GWPF and Bengtsson: Burning Ivory Towers provide convenient smoke screen for the melting ice
While the story of academic Lennart Bengtsson setting his pants on fire dominates the media, are we being distracted from the disaster of the melting ice, and the escalating war on science and fact?
For Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, Christmas came early this week. The GWPF is – notionally – an “educational charity” but in reality it’s a lobbying outfit whose purpose appears to be to dismiss or minimise the significance of climate science at the behest of its funders. Frequently accused of disinformation and gross inaccuracy, it is no surprise to find there are numerous documented links between the GWPF, right-wing political organisations, and fossil fuel interests (See Sourcewatch, DeSmogBlog and others) .
In the context of the GWPF and its machinations, it is appropriate to consider a quote from one of the ‘founding fathers’ of modern Public Relations:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda, 1928.
In fact, so blatant and manipulative is the GWPF’s propaganda, its charitable status has been challenged. The UK’s Charity Commission requires any charity to be factually accurate. It came as no surprise this week to learn that the GWPF is now setting up a separate, uncharitable, wing of its operation, which will not be required to be truthful, accurate nor factual. Given that the stated aims of the charity and the law allows the GWPF to do pretty much any kind of lobbying so long as it remains factually faithful, one doesn’t need to ponder long the reasons for setting up this new branch (cunningly named the Global Warming Policy Forum, so the acronyms are interchangeable – not that anyone is likely to be confused by this, I’m sure).
The reputation of the GWPF and its founder, Nigel Lawson (a.k.a. Lord Lawson of Blaby and ex-Chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s government) is well-established. Its supporters – the climate change denial community – are obliged to admire it, while scientists and those disposed to understand what climate science is actually telling us find the GWPF to be akin to the Heartland Institute; an organisation whose views are bought and sold, and whose modus operandi is clearly that any means justifies their ends and is therefore, in pursuit of its objectives, quite untrustworthy.
If you want it, there’s plenty of information about the GWPF that a quick Google search will throw up, so it isn’t necessary to spend much more time on its frequent failings. However, it is worth asking an obvious question; how does a widely-respected, distinguished meteorologist like Lennart Bengtsson come to join forces with an organisation so roundly vilified by the scientific community of which he is a prominent member? How was he courted, why did he accept a position on the board of the GWPF, and how could he be so naïve, seemingly shocked when colleagues and the larger scientific community expressed their concerns?
Schiller: “Every true genius is bound to be naive.”
Bengtsson isn’t a genius, but he’s a very smart man – or perhaps smarting – from being so ruthlessly burned by the very people he thought he could work with. How do smart people like him come to ally themselves with rogues and demagogues?
Perhaps the answer lies in part in the handbooks of the intelligence agencies. The recruiting of HUMINT assets may begin when a suitable target is identified. It seems unlikely that Bengtsson approached the GWPF and asked for a job; more likely the GWPF were tipped off by increasingly politicised statements Bengtsson had been making. One in particular stands out as a marker: an unfortunate remark made to a Swedish climate blog originally named “The Climate Scam” (which now, without the slightest hint of irony, calls itself “Climate Enlightenment).” Here is the remark, translated from the Swedish through Google:
“It’s a shame that the GDR disappeared otherwise would have been able to offer one-way tickets there for these socialists. Now there’s unfortunately not many orthodox countries left soon and I surely do not imagine our romantic green Communists want a one-way ticket to North Korea. But if interested I’d gladly contribute to the trip as long as it is for a one way ticket. Perhaps you could arrange a Gallup study, since it cannot be ruled out that I underestimated the rush to the exit”.
As Eli Rabett, author of the Rabett Run blog points out, (and hat-tip to him for finding the article) the nature of this remark is very much at odds with Bengtsson’s frequent complaints about the politicisation of science – a bandwagon the denialist media have been quick to jump all over without once observing the contradiction between their complaints and the shaky (indeed hypocritical) foundation on which they stand. Anyway, it’s clear that Bengtsson wasn’t averse to a bit of conflation between science and politics. (There are also a number of suggestions floating about that Bengtsson was increasingly intolerant of criticism, which fits the recruitment profile quite well).
It also seems possible that a certain amount of arrogance came into play. After a lifetime of accolades and veneration, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Bengtsson might have believed himself capable of bridging the divide between the political, economic and scientific spheres, an illusion that the GWPF were hardly likely to challenge. Like their intelligence counterparts, the GWPF would be inclined to exploit any conceits through which they could forge commonality, as false as it turned out to be, for the simple reason that they desperately need credible scientists on their roster. Getting Bengtsson to accept a board position was a gift – and one that kept on giving.
Burn Baby Burn
When Bengtsson resigned from the GWPF board only a couple weeks after joining it, he made some curious claims worthy of scrutiny:
“I have been put under such an enormous group pressure in recent days from all over the world that has become virtually unbearable to me”.
To date, Bengtsson has not provided any evidence as to the quantity or quality of this ‘enormous group pressure’. It is worth noting too that much of the sceptical media have written damning commentaries aimed at the scientific community without having any evidence that this claim is true, or that it’s scale is justified. Requests for validation of his claims by the Guardian and others have not been answered.
“It is a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy”.
It is at this point we appear to have entered a realm of hyperbole as inappropriate as his ideological remarks. Michael Mann has been subject to persecution for which such an analogy might be appropriate (and his take on the story is appropriately well-informed). Bengtsson doesn’t appear to have suffered any such malign intolerance: in an interview with the UK’s Daily Mail, he merely said “’I received emails from colleagues all over the world telling me it was a “questionable” group”.
This is not ‘enormous group pressure’. It sound more like sage advice. Yet one must ask the obvious question: why didn’t Bengtsson anticipate this furore – after all, the GWPF has attacked the IPCC in very specious ways, and frequently repost articles by the Daily Mail’s David Rose, unquestionably the worst, most ill-informed, climate change denying hack in the UK? Can it really be true that Bengtsson remained unaware of the GWPF’s activities, even after accepting a position on its advisory council? If so, it was his naivety, or perhaps his complacency, that led him to suffer at the hands of a ruthless organisation and the media that pursue a complementary agenda.
Lennart Bengtsson was doomed, no matter how his appointment was received, or what he did after he discovered the alarm with which his foolish indulgence was greeted. It is not unreasonable for the scientific community to feel betrayed by such a prominent scientist, since he allied himself with a group whose actions are, at every turn, antithetical to good science or responsible reactions to what it tells us. The utterly predictable way Bengtsson was used by the GWPF, the media and on the Internet was callous, manipulative and tawdry, yet it was his own caprice that brought this about, and I doubt if many have much sympathy for him or his self-inflicted wounds. Out of his ivory tower, Bengtsson became cannon fodder in a war he seems barely to have understood, and the collateral damage is widespread.
The dent in Bengtsson’s reputation is history now. The real damage, however, is the way this story has provided a handy smoke-screen, covering up several crucial issues that were worthy of far more discussion than this sorry mess. While Bengtsson’s resignation and a follow-up story about his work being ‘suppressed’ (that even Bengtsson was quick to refute) dominated even the front page of the UK’s Times newspaper, two unfolding stories of enormous import were drowned out, if you’ll forgive the pun.
The first was the discovery that glacier decline in the West Antarctic ice sheet had passed a tipping point, from which there can be no recovery. The loss of this ice, accelerated by global warming, and the concomitant sea-level rise, can no longer be prevented. The second item of alarming news came from the opposite end of the Earth, when Phys.Org reported that “Greenland will be far greater contributor to sea rise than expected”.
This is the news that the GWPF doesn’t want you to read. This is the dire prognosis that reveals the GWPF’s agenda as a sham, a shabby trick designed to cater to the gullible and credulous, to conflate ideology with science as if by repeating ‘there is no real problem’ enough times, the ice will stop melting. True to Bernays’ “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the … opinions of the masses”, Lawson’s GWPF seeks to be a key player in that “invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country”.
It isn’t just free speech that is being abused here. It is democracy itself: Lawson exerts a perfidious influence far beyond that of any member of the public, not through merit, but through connections to an old boy’s network of the equally privileged. Lawson and the GWPF are entitled to say what they like, but when they are afforded biased media coverage and exposure that favours and gives credibility to their agenda irrespective of its merit, they fail to distinguish between free speech and cheap speech. When that happens, it isn’t only scientists like Bengtsson that will get burned.