Veteran Climate Science Denialist Bob Carter Dies of Heart Attack

Bob Carter has died.

To most members of the general public, the name of that Australian geologist and paleontologist will barely register a flicker of neurons in the temporal lobe.

But to the global community of professional and amateur climate science denialists, misinformers and opponents of climate policy, Carter was an influential giant.

He died, aged 74, in hospital in his hometown of Townsville, Queensland, after suffering a heart attack.

I have written many stories featuring Bob Carter over the last decade or so and none of them have been complimentary.

So when I say that I extend my thoughts and sympathies to his wife, Anne, and his family and friends, I doubt many will think that I mean it. But I do. Losing loved ones isn’t easy.

Others who write and report on climate science denialism might cheer in private. Some have even done it in public

But Carter had a long and storied career in science and certainly for the first few decades he was, as far as I can tell, widely and rightly respected in his field. He supported many young scholars, particularly in the field of stratigraphy. The Australian Institute of Geoscientists has a tribute.

But it will be for his rejection of climate science that he will be remembered.  

Despite a virtually non-existent academic publishing record on climate change, he was held up as an expert by denialist groups around the world and by conservative commentators and media.

Carter was an advisor to many of the most prominent denialist think tanks around the world.  From the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the UK, to the Heartland Institute in the United States, to the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.  At one count, Carter had affiliations with at least ten different organisations.

He was a regular face at climate science denial conferences and is described by his legion of fans as cheery and supportive.

The Heartland Institute also has a tribute.  Many notable activists in the climate science denial movement have also paid tribute — Fred Singer, Marc Morano, James Delingpole, Mark Steyn and Lord Christopher Monckton.

Carter didn’t exist in the shadows where his views were confined to fringe blog sites.  Carter’s views were given regular and prominent sunlight in mainstream media. 

One of his most vocal supporters was News Corp. Australia climate science mangler-in-chief Andrew Bolt, who unfailingly promoted Carter on his blog and had him as a guest on his Channel Ten television talk show The Bolt Report.

The mysteriously popular radio host Alan Jones would regularly turn to Carter for an “expert” view on climate change. Even the ABC gave him space. The BBC interviewed him too, to the disgust of some.

So here’s the bit the denialists won’t like.

Now, it is generally expected that after a person dies, you only stick to writing about the good stuff.  Others argue that failing to point out criticisms ignores those indirectly impacted and could help myths to embed themselves.

Take, for example, the way Fairfax and The Australian have broken the news of Carter’s death to its readers.

Both stories state as a matter of fact that Carter was fired from his unpaid adjunct professor role at James Cook University because of his views on climate change.

This ignores how the university itself said at the time that Carter was let go because he wasn’t doing enough to fulfill the requirements of an adjunct. The university said: “Dr Carter has not been sacked, or black-balled and the university has not caved in. The simple truth is his term as an adjunct expired at the beginning of this year.”

The Fairfax story also states that Carter was “removed” as JCU’s “head of earth sciences in 2013” when in fact, Carter retired in 2002 and ceased to be the “head of Earth Sciences” in 1998.

But the convenient narrative for the climate science denialist community was that this was another example of the liberal establishment persecuting views they didn’t agree with. They were indignant and many refused to entertain the less enticing idea that Carter just wasn’t justifying the title of adjunct with enough relevant work.

Science bastion?

Bob Carter liked to hold himself up as a bastion of the scientific method — as one of the few “scientists” in possession of the “truth” about climate change. His supporters, such as Mark Steyn and James Delingpole, have also taken the opportunity to push home some of these favourite talking points on climate change in their Carter tributes.

In Carter’s view, the climate was not influenced by the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere and oceans every year from fossil fuel burning. He argued any changes that were happening, were natural.

Denialists will describe Carter as “one of the world’s leading authorities” on climate change. He wasn’t.

In 2011, Professor David Karoly, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Melbourne, set Carter’s views in the context of an alternative reality.

In the Carter reality, there are many other strange conclusions based on selecting some evidence and ignoring most. The rules of science have been replaced by non-science. In that world, there are large benefits from more carbon dioxide and no adverse impacts, no sea level rise nor increasing acidification of the ocean.

In the Carter reality, it is better to adapt to climate change as it occurs, rather than to act on the best scientific understanding. In the Carter reality, consensus is not needed around scientific understanding, yet he tries to establish that there is a counter-consensus.

To me, Carter was a guy full of his own contradictions. Carter would say, for example, that “scientists are paid not to have agendas or opinions” while writing fiery opinion column after fiery opinion column. 

After the fossil fuel funded Heartland Institute ran a billboard comparing “belief” in climate change to the values of terrorist Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, Carter was one of the few “sceptics” who refused to criticise the Chicago-based group who paid him.

Climate change, Carter would regularly claim, “shows all the hallmarks of orchestrated propaganda”, ignoring, of course, that he himself was playing a role in a grand propaganda effort to convince the public that fossil fuel emissions did not need to be cut. 

His personal website says he “receives no research funding from special interest organisations.” In 2012, DeSmog published internal budget papers from the Heartland Institute showing how it intended to pay Carter $1667 a month that year for work on a climate report project.

The Heartland Institute has historically taken money from the likes of ExxonMobil and continues to take money from ideologically-tied funding groups like Donors Capital Fund.

Carter was evasive as to the sources of his own funding. When I pressed him on this point back in 2012 when the Heartland documents were made public, he said the details of any of the Heartland payments were “private” but he said: “Heartland is one of a number of think-tanks and institutions that I work with. Sometimes I’m paid an honorarium, sometimes expenses and sometimes I do it pro-bono.”

In any case, he said the long-standing practice where scientists declare who has funded their research was “quaint and old-fashioned” and that rather, research should stand on its merits.

Yet Carter would also claim that while he was impervious to the influences of funding, the scientists who agreed climate change was serious and caused by humans (which is to say, practically all of them) were not.

Carter wrote a couple of books too.  Most recently, he wrote Taxing Air: Facts and Fallacies about climate change. Denialists thought it was great. The IPA sent it to all Australian MPs.

Mathematical physicist Ian Enting analysed the book and described it as a “polemic” characterised by “half-truths and slanted misrepresentation” and “appalling hypocrisy”.

Carter was part of a tiny handful of scientists with academic credentials who were called on to advise Australian coalition politicians. 

He gave evidence to a 2009 select committee. He influenced the likes of Liberal party powerbroker Nick Minchin and Family First Senator Steve Fielding while the pair were in office.

As I wrote for The Guardian, Carter was called in by Australian coalition backbenchers in October 2015 to give a briefing on climate science.

On one of the rare occasions (and possibly the only occasion) when Carter did venture into the real world of peer-reviewed science, his efforts were roundly slammed. 

In 2009, Carter was a co-author on a paper that argued much of the recent warming (which he would elsewhere claim wasn’t happening) was down to natural variations.

In a response in the same Journal of Geophysical Research, a team of genuine expert climate scientists concluded the central claim made by Carter and colleagues was “not supported by their analysis or any physical theory presented in their paper”.

Carter was a key member of the climate change denial movement’s infantry.  It is that movement that has fought for decades to delay any government policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  The movement has helped to politicize the science, confuse the public and delay action that has real consequences for the public around the world.

So that’s how I’ll remember Bob Carter. 

But that doesn’t mean I can’t extend my sympathies, even if some people reading throw them back in my face.