Ian Plimer is one of the most imperious purveyors of climate scepticism in the world. He’s a prize-winning academic and bestselling author, meaning he’s got the cultural capital and turn of phrase needed to put forward a compelling case.
Plimer’s way with words (human-induced global warming is a “scam”; environmentalists are “warmists” spreading “eco-guilt”) has helped him carve out influence in media and political circles. All of this despite howls of objection from the many climate scientists who maintain his books are riddled with errors.
“Ian is getting a lot of attention in the media because in journalism it’s a standard approach to show balance,” explains University of Melbourne climatologist David Karoly (a staunch Plimer critic), adding that it helps his profile to be a controversialist. “It is not news to say that the world is warming or that warming is occurring due to greenhouse gasses … it is easier to get news coverage if you say: ‘no it isn’t’.”
By all rights, Plimer probably shouldn’t have the influence he does. He’s not a climate scientist, having earned his academic qualifications in mining geology; a career he first pursued in the red earth of Broken Hill.
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Critics also say he propagates myths and that he’s hopelessly conflicted, with connections to big polluting industries hoping to delay action on climate change (he’s a director of three mining companies).
But as the saying goes: perception is everything. Along with collaborators like Bob Carter and UK counterpart Christopher Monckton, Plimer has somehow managed to foster a sense of doubt in an area where there is 97% scientific agreement. Whether they’re right or wrong, they’ve managed to help slow down action on climate change.
“Ian has most certainly been a major influence in changing the public perception of the global warming issue both in Australia and overseas,” Carter tells The Power Index, adding it is Plimer’s “indefatigable energy in the pursuit of sound science” which has given him his influence.
Regardless of how he’s done it, it’s won him friends in high places. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has cited Plimer’s best-selling tome Heaven and Earth, saying he thought it to be a “well-argued book refuting most of the claims of the climate catastrophists”.
John Howard is another big fan. The former prime minister was on hand last month to launch Plimer’s follow-up How To Get Expelled From School at the Sydney Mining Club, declaring “the science is never in and it ought never to be in”.
But while How To Get Expelled may bring a fresh wave of controversy, it’s Heaven and Earth which brought Plimer his fame. The book (which initially struggled to find a publisher) has been manna from heaven for sceptics looking to claw back the consensus on climate change. His charge? Human-induced global warming is made up, a myth.
“Trying to deal with these misrepresentations is somewhat like trying to argue with creationists,” Plimer wrote in the book. “Who misquote, concoct evidence, quote out of context, ignore contrary evidence, and create evidence ex nihilo.”
It’s a claim which has been thrown back at Plimer by countless scientists who have sought to disprove his work since its publication. As Guardian environment journalist and Plimer sparring partner George Monbiot put it: “Seldom has a book been more cleanly murdered by scientists than Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth.”
IPCC lead author David Karoly, whose own review said Heaven and Earth deserved to sit in the science fiction section of any library that “wastes its funds buying it”, describes Plimer’s books another way. “They are not scientific or scientifically-based. They do not follow the normal guidelines of science, where you seek to correct known errors,” he tells The Power Index. “Ian does not bother to do that, therefore he is not a scientist.”
Despite all this, Plimer is still a force to be reckoned with. And it’s mainly because of the company he keeps. Privately-funded sceptic research groups like the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs give his views much-needed publicity. He’s also become a pin-up boy for conservative columnists like Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine still trying to bring down the carbon tax. And shock jocks like Alan Jones just love to interview him.
“If anyone wants to criticise me on the science, then I will argue with them,” Plimer tells The Power Index during a half-hour phone discussion. “If people want to bitterly and viciously criticise me for not following their political ideology then it’s water off a duck’s back.”