Greens to sceptics: show us the money!

25/01/2012 23:25:02

The campaign to get a tiny charity to reveal its backers is driven by a desire to stamp out any eco-criticism.

Ben Pile is the convenor of the Oxford Salon. He blogs at Climate Resistance.

The first question asked about anyone making a non-conforming argument in the climate debate is ‘who funds them?’ And so it is with the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) - a three-man, cross-party, independent think tank with charitable status, which dared to challenge climate orthodoxy. The Charities Commission rejected an Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding to know who gave the GWPF its first cheque of £50,000. Several climate scientists have backed the call for the Charities Commission to reveal who backs the GWPF.

The GWPF’s charitable status allows its donors to be protected from the FOIA. This has angered climate activists, who are determined to connect climate-change ‘denial’ with oil interests. Accordingly, Brendan Montague of the Request Initiative submitted the FOIA request on the basis that ‘the public has a right to know if any donor is related in any way to the oil industry’. The Commission refused the request, and Montague took his complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which also rejected the claim. This crusade for honesty and transparency is confounded, however, by two huge problems for the GWPF’s critics.

The first is that it is transparently the case that, whatever the GWPF has said about climate change, it has enjoyed no influence over policy whatsoever. Neither the present nor the previous governments have taken the slightest notice of any sceptics, other than to condemn them. Far-reaching national and international climate policies have been enacted with minimal opposition or scrutiny within Parliament, and in spite of sceptics’ arguments and public opinion.

Second, whether or not it was honestly given (and I find it hard to give a stuff, either way), the £50,000 donation at the centre of this absurd story is a fantastically small amount. Even the £500,000 that the GWPF received from donors in its first year of operations fades into insignificance when put in perspective.

For example, it would take the combined resources of 25 GWPFs to produce an equivalent of the UK government’s extraordinarily patronising Act on CO2 campaign. The Committee on Climate Change spends more than eight times that much each year on its own operations. In 2010, the quasi-independent Carbon Trust and Energy Saving Trust received government grants worth £156million and £70million respectively. That’s a total of 452 times as much public money as the GWPF took from donors. The billionaire Jeremy Grantham - who has around $1.5 billion worth of stock in oil companies - is the benefactor of the influential Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change, headed by Lord Nicholas Stern, who wrote The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and WWF enjoy gifts of millions of pounds from the UK and EU governments. And the EU funds associations of renewable energy companies to lobby politicians to the tune of millions of euros per year.

It would be an astronomical understatement to say that the environmental activists banging on about the GWPF lack a sense of proportion and have incredible double standards. The GWPF’s resources are far less than even a thousandth of what is available to the government for research and PR - through its departments, the quangos and NGOs that are recruited into its green agenda, and firms and other associations that will profit by it. And yet this tiny operation has seemingly achieved such reach, to punch far above its weight, against the collective force of all the above.

The Guardian‘s environmental ethicist, Leo Hickman, has covered the latest turn in the progress of Montague’s crusade against the GWPF - an appeal against the ICO’s decision, which will be heard at the Information Rights Tribunal on Friday. Hickman, clearly entirely credulous towards this information-seeking hero, recites the complaints against the think tank - generally limp and petty criticism which takes more liberties with the facts than they accuse the GWPF of.

One such critic is James Hansen, the NASA climate-scientist-turned-amateur-dramatist who suggests that future generations will find the GWPF ‘guilty of crimes against humanity and nature’. With such a high-profile scientist expressing such shrill and irrational opinions, it becomes hard to take his scientific claims seriously. But perhaps the most remarkable claim is Hickman’s complaint that ‘Last November, a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which analysed climate coverage in the UK media, concluded that the GWPF had been “particularlysuccessful” at courting media attention and that Lawson and the foundation’s director Benny Peiser were “by far” the most quoted climate sceptics.’

The Guardian‘s ethicist must be scratching his head over why the organisation he writes so many articles about enjoys such attention in the media. But anyone even barely acquainted with common sense will know that the vast majority of the public have never even heard of the GWPF, let alone seen its efforts, and so will be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

There are several answers. The first is that both establishment and street-level environmentalists are far better at losing friends and alienating people than their critics are at winning influence. Yet environmentalists like to believe it is sceptics who are preventing them from saving the planet. The GWPF, being among the few critics, serves as a convenient villain in such moral pantomimes. Second, as is obvious from Hansen and Hickman’s verbiage, there is little attention paid to anything the GWPFactually says. The mythological ‘denier’ precedes a view of the debate, yet it is hard to find anything radical within the GWPF’s output.

This leads to a third answer, which is that a preoccupation with who-is-funded-by-whom epitomises the vacuity of contemporary politics. It is a way of avoiding criticism, rather than engaging with it. Montague’s reckoning appears to be that the criticism offered by the GWPF is answered, just so long as he can tie the name on the cheque to the fossil-fuel sector.

This he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune nonsense is a familiar motif in the climate-change debate, but it is not unique to it. The wider phenomenon of increased emphasis on ‘evidence’ in public policy inevitably leads to claims that others are ‘denying’ scientific fact. The irony of evidence-based policy-making, then, is that it locates the debate, not on the ground of evidence, but on who is the least impeachable provider of it. Thus, environmentalists are preoccupied with the follow-the-money argument, oblivious to the financial interests stacked up in favour of green energy.

A further irony is that Montague’s outfit sells itself with these words: ‘Request Initiative uses information law to deliver government data into your hands, enhancing your organisation’s media, research and campaigns work. We work exclusively for the third sector.’ It is remarkable, then, to note that the GWPF is one of just a few critics of government policy, yet has earned the wrath of the third sector. Indeed, Request and Montague are doing the establishment’s work here, with NGOs, environmental activists and the Guardian all nodding in approval at the attempt to use state apparatus to quash unorthodox opinion, rather than facing it in public debate. In conclusion: there should be more GWPFs.