Environmental Research Letters Journal Debunks Conservative Media Claims It Suppressed Climate Research

Some are calling it the new Climategate,” said Fox News' Washington reporter Doug McElway.

McElway was reporting on a story published in the UK’s The Times newspaper that claimed climate change research had been “deliberately suppressed” by a leading journal because it “wasn’t helpful”. 

While the central claim in the story now lies in shreds, the way it was treated by the conservative media shows that McElway has a point; just not in the way he meant it. 

A key feature of the Climategate saga was how conservative media around the world cherry-picked quotes out of context to spin a conspiracy story that simply wasn’t there.

But this time, instead of it taking several months for inquiries to find no scientific or academic misconduct, the latest non-climate scandal should be killed dead in its tracks by the gnashing teeth of reality.

The issue surrounds research by University of Reading Professor Lennart Bengtsson, which it’s reported (the original research is not available) had argued the world’s climate was less sensitive to carbon dioxide than other studies had found.

On Friday, The Times claimed that research from Bengtsson had been rejected back in February not for any scientific reason, but because its finding was unhelpful.

The Times story, by environment editor Ben Webster, relied on just two quotes from an anonymous reviewer of Bengtsson’s research.

Webster wrote:

Research which heaped doubt on the rate of global warming was deliberately suppressed by scientists because it was “less than helpful” to their cause, it was claimed last night.

In an echo of the infamous “Climategate” scandal at the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s top academic journals rejected the work of five experts after a reviewer privately denounced it as “harmful”.

The rest of the conservative media quickly followed, with Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets featuring strongly.  The Daily Telegraph, The Australian, The Daily Mail, The Drudge Report and Fox News were just some of the outlets to repeat the claim that Bengtsson’s paper was rejected not on scientific grounds, but on political ones.

Yet only 36 hours later, the claims in the story were lying in shreds after the statements from the publisher of the journal and even from Bengtsson himself.

But rather than learn the lessons from Climategate, the conservative media quickly formed its own unscrupulous echo chamber for The Times claims. 

ERL publisher IOP Publishing took the unusual step of publishing the entire report from the reviewer of Bengtsson’s work.

You can read the IOP statement and report in full here, but the short story is that Bengtsson’s paper was recommended for rejection because it was “too simplistic”, was not “innovative” and made comparisons between data sets which were akin to “comparing apples and pears”. IOP is seeking permission to publish the views of a second reviewer.

Even after being in possession of the IOP Statement, outlets such as The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph were still unable to resist the conspiratorial angle after it had been debunked. 

Dr. Nicola Gulley, editorial director at IOP Publishing, said: 

The draft journal paper by Lennart Bengtsson that Environmental Research Letters declined to publish, which was the subject of this morning’s front page story of The Times, contained errors, in our view did not provide a significant advancement in the field, and therefore could not be published in the journal.

The decision not to publish had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘activism’ on the part of the reviewers or the journal, as suggested in The Times’ article; the rejection was solely based on the content of the paper not meeting the journal’s high editorial standards.

The referees selected to review this paper were of the highest calibre and are respected members of the international science community. The comments taken from the referee reports were taken out of context and therefore, in the interests of transparency, we have worked with the reviewers to make the full reports available.

Gulley added later:

Far from hounding ‘dissenting’ views from the field, Environmental Research Letters positively encourages genuine scientific innovation that can shed light on complicated climate science.

The journal Environmental Research Letters is respected by the scientific community because it plays a valuable role in the advancement of environmental science – for unabashedly not publishing oversimplified claims about environmental science, and encouraging scientific debate.

With current debate around the dangers of providing a false sense of ‘balance’ on a topic as societally important as climate change, we’re quite astonished that The Times has taken the decision to put such a non-story on its front page.

Gulley was not the only one surprised to see the story on the front page of one of the world’s most famous newspapers.  So, it seems, was Bengtsson, who directly challenged The Times’ claim.

He told the UK’s Science Media Centre:

I do not believe there is any systematic “cover up” of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics’ work is being “deliberately suppressed”, as The Times front page suggests. I am worried by a wider trend that science is being gradually being influenced by political views. Policy decisions need to be based on solid fact.

Bengtsson also made headlines earlier in the week, again in conservative media, when it was revealed that he had resigned as an advisor to the climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation. Bengtsson had said that he had resigned after a hostile reaction to his decision to join the group. He said:

I was surprised by the strong reaction from some scientists outside the UK to joining the Global Warming Policy Foundation this month. I had hoped that it would be platform to bring more common sense into the global climate debate.

Yet if Bengtsson is concerned about political influence and activism invading the policy discussion on climate change, then the GWPF is not the place to be.

The GWPF was founded by the former UK conservative treasurer Lord Nigel Lawson who does not reveal the group’s backers.

The only known funder of the GWPF is Michael Hintze, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has continued to donate millions to the UK’s conservative party.

The GWPF has recently announced that it is to restructure its organisation so that it can lobby and campaign – activities that UK charities are not allowed to conduct and that Bengtsson apparently frowns upon.

Bengtsson’s former position as an academic advisor saw him temporarily join the likes of Australian sceptics Bob Carter and Ian Plimer - neither of which are known for restraint.

Carter is one of the few sceptics to have endorsed a billboard campaign comparing belief in climate change to the beliefs of a serial killer and terrorist.

Ian Plimer, a geologist and mining company director, has claimed there is no link between carbon dioxide and global temperatures. He once urged an audience at the launch of one of his books to “maintain the rage”.

Annual GWPF lectures have been delivered by the likes of former Czech president Vaclav Klaus, who calls climate scientists “rent seekers”, and Cardinal George Pell, who told a London GWPF audience that climate campaigners were “spiritually rootless”.

Media Matters, The Guardian's Naffeez Ahmed and Carbon Brief have more on the story.