Books: a contrarian polemic on climate change

Lawrence Solomon may well be a great communicator, but the author of The Deniers also is a frontline voice for a disturbingly large and influential denial industry, writes George Marshall.

The Deniers: The World-Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution, and Fraud (and those who are too fearful to do so)
Lawrence Solomon
Richard Vigilante Books, 2008

There’s a flood of cookbooks out now (and climate-change-denial books too), so let’s start with a recipe:

First of all, from all the thousands of scientific papers published every year on climate change, cherry pick a few isolated pieces of work that draw different conclusions from those presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Then, highlight the CVs of their authors in glowing terms. Just think of those paragraph-long descriptions of ingredients you get in pretentious restaurants: point out that these are not just cherries, they are sun-dried organic fair-trade cherries di Modena.

Then claim that the goal of your book is not to settle the science but merely to show that the debate is active. By this sleight of hand, you can claim that scientific process depends on constant challenge without allowing any debate about the studies you cite. This then allows you to draw superficial similarities between positions that contradict each other. Italian Modena cherries in a Bolivian Chilli and Wild Alaskan Salmon confit? So what if they don’t go together, you can say — they’re top ingredients and they’re all red.

Finally — so that you can adopt a populist, questing tone — make it clear that you have no expertise in any of these areas but are just another perplexed Joe Public seeking the truth. “OK," you can admit, “I can’t cook to save my life, but I’m a free thinker. After all, only conformists say that banana doesn’t go with cheese.”

And there you go: a nice recipe for any number of articles, think-tank reports, newspaper editorials, talks to free-market policy institutes, presentations to the United States Congress, television documentaries or, as I hold it in front of me, a book like The Deniers.

I must admit that Lawrence Solomon is awfully good at this stuff. Like all the best climate skeptics, he is a great communicator. His prose is tight and readable. He is ironic and amusing. His own credentials are impressive: whereas skeptic Bjorn Lomborg used to boast that he was once a Greenpeace activist (when in fact he was simply a member of the organisation), Solomon heads a well-regarded environmental organisation.

And he is fastidious about the people he cites, or so it appears. There are no dodgy hired guns here: pukka, medal-wearing scientific stars the lot of them.

But there is something curious going on, and it takes a while to spot it. The book purports to show that leading scientists, taking major personal risks, are prepared to “deny” the stated consensus on climate change. The lengthy subtitle (added, one suspects by some keen publicity person) is “the world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud”.

And yet it slowly dawns on the reader that, while most of the “deniers” raise interesting and relevant arguments about aspects of cause, effect and impacts, few of them disagree at all with the core consensus that Solomon wishes to challenge: that climate change is happening, is serious and is primarily caused by human emissions.

Nor does one have any sense that they are taking any personal risk or standing up for anything much, other than a nice round of applause from the hysterics.

The first witness for the prosecution is Dr Richard Tol, an outspoken critic of the UK’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change, who, as the book acknowledges, is in every other way “a central figure in the global warming establishment”. Then we hear from Dr Christopher Landsea, who argues that hurricanes are not increasing due to climate change. He also is a contributing author to the second United Nations IPCC report and agrees fully with its main conclusions. The book tells us that Dr Edward Wegman, who challenges the statistical basis of the famous “hockey stick” climate graph, “does not dispute that man-made global warming was occurring”.

So, Solomon’s key witnesses actually are leading scientists who accept the core consensus but have some important and relevant reservations around the specifics of the causes and the impacts. By page 45 of his book, Solomon has admitted as much: “I noticed something striking about my growing cast of deniers. None of them were deniers.”

Solomon allows himself to make this self-deprecating admission because, while he wishes to lionise the careers of his “‘world-renowned experts”, he is also prepared to be condescending about their judgment.

He argues that they are suffering from a delusion that the whole theory stands firm despite the evidence of their own specialist work. “Affirmers in general. Deniers in particular”, crows Solomon. “Like other smart people, scientists accept the conventional wisdom in areas they know little about … We know from our daily lives that the consensus can be spectacularly wrong.” Obviously their denial extends to their refusal to see the blinding truth. Luckily Larry is there to put together all the pieces of the puzzle for us.

Solomon’s cavalier strategy of “outing” climate deniers already has become spectacularly unstuck. In January 2007 he dedicated his regular Denier column in the financial pages of Canada’s National Post, which forms the basis for this book, to Dr Nigel Weiss. Weiss, he wrote, believes that “the science is anything but settled except for one virtual certainty: the world is about to enter a cooling period”.

Dr Weiss responded in a letter to the newspaper and did not mince his words: “The article by Lawrence Solomon, which portrays me as a denier of global warming, is a slanderous fabrication. I have always maintained that the current episode of warming that we are experiencing is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and that global temperatures will rise much further unless steps are taken to halt the burning of fossil fuel”. He also reiterated his scientific view in a press release from the University of Cambridge.

While the National Post issued a groveling apology, Solomon refused to remove the article from his website. It now appears all over the internet and its allegations have been repeated in another form in another book, Scared to Death, by leading skeptics and media pundits Christopher Booker and Richard North.

So let’s do some real “outing”. Solomon is not really an independent searcher after truth. He is a frontline communicator for a large and influential denial industry which aims to prevent political action and undermine public concern about climate change.

Start with the scientists in The Deniers. With each chapter, the legitimate, questioning scientists I have just mentioned give way to the professional skeptics. There is Professor Richard Lindzen, who, according to the investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan, consults to oil and coal interests for US$2,500 a day and whose trip to testify before a US Senate committee on climate change was paid for by Western Fuels.

Lindzen, along with three of the other “world-renowned scientists” in The Deniers, found time in their busy research schedule to appear in The Great Global  Warming Swindle, a notorious British documentary that was denounced by the UK government’s chief scientific body, the Royal Society. (One of the contributors threatened to sue the director for gross misrepresentation.)

Six of the stars of The Deniers were among the “A-list” of professional contrarians, lobbyists and conspiracy theorists who spoke at the 2008 International Conference on Climate Change, held in New York in March of this year. The sponsor was the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think-tank which has received US$781,000 in grants from Exxon Mobil since 2000 for its campaign against the Kyoto Protocol.

Even if we assume that he started with pure intentions, Solomon now has fallen in with some very unsavoury people. In April 2008, his column for the National Post defends Fred Singer who, as usual, he calls “one of the world’s renowned scientists”. Singer has not had a peer-reviewed paper published in 20 years and is linked to a string of oil and coal industry lobby groups. He has long operated as a hired gun for the tobacco industry giving “expert” testimony that sidestream smoke is not dangerous.

In June, Solomon’s column praises a ludicrous and widely condemned paper on the beneficial effects of heightened carbon dioxide by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. The OISM, which has no affiliations to any recognised scientific body, is a far-right fringe body that markets a home-schooling kit for “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools".

And in April we find Solomon launching his new book at an event organised by some of the most notorious anti-environmental campaigners in Washington. In his speech, he congratulates his hosts; Myron Ebell, the Cooler Heads Coalition and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) for “the integrity and tenacity that he and they have shown during this entire global warming debate”.

For an environmental campaigner, he has fallen into the worst crowd imaginable. It would be like Barack Obama praising the Ku Klux Klan for their contribution to desegregation. Myron Ebell led aggressive lobby campaigns though a think-tank called Frontiers of Freedom to gut the US Endangered Species Act. Ebell and the CEI ran a public campaign against higher fuel-efficiency standards in cars arguing, among other things, that it would lead to more accidents. The Cooler Heads Coalition, formed by CEI, opposes any political action on climate change and brings together a host of libertarian and far-right interest groups, such as Americans for the Preservation of Liberty, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and Defenders of Property Rights.

Solomon gives them respect and they give him status in return, calling him “one of Canada’s leading environmentalists” and an internationally renowned environmentalist”. Maybe this is part of the explanation of why an environmental campaigner can become best buddies with professional lobbyists who campaign for vested interests against his own movement. Environmental campaigners are poorly paid and often vilified with few plaudits or rewards. Skeptics live in a self-congratulating world in which there are no also-rans. Everyone is a winner, famous or renowned. How seductive that must be, and how dangerous.

George Marshall is founder of the UK charity the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) and the author of Carbon Detox. His blog,, regularly challenges climate skeptic arguments.

For a response to this review from author Lawrence Solomon, see Probe International’s website here