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Fielding's conversion to sceptic

By Sharon Beder - posted Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Senator Steve Fielding came back from a climate sceptic’s conference in Washington ready to open up debate on the scientific merits of climate change predictions. He is seemingly unaware that the debate has been and gone and only a few renegades are left manning the crumbling edifice of what was once thought to be a credible sceptical position.

The conference was organised by the Heartland Institute, one of those corporate-funded think tanks whose mission in life is to promote free enterprise, no matter what the cost to society or the environment. It particularly targets elected officials and politicians hoping to short circuit the democratic process of full public debate.

The Heartland Institute has received funds from several corporations that have something to fear from democratic regulation of business activity, such as Exxon Mobil and Philip Morris, and from foundations that have emerged from corporate empires such the Olin Foundation (chemical company money) and the Scaife foundations (oil company money)

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Conference sponsors included a variety of far right organisations, such as the Ayn Rand Institute and the Australian Libertarian Institute; a number of corporate-funded think tanks including, from Australia, the Institute for Private Enterprise and the Institute of Public Affairs; as well as sceptic’s groups such as the Climate Sceptics Party and The Lavoisier Group, both from Australia.

One of the conference keynote speakers was Willie Soon, an astrophysicist who argues that global warming is caused by solar variation, a theory that sounded compelling to Senator Fielding.

Soon gained notoriety in 2003 when he co-authored a scientific article with Sallie Baliunas, in the journal Climate Research. The article, which argued that the climate in the 20th century was not the warmest in the last ten centuries, was the outcome of a study that had received US$53,000 from the American Petroleum Institute. Soon and Baliunas were also being paid at the time as senior scientists with the ExxonMobil-funded George T. Marshall Institute.

After the article was published 13 of the scientists cited in it claimed that their work had been misinterpreted by Soon and Baliunas. Subsequently half of the journal’s editorial board resigned to protest the peer review process that had allowed such a flawed article to be published.

Soon has also been a scientific advisor to several of the think tanks and front groups funded by the fossil fuel industry, including the Greening Earth Society - a front group for the Western Fuels Association - and the Science and Public Policy Institute, a global warming sceptic group which shares key personnel with the Centre for Science and Public Policy - a project of the ExxonMobil-funded right-wing think tank, the Frontiers of Freedom.

These associations and funding sources don’t mean that Soon is wrong. However, more independent scientists dismiss solar variation and sunspots as a factor in global warming. Take, for example the Stanford Solar Center, at Stanford University, which concludes that “Solar variability certainly plays a minor role”. Or for a more accessible discussion see New Scientist’s web page “Climate myths: Global warming is down to the Sun, not humans”.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which draws on the expertise of 2,500 climate scientists, has examined the data on solar variation and sun spots and taken it into account when concluding that humans are having a discernable impact on the climate likely to cause “widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century”.

Like Soon, many other speakers at the conference have dubious associations with industry funded think tanks and front groups, as well as being recipients of money from companies with a vested interest in climate denial.

Many do not even have relevant scientific credentials. For example, Fred Goldberg, gave a paper on “Do the Planets and the Sun Control our Climate and the CO2 in the Atmosphere?”. Goldberg’s PhD was awarded in welding technology in 1975. He developed an amateur interest in the climate change debate in 2004.

Senator Fielding’s claim to have “kept an open mind on the road to Washington” seems a little disingenuous given he travelled to the US to attend a conference that was so obviously intended to discredit predictions of climate change. It billed itself as “calling attention to widespread dissent to the asserted ‘consensus’ on the causes, consequences, and proper responses to climate change”. Has the senator devoted as much effort to learning about the science behind that “consensus”? And has he the right to demand a rerun of the debate, further delaying measures to prevent climate change, while he plays catch up?

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About the Author

Professor Sharon Beder is in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. She is author of several books including This Little Kiddy Went to Market (UNSW Press, 2009), Global Spin (Scribe, 2002), Suiting Themselves: How Corporations Drive the Global Agenda (Earthscan, 2006), Environmental Principles and Policies (UNSW Press, 2006) and Power Play: The Struggle for Control of the World's Electricity (Scribe, 2003). Many of her articles can be downloaded at http://herinst.org/sbeder

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