Fairfax misleads on self-titled climate expert

Despite promising to lock out falsehood-spouting climate denialists, Fairfax let a person associated with a think tank linked to fossil-fuel interests slip through the cracks in January.

NOTE: A complaint to the Australian Press Council about this article was 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 talkback 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 strategy the 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.

It seems appropriate to finally note that, as a “climate data analyst”, McLean predicted in 2010 that 2011 would be the “coolest year globally since 1956 or even earlier”. As it happened, 2011 was the coolest year since … 2008.

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.

This article was originally published by Crikey on January 13. Reproduced with permission.