Australians have been keeping the London-based climate science denial group the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) busy in recent weeks.
After former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave the group’s annual lecture in October, it was the turn of one of Australia’s longest-serving deniers to empty another bucket of bunkum.
Professor Ian Plimer, an Australian director of multiple mining companies, is featured in a new interview with the GWPF to promote his latest subtly titled denial tome: Climate Change Delusion and the Great Energy Rip-off.
When it comes to climate change science, Plimer can be placed very firmly in the file marked “denial.”
As Plimer demonstrated early in the interview, he outright denies the existence of human-caused climate change — the evidence that’s backed by decades of research, all the world’s main scientific institutions, and currently playing out in record-breaking temperatures, melting polar ice, and warming oceans.
“No-one has yet shown that human emissions of carbon dioxide drive global warming and, if they did, they would also have to show that the natural emissions … which is 97 percent of the total … don’t drive global warming,” claims Plimer with one of his favorite talking points.
As even high school science students would know, the issue has nothing to do with the natural cycle of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, oceans, plants, and the land. Plimer’s extra three percent, which accumulates year upon year, comes mainly from fossil fuel companies liberating CO2 that was actually locked away millions of years ago and adding it to the planet’s systems.
“Emissions do not drive global warming,” says Plimer, just to double-down on the denial.
“We can live in a very high carbon dioxide atmosphere,” says Plimer. “Life has in the past. Every time in the geological past we have had a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere, we have had a massive explosion of ecosystems. Evolution has been driven very hard by this.”
This is all fine, as long as you don’t think about the mass extinctions in the past when carbon dioxide levels spiked, or how sea levels were many meters higher when the world was warmer (which serves as a slow but inevitable goodbye to all the coastal land where hundreds of millions of people currently live).
Tilting at Tiny Windmills
The GWPF was founded by Lord Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher's former chancellor. Many of its known funders, including Australian hedge fund billionaire Michael Hintze, are also funders of the UK Conservative Party. Throughout the interview, GWPF director Benny Peiser never once challenges Plimer, who is a member of the group’s “academic advisory council,” on his absolute denial.
But Plimer reserves much of the interview for an attack on his second-favorite target — renewable energy and, in this case, wind power — which he blames for rising power prices.
Wind farms, he says, contain “slice and dice wind turbines” that are “massively disfiguring the countryside” but apparently, the multiple mining projects he has been involved with over the years have all improved the landscape by stripping it away.
Referring to wind turbines, Plimer says: “The amount of energy to make them is more than they will ever create.”
“That's just nonsense,” says Graham Palmer, a researcher at the Australian-German College of Climate and Energy Transitions at the University of Melbourne. He studies how much energy it takes to produce electricity technologies, against how much power they produce.
“There’s no doubt that wind turbines generate much more energy than they take to construct. Of course there are different methodologies and different ways of calculating this, but the simple proposition that turbines don’t produce as much energy in a lifetime as that they take to build is out by a least an order of magnitude.”
One recent scientific paper finds wind turbines produce between 10 and 20 times as much energy as they take to produce, depending on the conditions.
In the GWPF interview, Plimer also says the imagined issue with wind turbines is “exactly the same” with solar power.
Palmer says this is also “nonsense,” adding: “Wind is generally better than solar PV in terms on net energy, but the proposition that the Energy Return on Investment EROI) is less than one, is simply not supported at all in the academic literature.”
For solar PV, Palmer said studies with different methodologies had given different results but had found that the panels generated between five and 30 times more power than they took to produce.
He added: “If you go back to the 1970s when it was much more energy intensive to produce solar panels, then it may have been the case then (that they took more energy to produce than they generated), but for a long time now they have been well above one to one.”
Plimer’s view of wind turbines is similarly stuck in decades long gone.
In his 2014 book, chirpily titled NOT FOR GREENS. He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon, Plimer tried to undermine wind power with a crude comparative list of what’s needed to generate one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity.
You would need, wrote Plimer, to burn just 379 kilograms (835 pounds) of black coal, compared with running a 660 kilowatt (kW) wind turbine for 1.5 hours “flat out.”
That’s a neat little comparison, except the turbines being installed these days are an awful lot bigger than 660 kW (or 0.66 MW). Turbines that small might have been installed 15 years ago, but not any more.
Take the Oaklands Hill wind farm in Victoria that was commissioned in 2009 using 2.1MW turbines, or the currently under construction Sapphire wind farm in New South Wales that’s installing 3.6 MW turbines (75 of them).
Using Plimer’s crude method, it would take one of those 3.6 MW turbines a little over 15 minutes “flat out” to generate 1 MWh of electricity — six times faster than the 660 kW turbine that Plimer was using as a “comparison.”
In the GWPF interview, Plimer complains about his own rising electricity costs, revealing that in the September 2017 quarter, his bill was $3,133. That makes you wonder what sort of drafty mansion he might live in!
According to a report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the average bill in South Australia in 2015-16 was $1,925. This had gone up $624 since 2007-08. The reason for the rise?
Plimer, along with many other climate science deniers and conservative politicians in Australia, will tell you that it’s all the fault of nasty renewable energy.
But the ACCC report says more than 70 percent of that rise in electricity bills in South Australia was down to increasing wholesale costs and rises related to the cost of delivering the electricity on the network.
Only $101 of that $624 rise, or 16 percent, was caused by government schemes to increase the uptake of renewable energy.
Plimer's Mining Jobs
Even so, I’m sure Plimer can afford his bill. Plimer is a non-executive director on several mining company boards, including three ultimately owned by Australia’s richest person, mining magnate Gina Rinehart who, according to Forbes, is worth about AU$16 billion.
In the last year or so, Plimer resigned from two firms, leaving him as a director of Lakes Oil, an oil and gas explorer; Nuiminco Group, exploring for minerals in Papua New Guinea; and Broken Hill-based Silver City Minerals, a firm prospecting for minerals, including copper and gold.
From those three firms alone, according to their annual reports, Plimer earns about $100,000 a year. In November 2017, he resigned from the board of Kefi Minerals, where he was also earning about $35,000 a year.
But it's not known how much Plimer earns from his roles on the boards of three companies — Roy Hill Holdings, Hope Downs Iron Ore, and Queensland Coal Investments — which are all owned by Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting.
In short, the evidence suggests he’s not short of a dollar or two.
Plimer’s previous climate books have been heavily criticized, but have had influence — namely on the views of Tony Abbott, who quoted from Plimer’s 2009 book, Heaven & Earth, in his own political autobiography, Battlelines. Cardinal George Pell, a senior Vatican figure, has also been influenced by Plimer’s work.
Scientists were outspoken in their criticism of the book, but perhaps the most diligent was the 64-page critique from Professor Ian Enting, finding more than 150 issues with the book, ranging from the trivial to the serious.
Plimer’s 2011 book, How to get expelled from school: a guide to climate change for pupils, parents and punters, was slammed at the time by the government’s Department of Climate Change as “misleading” and “based on inaccurate or selective interpretation of the science.”
The department went to the extraordinary lengths of putting together a detailed, point-by-point debunking of the book.
Plimer praised former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s speech at the GWPF, which he said was “on the money.” It wasn’t.
Plimer claimed there were “many people in the Liberal Party … who are of that view” that climate change might not be caused by humans, and said Australia “had a few break away minor conservative parties of that view.”
Perhaps Plimer is referring to Family First — the Christian conservative party that was subsumed in April 2017 by one of those “breakaway” groups, the Australian Conservatives, led by another climate science denier, Senator Cory Bernardi.
Plimer’s big electricity bill hasn’t deterred him from splashing cash on those fringe parties. In May 2016, Australian Electoral Commission records show Plimer donated $40,000 to Family First and $45,000 to minor party the Liberal Democrats. Both parties are unconvinced that human actions cause global climate change.
Plimer, of course, was given space in the Rupert Murdoch-owned The Australian newspaper to promote his latest book. Plimer is also a favorite among conservative shock jocks. The GWPF has also been a go-to source for the newspaper on climate science stories.
If there's one thing you can rely on with Plimer, it's that his climate science denial will have an uncritical and welcome home among right-wing commentators and dodgy think tanks.
Main image: A screenshot from Ian Plimer's interview with the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Source: YouTube