NOTE: A complaint to the Australian Press Council about this articlewas 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 strategythe 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.
*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.