It was gratifying, today, to see a senior justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia denounce the professional “climate change sceptic” Dr. Tim Ball as incompetent, inattentive and, perhaps, indifferent to the truth.
But it was an outrage to see the same judge let Ball so casually off the hook, by dismissing a libel action that had been brought by University of Victoria climate scientist and B.C. Green Party leader Dr. Andrew Weaver.
Weaver sued Ball in 2011 for one in a series of rabid diatribes that Ball had written for the website Canada Free Press (“Corruption of Climate Science Has Created 30 Lost Years,” Jan 10, 2011 — no longer available since CFP took it down and apologized for its defamatory content).
Ball, a long-retired geographer who is more famous for overstating his own credentials than for anything accomplished during his academic career, had accused Weaver (then a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) of bias and scientific incompetence — casting him as part of a politicized campaign to fleece Canadian taxpayers of grant money while overselling the dangers of climate change.
The resulting libel action ground through the courts until it finally went to trial last fall, with 7.5 days of evidence heard over a period of more than three weeks — a brutal and expensive waste of time that would be a significant deterrent for almost anyone hoping to defend a reputation against the climate denial assault.
But Weaver had become a target and stepped up to the task. And with this judgment, he was vindicated, entirely.
Justice Skolrood found that “… despite Dr. Ball’s history as an academic and a scientist, the Article is rife with errors and inaccuracies, which suggests a lack of attention to detail on Dr. Ball’s part, if not an indifference to the truth.” The judge further accepted that Ball was committed to damaging Weaver’s reputation. Justice Skolrood wrote: “These allegations are directed at Dr. Weaver’s professional competence and are clearly derogatory of him. Indeed, it is quite apparent that this was Dr. Ball’s intent.”
But with the strangest get-out-of-jail-free card ever delivered in a Canadian libel trial, the judge concluded that Ball’s writing was too apparently idiotic to be taken seriously.
Again, from Justice Skolrood’s Reasons for Judgment: “The Article is poorly written and does not advance credible arguments in favour of Dr. Ball’s theory about the corruption of climate science. Simply put, a reasonably thoughtful and informed person who reads the Article is unlikely to place any stock in Dr. Ball’s views, including his views of Dr. Weaver as a supporter of conventional climate science.”
But where in the Canadian or American climate conversation (or in either country’s governments) does Justice Skolrood think we might find the kind of “reasonably thoughtful and informed person” who would be immune to Ball’s low standard of science or accuracy?
Clearly, in a time of Donald Trump’s presidency, scientific, administrative and personal incompetence — not to mention indifference to truth — are no longer barriers to being taken seriously.
Tim Ball, himself, was invited to Washington to participate in a briefing with the Trump transition team.
In the Canadian libel tradition, if a plaintiff demonstrates that he or she has been defamed, the case is won. And you would expect, if the plaintiff was famous and credible and the defendant quite obviously a dunce, that damages would be minimal. But there would still BE damages.
That is, unless the defamer can argue one of a narrow range of defences. “Fair comment,” for example, would require an affirmative answer to the question: “could anyone honestly express that opinion on the proved facts?” In this case, Justice Skolrood said, no.
“While Dr. Ball presents his central thesis that climate science has been corrupted by politics, the Article offers little in the way of support for that thesis, apart from vague references to missing or falsified data and political manipulation, unsubstantiated and erroneous references ….”
So, unable to claim conventional defences, Ball’s lawyer, Michael Scherr, went for something novel. Having admitted that his client was guilty of defamation, Scherr demanded that Weaver should have to prove that the defamatory comments actually caused damage. In the judge’s words, Scherr was seeking “a threshold of seriousness,” and arguing, in effect, that his client’s work didn’t meet that threshold.
The notion arose from a case in another Canadian province (Vellacott v. Saskatoon Star Phoenix Group Inc. et al, Saskatchewan, 2012). In that case, the court found that certain published comments were not defamatory because they were so ludicrous and outrageous as to be unbelievable and therefore incapable of lowering the reputation of the plaintiff in the minds of right-thinking persons. Against that standard, Justice Skolrood wrote, “the impugned words here are not as hyperbolic as the words in Vellacott, (but) they similarly lack a sufficient air of credibility to make them believable and therefore potentially defamatory.”
The woeful truth, now, is that climate change denial has suffered from a similar “lack (of) a sufficient air of credibility” for decades, and Tim Ball has spent that period on the lecture circuit saying blithely incredible things, dissembling about climate science and defaming climate scientists — without ever facing an impartial judge or being censured for the damage that he’s done.
Now, finally, he is brought before — and broadly derided by — the court, but nevertheless allowed to walk away without so much as a requirement that he cease and desist.
Ball’s supporters (who obviously have no illusions about the quality of his work) are cheering this decision as, “A great victory for free speech.” But, one hopes, the celebrations will end with an ultimate comeuppance. Weaver’s lawyer, Roger McConchie, is already preparing the appeal. Beyond being castigated as inept and lacking integrity, Ball may yet be called to account.
“The only real finding in the judgment is that it didn’t defame Dr. Weaver and it’s a little puzzling because the defendants themselves admitted in their defence that they did defame him,” McConchie told the Times Colonist.
Image credit: Ray Jones via Flickr CC.