 7 whole years. Kinda deflates that whole accusation when anyone looks at it that way, and it gets massively worse since McKewon and not one other person making that accusation has ever bothered to provide any of us with one shred of physical evidence (full context document scans, undercover video/audio transcripts, leaked emails, money-transfer receipts, etc.) that skeptic scientists and places like Heartland were paid to fabricate demonstratively false science papers, reports, assessments or viewpoints.

    No need to trust me on that, look it up for yourselves in any variety of books out there making that accusation, or in any of the various web sites doing that. If such evidence is out there, folks on the IPCC / Al Gore side of the issue should have it at the ready in order to shut down guys like me. Li’l word of caution, though, prepare yourselves for disappointment if you go looking for it. Then ask yourselves why so many who accuse skeptics of industry corruption have let so many down with their enslavement to pure guilt-by-association stuff that would never fly in any country’s courtroom evidence hearings.

    When folks like McKewon still seek to plant worn out 20 year old ideas of corruption in readers’ heads but can’t back it up in any way, and they don’t have the expertise to refute skeptics climate science viewpoints, it should really make people wonder just how desperate the entire man-caused global warming movement is to stay alive.

  6. David Hand

    Flannery is presented to the Australian as a credentialed climate scientist when he is not, and he has far more influence on public policy in Australia that McLean ever will.

    In an editorial in the New Scientist on 16 June 2007, Flannery said,

    “Over the past 50 years southern Australia has lost about 20 per cent of its rainfall, and one cause is almost certainly global warming. …… by far the most dangerous trend is the decline in the flow of Australian rivers: it has fallen by around 70 per cent in recent decades, so dams no longer fill even when it does rain. …. I believe the first thing Australians need to do is to stop worrying about “the drought” – which is transient – and start talking about the new climate. ….. In Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, water supplies are so low they need desalinated water urgently, possibly in as little as 18 months.”

    So while you’re all pointing the finger debunking a denialist’s credentials, Flannery has driven the construction of about a dozen currently mothballed desalinisation plants that we are all currently paying for in our water rates.

    worse, his apocalyptic pronouncements about Brisbane’s water caused the operating protocols for the Wivenhoe dam to be changed to include water supply.

    Originally built after the 1974 floods to protect Brisbane flood events, the protocols now became contradictory where to protect against flood you need the dam empty but to protect against running out of water you need the dam full. This policy stuff up directly caused thousands of homes and businesses to flood as the dam was spilling at its maximum rate at the moment the peak of the flood occurred.

    Thank you Tim. Rest assured, you won’t see an expose of your scientific credentials exposed for us all through the vehicle of Crikey.

  7. Interrobanging On


    Even the smart 11 year old could quickly understand the point about arbitrary starting dates. Sorry, but yours is willful idiocy, to coin a phrase. The “1998 is the hottest year, therefore global warming (*magically*) stopped in 1998” meme is facile at best.

    It isn’t even properly established statistically that 1998 was the warmest calendar year (it isn’t the warmest 12 month period), and it was a strong El Nino year. And a global average is of course a poor measure, when one consistent projection is that the climate will become more extreme. The average could stay exactly the same, even with wild fluctuation.

    The implication that everywhere will ease up the same temperatures across the globe in lockstep is fatuous. The climate system isn’t simple. A polar vortex breaks up over North America bringing a freeze, while at the same time bears come out of hibernation early in Finland because of the warmth and rain instead of snow…nothing unusual there, as the ICSC claims? No reason to worry at least a touch about how the jet stream is reacting?


    You will find some who criticise the IPCC as too conservative. And there is a little irony, because the usual denial slur is that the IPCC is part of the conspiracy (and so by definition is closed), but here you are using the fact that its review policy is relatively open to criticise it.

    Of course there are cynics who will want to rort the review selection process to gild the lily about their qualifications, along with their feeble publication record (the peer review equivalent of buying a PhD over the Internet). But apparently that is alright. Defending the indefensible if they are on your side.

    The Himalaya and Amazon things are fleas on the elephant’s back. Just the sort of noise the article alludes to and one of the defined tactics deniers use.

    Here is two back from your mob: Whyalla will be wiped out by the carbon tax and Rio Tinto’s absurdist claim its Warkworth coal mine expansion (which they promised in a legal Deed of Agreement they would not pursue) will generate 44 000 jobs. Are we even?

  8. George Montgomery

    “Ipcc ar5 report states: As one example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to 0.15] °C per decaded). That means it hasn’t warmed for 15 years, despite all their qualifications. And remember, just 0.8c warming in the past 150 years.”
    No it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t warmed for 15 years. What you’ve quoted is the 95 percentile range i.e. there is a 95 per cent chance that the warming lies between -0.05 and 0.15 (centred around the mean of 0.05). That’s the way that scientists report their results, the mean plus or minus the possible statistical error within the measurement i.e. they’re a cautious lot.
    And remember (a) that it has warmed 0.8 deg C in the last 130 years (b) a rise of 3.0 deg C, if uniform around the globe, would turn Sweden’s weather into that of the present-day Mediterranean (the English would holiday in Finland rather than Spain) (c) in the past geological epochs, a rise of 0.8 deg C has taken more than 100,000 years and, most importantly, (d) an increase of 0.8 deg C in global mean temperatures pushes the upper outlier temperatures of the “bell-shaped” curve of possible temperatures further into the extreme high temperature range – like those currently being experienced in Australia, Scandanavia, Siberia, … (So the times between cold snaps is getting longer as in the recent US and Canada polar-vortex induced cold spell i.e. the last similar cold snap was in 1996).
    PS The recent cold snap in the US and Canada did not set any monthly cold temperature records.

  9. Andybob

    Tamas, remember the statistician who drowned fording a river of average 4 feet depth ? The effects of climate change are not accurately modelled by simply adding the average projected increased temperature to current temperatures. Maximum temperatures and droughts making up that average will be more extreme.

    Climate change to date of 0.87 degrees may not have been particularly dangerous, but if trends continue as our best estimates predict, it will be very dangerous.

    The Earth did not ‘stop warming’ 15 years ago. 1998 saw a very large El Nino event which resulted in exceptionally warm surface temperatures for that year. If you use that hot year as your base, you get different results than if you use 1997 or 1999 as your starting point.

    This is what the IPCC actually says from the report earlier cited:

    “Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere 1983-2012 was likely the warmest 30 year period of the last 1400 years.”
    (page 3)

    The surface temperature warming from 1998 to 2012 was not as great as predicted by models. This is what the IPCC says:

    “The observed reduction in surface warming trend over the period 1998 to 2012 as compared to the period 1951 to 2012,
    is due in roughly equal measure to a reduced trend in radiative forcing and a cooling contribution from natural internal variability, which includes a possible redistribution of heat within the ocean (medium confidence). The reduced trend in radiative forcing is primarily due to volcanic eruptions and the timing of the downward phase of the 11-year solar cycle. However, there is low confidence in quantifying the role of changes in radiative forcing in causing the reduced warming trend. There is medium confidence that natural internal decadal variability causes to a substantial degree the difference between observations and the simulations; the latter are not expected to reproduce the timing of natural internal variability. There may also be a contribution from forcing inadequacies and, in some models, an overestimate of the response to increasing greenhouse gas and other anthropogenic forcing (dominated by the effects of aerosols)”
    (Page 13)

    The IPCC report is persuasive. It makes falsifiable claims and provides the evidence for those claims. The arguments attacking the IPCC report do not do those things.

  10. The Pedanticist

    Sorry Tamas. You are either uninformed or disingenuous. To quote from the IPCC document: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis : Summary for Policymakers (located at http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGI_AR5_SPM_brochure.pdf)

    “The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a
    warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, over the period 1880 to 2012, when multiple independently produced datasets exist. The total increase between the average of the 1850–1900 period and the 2003–2012 period is 0.78 [0.72 to 0.85] °C, based on the single longest dataset available.”

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