A war of words has broken out between the head of the Australian Museum and NSW government whip, Liberal MLC Dr Peter Phelps, over the museum’s public stance on climate change.

Frank Howarth, director of the Australian Museum in Sydney, dedicated his latest editorial in the museum’s Explore magazine to criticising the current climate debate in Australia.

“I am extremely concerned about the excessive politicisation of the carbon debate in Australia and the ongoing media attention to the shrinking number of increasingly shrill climate change deniers,” wrote Howarth.

“We long ago stopped publicising those ‘experts’ who claim that smoking doesn’t cause cancer or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. It’s time the media stopped giving air to those few who say that human-added CO2 is not causing global warming or that it’s not real.”

Explore is a glossy, internally produced publication, sent out to museum sponsors and members.

But Phelps, a well-known climate sceptic who has often argued in NSW parliament against the “great global warming swindle”, was so infuriated by the editorial that he emailed off an angry diatribe to Howarth, calling his actions arrogant and “scurrilous”.

“Your dismissive arrogance to the legitimate concerns of those who are sceptical about the claims surrounding anthropogenic global warming, and your censorious attitude towards such people, does not well serve Explore‘s readers nor the Australian Museum,” wrote Phelps.

In CSIRO research conducted for the Garnaut Climate Change Review Update 2011 — which covers a variety of different polls — 50% of respondents said they thought human activity was driving climate change, while 90% said human activity was at least partially responsible for climate change.

Phelps had particular issue with Howarth’s language: “Your use of the word ‘deniers’, with the Holocaust overtones that it brings with it, is particularly scurrilous.” It’s not the first time Phelps has evoked Godwin’s Law in the climate change debate, arguing in parliament earlier this year that “some of the strongest supporters of totalitarian regimes in the last century have been scientists” and comparing federal Labor MP Mike Kelly to a prison guard at a concentration camp.

He also accused the museum of pandering to politics.”I have been visiting the Museum since 1978. In recent years I have found it to have reverted to trendy causes and poltical [sic] correctness at the expense of its true vocation,” wrote Phelps.

“The dinosaurs are nice, but the propaganda is not so. Perhaps you feel that have been forced into taking this position for the streams of Government money that goes to supporting such causes. But for whatever reason, I find it a pity, given the history of the institution and the respect it formerly engendered.”

He signed off the email: “Yours disappointedly, Dr Peter Phelps MLC.”

One museum insider told Crikey: “Dr Phelps (who has a degree in history, not science), is obviously more comfortable with the Museum presenting pretty, colourful dinosaurs, than advocating real-world science and research.”

The insider also noted the irony of “the streams of government money”, since funding from the last NSW budget no longer covers the wages of museum staff, “let alone its running costs, development of exhibitions, publicity and research expenses.” Two years ago the Sydney Museum turned down the Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition due to its enormous price tag (it’s currently enjoying a successful run at the Melbourne Museum).

In an email sent around to all museum staff, Howarth rejected Phelp’s assertion that he had attempted to link climate sceptics to the Holocaust: “For the record, it didn’t even occur to me to link ‘deniers’ to the Holocaust,” wrote Howarth, noting that he “will invite Dr Phelps down here for a chat and see if we can change his mind.”

In a speech to NSW parliament earlier this month on global warming, Phelps pleaded for a “return to rationality and civility in this debate”.

Perhaps a civil chat between Howarth and Phelps while strolling the dinosaur exhibition is required?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey