Periodically, petitions containing the signatures of “scientists” who are sceptical of human-induced global warming emerge, which seek to counter the views of climate scientists.
Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly highlighted one such recent petition on Facebook in October.
Kelly went on to say that Labor “denied the science and joined the climate crazies declaring a ‘climate emergency'”.
A letter to the UN Secretary General which accompanied the petition introduced the signatories as “knowledgeable and experienced scientists and professionals in climate and related fields”.
The list of signatories on the petition includes 75 Australians — the second highest number of any country.
So, who is behind the petition and who are the Australian signatories? And how many are scientists?
Since Kelly posted the petition on Facebook, it has been re-released with over 700 signatories, including 109 Australians, and rebadged the “World Climate Declaration”.
Fact Check’s investigation focuses on the version presented by Kelly in October, 2019.
Meet the ‘ambassadors’
The document lists 14 ECD “ambassadors” from different locations. A number of them have been active in the climate sceptic community for many years.
Australia’s representative, Viv Forbes, has been writing sceptical articles for over a decade. He is the administrator of long-running climate sceptic blog Carbon Sense.
He is also the executive director of climate sceptic organisation the Saltbush Club, which was constituted in November 2018 to “change the climate of public opinion, thus changing the political agenda”.
A document listing the “founding members” of the Saltbush Club, says of Forbes:
“He has spent his working life in the resource and pastoral industries of northern Australia, for five years as a government field geologist and then in private industry.
He has held almost every job from rouseabout and field assistant to Financial Analysis Manager to Chairman of the board, in metals, oil, gas and coal, and focused on feasibility studies, investment analysis, mine development, lecturing and writing.
He has been self-employed for about 35 years.”
Guus Berkhout, from the Netherlands, is one of the founders of climate sceptic organisation, Clintel, which was founded this year and is the progenitor of the petition.
On his website, Berkout lists professional experience as a professor of geophysics at TU Delft, ending in 2016. His biography also details his time working for petroleum company Shell in the 1960s and 1970s.
There are a number of notable Australians listed in the petition, including:
- Jeremy K. Ellis, former chairman of mining company BHP
- Hugh Morgan, former CEO of Western Mining Corporation
- Ian Plimer, an academic geologist who is a prominent climate sceptic
- Peter Ridd, a former professor at James Cook University
- Des Moore, a former deputy secretary of the Federal Treasury.
The petition can be read in full here, including the full list of 75 Australian names.
A hostile reception
Fact Check attempted to contact each Australian signatory to the petition to verify that they had signed the petition and endorsed its contents.
The majority we were unable to contact.
We asked Berkhout to provide contact details for each Australian signatory. He declined, citing privacy reasons.
Fact Check also asked Forbes for help in this endeavour; he also declined.
In an email, Forbes speculated that “most of [the signatories] would hang up quickly if you phoned them and explained your purpose as most of them would have zero faith in the ABC to be impartial. They would see it as just another sneaky aspect of the ABC’s partisan promotion of climate alarmism”.
Nonetheless, Fact Check was able to source contact details for just over a third of the signatories. Through phone interviews and correspondence on the internet, we were able to verify the identities of 29 out of 75.
We spoke to 22 via phone, of whom two hung up before completing the full interview. However, we were able to confirm that each of these signatories did indeed sign the petition.
A further four corresponded with us via email, and another three via LinkedIn.
This leaves 46 we were unable to contact, and therefore, unable to verify.
The vast majority of these we were unable to find contact details for.
However, some were contacted and did not respond to requests for an interview, including Emeritus Professor Plimer, with whom we left several voicemails.
The Saltbush connection
Further investigation online revealed an organisational connection between many of the signatories.
The names of 38 of the Australian signatories (50.7%) are listed as founding members of the Saltbush Club in a document found on its website — the same organisation of which ECD representative Viv Forbes is executive director.
A further 11 (14.7%) are listed as supporting members in a separate document. That’s a total of 49 (65.3%) who have open association with the club.
Details of these 49 in the Saltbush documents matched the name and biographical details in the petition.
Ellis is listed as the chairman of the organisation, and Morgan and Emeritus Professor Plimer are listed among its five “founders”.
The organisation advocates withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit a rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The group counts both former Liberal National Party Queensland premier Campbell Newman and current LNP Queensland state MP Colin Boyce amongst its founding members, as well as former federal Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm and mining magnate Gina Rinehart. None of these people are signatories of the petition.
When asked how they heard about the petition, many of the signatories we spoke to were unable to recall.
Some said it came from Forbes himself, some said that they heard about it through the Saltbush Club.
Others said they were contacted by Berkhout directly.
Two signatories Fact Check spoke to over the phone mentioned that they had heard about the petition through the Saltbush Club, despite not being listed as founding or supporting members.
The organisation’s list of founding members mentions that there is a “silent list” of members who do not wish to be identified, and “an even longer list of people on our mail lists who also prefer anonymity”.
Some we spoke to were even unsure of which petition we were referring to at the beginning of the interview.
One signatory remarked that he had signed over 30 petitions related to climate change, but lamented that “politicians don’t pay attention to them”.
Many of them have scientific backgrounds, but significant numbers work in fields unrelated to climate science.
Patterns in the petition
In a letter to the United Nations from Berkhout dated September 23, 2019, the 506 signatories of the petition are introduced as “knowledgeable and experienced scientists and professionals in climate and related fields”.
However, an examination of the declared professions of the signatories on the petition reveals that many of their professional occupations are unrelated to climate change, or even the environment.
The Australian contingent includes a barrister and solicitor, a radiologist, a managing director of a winery, a retired aircraft engineer, a security engineer and an “astro economist”.
One of the signatories on the list, P.C. Wilson, is referred to as a former ABC journalist from Queensland.
Fact Check was unable to source contact details for a journalist under that name and location.
We asked both Berkhout and Forbes to explain how these people in professions unrelated to climate science are qualified to comment on climate science. Neither responded.
Through descriptions on the petition, or through further investigations and interviews, we identified that 22 (29.3%) of the signatories claimed a current or former connection to the mining industry, among them Ellis and Morgan.
Fact Check contacted Ellis via an email supplied by one of the other signatories to confirm his signature, but received no response. Morgan confirmed over the phone that he signed the document, but terminated the call after further questioning.
Twenty (26.7%) of the signatories said they were geologists or retired geologists of some sort, either on the petition itself, when interviewed by Fact Check, or in information listed on the Saltbush Club website.
An analysis of the broader international field of signatories was conducted by agroecologist Amber Kerr, from the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California, as part of an analysis for International Fact Checking Network code of principles signatory Climate Feedback.
Kerr noted that 19% of the of the signatories were described as geologists and 22% were described as engineers — these were the most prevalent groups across the petition.
She also highlighted the lack of gender diversity on the list: “Among the 506 names, only 24 were female names (with another 15 that were initials-only or unisex).”
Of the Australian contingent, there are two female names on the list — Marjorie Curtis and Judy Ryan. Fact Check was only successful in contacting Curtis; Ryan did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.
There were also four others who had names which were ambiguous, or only initials, for which we could not verify their gender.
That leaves 69 signatories who are men, not counting those who are undetermined — or 92.0%, and only 2.7% confirmed to be women.
What makes a scientist?
The question of who can call themselves a scientist is a vexed one. Fact Check contacted the Australian Academy of Science for advice on this matter.
The spokesman for the academy responded to our questions with two statements, which are reproduced in full here.
The spokesman told Fact Check that peer-reviewed research was an important indicator: “A scientist generally refers to any individual who has conducted peer reviewed research in a scientific discipline, has relevant tertiary qualifications and training, applies and understands the scientific process, participates in peer review, and has demonstrated expertise in their area of science.”
Fact Check asked the academy whether someone with a science qualification who works in the private sector, such as a mining geologist, whose research is not published but rather used for commercial purposes, would still be considered a scientist.
The spokesman replied: “A mining geologist with relevant tertiary qualifications and training is a scientist. They use the scientific process and they have relevant expertise.”
“However, if their science is not open to the scrutiny of the scientific community at large, it must necessarily be treated with a certain level of scepticism. A scientist talking about unpublished data or proprietary results, in any setting, would be treated with caution.”
Fact Check asked each signatory contacted whether or not they had published peer-reviewed research of any type.
Eight respondents replied that they had, with two responding ambiguously. We were only able to find peer-reviewed research attributed to seven of them.
A further five of those we were unable to speak with have peer-reviewed research available online, which corresponded with their names and any former or current academic positions, as listed on the petition.
Twelve respondents confirmed that they had not published any peer-reviewed research.
That leaves a further 47 who are unconfirmed, but for whom we could not find any peer-reviewed research.
It should be noted however, that at least one signatory who we spoke with, Matthew J. Fagan, the founder and president of FastCAM Inc, while not having published any peer-reviewed research, holds a number of patents.
As the AAS told Fact Check:
“It should be noted that there are avenues for industry scientists to publish results. Patenting an invention, for example, requires a complete disclosure of the technology.
Energy and environment
A number of the signatories have published research related to climate change, in a peer-reviewed journal named Energy and Environment.
Energy and Environment has promoted itself in the past as a publisher of climate sceptic articles.
Its editor until 2017 was Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, who told the Guardian in 2011 that “I’m not ashamed to say that I deliberately encourage the publication of papers that are sceptical of climate change”.
Fact Check was able to confirm that five of the signatories have published peer-reviewed climate papers in the journal. They include:
- Tom Quirk, who is identified as a nuclear physicist in the petition, published climate-related papers in the journal and in the Asia-Pacific Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences between 2009 and 2015
- Ridd, who has also published in the journal once, among countless other journals, whilst at James Cook University, according to his research profile on the university’s website
- John McLean, who published in the journal in 2006. McLean published his PhD thesis at James Cook University in 2017 under Ridd’s supervision
- C.D. Ollier, who has published a number of climate-related papers in the journal, listed on his academic profile University of Western Australia, where he is listed as an honorary research fellow
- David Archibald, who published a peer-reviewed climate paper in the journal in 2006.
An alternative method for assessing whether someone is qualified to comment on science is whether they hold, or have held, an academic position at a university.
From the list, we were able to confirm only 10 signatories who hold or have formerly held positions attached to a university. Seven of these we were able to contact directly.
Their positions were related to organic chemistry, geophysics, oceanography, anthropology and archaeology, grain science and geology, among others.
The university alleged that he breached its code of conduct.
Ridd won an unfair dismissal case against JCU in the Federal Circuit Court last year; the university was ordered to pay Ridd $1.2 million, but is appealing the decision.
In her analysis for Climate Feedback, Kerr noted that only 10 of the global signatories on the petition identified as climate scientists and four as meteorologists.
Of those on the Australian list we were able to contact, Ridd was the only signatory with a confirmed current or former academic position who Fact Check could verify has published peer-reviewed science related to climate change.
To sum up, Fact Check was able to verify that 14 of the Australian signatories either held an academic position or published peer-reviewed research. Nine of them had done both.
Eleven either told us they had neither held an academic position or published peer-reviewed research.
For the remaining 50, we found no academic position or peer-reviewed research, or were unable to independently verify an academic position or peer-reviewed research.
What did fact checking organisations in other countries find?
Apart from Climate Feedback, several other fact checking outlets in other countries have published research on the background of the signatories.
German fact checkers Correctiv checked an earlier version of the petition, which was released in September.
They found that three of the 13 German signatories at the time had direct links to climate sceptic group the European Institute for Climate and Energy. Six others had indirect links to the organisation.
They also found some of the biographical information of the German signatories to be misleading, partly false, and false, including unverified professorships.
The only country with more signatories on the petition than Australia is Italy, with 113 on the list.
Italy’s Pagella Politica found that the European Climate Declaration owes much to its Italian signatories.
One recounted to Pagella Politica that its genesis was a petition begun in Italy, before snippets were sent to Berkhout, who had the idea of making it a European petition.
Quebecois (French Canadian) fact checkers Decrypteurs noted that many of the signatories worldwide work in the fossil fuel sector.
And among the 19 Belgian signatories, fact checkers at Belgian magazine Knack found that six of them had previously published climate sceptic articles on Doorbaak.be, a right-wing nationalist opinion site. Not one of the 19 signatories was found by Knack to be a climate scientist.
As previously mentioned, the petition declares that there is no climate emergency — and lays out six broad points, each with an explanation — of opposition to the established consensus on climate change:
- Natural as well as anthropogenic factors cause warming
- Warming is far slower than predicted
- Climate policy relies on inadequate models
- CO2 is plant food, the basis of all life on earth
- Global warming has not increased natural disasters
- Climate policy must respect scientific and economic realities.
Fact Check has not explored the veracity of these claims for this article.
However, six scientists, enlisted by Climate Feedback reviewed the claims shortly after the petition was released.
In the summary of Climate Feedback’s review it says:
“The claims contradict or misrepresent the evidence uncovered by geoscientists, failing to provide support for its conclusions downplaying the threat of climate change. The letter claims, for example, that climate models ignore the benefits of increased CO2on plant growth. This is false, as many climate models simulate the response of vegetation to increased CO2— and the climate change it causes.”
Principal researcher: Matt Martino, online editor
Additional research: Christina Arampatzi