Mr. Cool

Mr. Cool and Friends

“This article constitutes an outstanding contribution towards promoting public awareness of climate change science in Canada.”

–Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, Aug. 12, 2006.

On a cloudless morning in June, Tim Ball has joined a hundred-odd members of the Comox Valley Probus Club for a buffet of coffee, cinnamon buns and pink lemonade. As this group of retired business people wraps up its monthly meeting, Prof. Ball surveys the crowd and runs a hand over his suntanned dome.

He does not appear the least bit fatigued, which is remarkable considering that the 67-year-old former University of Winnipeg professor has spent much of the last couple of months crisscrossing the country, addressing community forums, business groups, newspaper editorial boards and politicians about climate change. He has been nearly as dogged as Al Gore, whose own globe-hopping slide show is the subject of the documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth.

But that is where the similarity between them ends.

Prof. Ball clutches a cordless microphone and smiles out at the sea of white hair. He teases the audience about their age, throws in a hockey joke, then tells the crowd that, unlike Mr. Gore, he is a climatologist, and he is not at all panicking about climate change.

“The temperature hasn’t gone up,” he asserts. “But the mood of the world has changed: It has heated up to this belief in global warming.”

Over the next hour, Prof. Ball stitches together folksy anecdotes with a succession of charts, graphs and pictures to form a collage of doubt about the emerging consensus on climate change. There’s a map of Canada covered in ice 20,000 years ago – proof, he says, that wild swings in the earth’s temperature are perfectly normal. There’s a graph suggesting that atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its lowest level in 600 million years.

Gaining momentum, he declares that Environment Canada and other agencies fabricated the climate-change scare in order to attract funding for propaganda and expensive attempts to model climate change using supercomputers.

“Environment Canada can’t even predict the weather!” he bellows. “How can you tell me that they have any idea what it’s going to be like 100 years from now if they can’t tell me what the weather is going to be like in four months, or even next week?”

As proof of the climate-change conspiracy, Prof. Ball shows the crowd a graph with a kinked line jigging across it. This is the famous “hockey-stick graph” published by Pennsylvania State University scientist Michael Mann and his team in 1999, which shows temperatures to be fairly stable for hundreds of years, then rising rapidly in the last few decades. Al Gore, among many others, uses it to illustrate the case for global warming.

Prof. Ball claims that the Mann team “cooked the books,” and that its blunders were confirmed just a few days previously, in a report to the Congress by the U.S. Academies of Science. “He threw out all the data that didn’t fit his hypothesis,” Prof. Ball says, without offering evidence to back the charge. His outrage is now as searing as the baking-hot sun outside. “I personally think [Mann] should be in jail!”

In fact, Prof. Ball says, the real danger for Canada is not warming, but cooling: “It’s like Y2K,” he concludes. “We all just need to calm down.”

He is met with raucous applause. It is as though a weight has been lifted from the audience’s collective shoulders: What a relief to learn that this global crisis, one they keep hearing will bring extreme weather, submerge small island nations and devastate economies, may be nothing to worry about.

Few in the audience have any idea that Prof. Ball hasn’t published on climate science in any peer-reviewed scientific journal in more than 14 years. They do not know that he has been paid to speak to federal MPs by a public-relations company that works for energy firms. Nor are they aware that his travel expenses are covered by a group supported by donors from the Alberta oil patch.

Most Canadians recognize, of course, that fossil-fuel businesses could lose large sums if the federal government moves to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions. But they may not realize that by quietly backing the movement behind maverick figures such as Prof. Ball, the fuel industry – with its close ties to the party that brought Prime Minister Stephen Harper to power – is succeeding, bit by bit, in influencing both public opinion and Canadian policy on global warming, including the international Kyoto Accord.

An Ipsos Reid poll released in May found that, despite increasing scientific evidence to the contrary, four of every 10 Canadians surveyed still agreed with Prof. Ball’s assertion that climate change is due to natural warming and cooling patterns.

“He is a very entertaining performer, very slick,” says Neil Brown, the Conservative MLA for Calgary-Nose Hill, who attended a presentation Prof. Ball made to a caucus of provincial Tories in Calgary. “When someone shows up and tells me that the earth is actually cooling, then it gets my attention.”

The scientific mainstream is unequivocal that global warming is real, happening at a rate unprecedented in human history, and most likely caused mainly by human greenhouse-gas emissions. Last year, the national academies of science of all the G8 nations, representing most scientists in the developed world, sent a joint message to their leaders urging prompt action.

In February, the UN and the World Meteorological Society’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together more than 2,000 scientists to review tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers on climate science, will release its fourth report. The authors say it will contain a warning that human-caused global warming could drive the Earth’s temperature to levels far higher than previously predicted.

Andrew Weaver is the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, and a lead author of a chapter in the upcoming IPCC report. He gives a frustrated sigh at the mention of Tim Ball’s cross-country tour.

“He says stuff that is just plain wrong. But when you are talking to crowds, when you are talking on TV, there is no challenge, there is no peer review,” Prof. Weaver says.

Like other senior scientists, he charges that Prof. Ball’s arguments are a grab bag of irrelevancies and falsehoods: “Ball says that our climate models do not [account for the warming effects of] water vapour. That’s absurd. They all do.”

Likewise, he says, Prof. Ball’s claims that climate change could be explained by variations in the earth’s orbit or by sunspots are discounted by widely available data.

Many of Prof. Ball’s other arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. Consider the hockey-stick graph: He was right that the U.S. Academies of Science had delivered a review of climate science to Congress. But their report concluded that temperatures in the last 25 years really have been the highest in 400 years. Moreover, the panelists assured reporters that there was no evidence at all that the Mann team cherry-picked its data – completely contradicting what Prof. Ball told his audience in Comox.

“What Ball is doing is not about science,” says Prof. Weaver. “It is about politics.”

Leaders throughout Europe have accepted the IPCC position on climate change, and have been looking for ways to take collective action, primarily via the Kyoto Accord. Yet North Americans have lagged behind, hamstrung by a lingering debate in the media and among politicians about climate science.

How did this doubt take hold?

In a now-infamous 2003 memo, U.S. pollster and consultant Frank Luntz advised Republican politicians to cultivate uncertainty when talking about climate change: “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate,” wrote Mr. Luntz (the italics are his own).

Nurturing doubt about climate-change science has become big business for public-relations companies and lobbyists south of the border. Between 2000 and 2003, ExxonMobil alone gave more than $8.6-million (U.S.) to think tanks, consumer groups and policy organizations engaged in anti-Kyoto messaging, according to the company’s own records. Those groups promote the minority of scientists who still dispute the IPCC consensus on climate change, creating the appearance of widespread scientific disagreement.

Mr. Luntz met with Prime Minister Harper in May, but the Conservatives already had adopted his advice. Mr. Harper was emphasizing that climate change was but an “emerging science” long before he cancelled an array of programs designed to promote energy conservation.

Environment Minister and Edmonton-Spruce Grove MP Rona Ambrose, for example, has talked up the flaws of the Kyoto Accord, while steadfastly rejecting its modest emission-reduction targets. And on June 30, the government simply disappeared its main climate-change web site www.climatechange.gc.ca, which once contained educational materials for teachers.

However, given the resonance of the climate-change issue with most Canadians, political leaders can’t afford to denounce mainstream science too loudly. That task has instead been taken up by activists in the Conservative Party’s Alberta heartland.

Over the past four years, a coalition of oil-patch geologists, Tory insiders, anonymous donors and oil-industry PR professionals has come together to manufacture public consent for Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto. Through a Calgary-based society ironically dubbed the Friends of Science, they have leveraged Tim Ball and a handful of other “climate skeptics” onto podiums and editorial pages across the country.

While the federal government stalls, the skeptics preach doubt, softening the public for a diluted “Made-in-Canada” climate policy. Prof. Ball admits that when he meets with business leaders and politicians,he advises them to weigh the high price of action against more cost-effective “lip service.”

These efforts may help delay emissions caps for years. Not bad for a campaign that began with a bitch session among a clutch of oil-patch retirees.

***

“We started out without a nickel, mostly retired geologists, geophysicists and retired businessmen, all old fogeys,” says Albert Jacobs, a geologist and retired oil-explorations manager, proudly remembering the first meeting of the Friends of Science Society in the curling lounge of Calgary’s Glencoe Club back in 2002.

“We all had experience dealing with Kyoto, and we decided that a lot of it was based on science that was biased, incomplete and politicized.”

Mr. Jacobs says he suspects that the Kyoto Accord was devised as a tool by United Nations bureaucrats to push the world towards a world socialist government under the UN. “You know,” he says, “to this day, there is no scientific proof that human-caused C02 is the main cause of global warming.”

He managed to insert that last message into the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists’ official statement on climate change in 2003. But he and his fellow Friends of Science decided that if they wanted to have broad influence on climate policy, they needed money in order to stage events, create publicity materials, commercials and a web site, and reach the media and politicians. Tim Ball spoke at the group’s first fundraiser.

But the event didn’t raise enough for the group’s ambitious plans. There was plenty of money for the anti-Kyoto cause in the oil patch, but the Friends dared not take money directly from energy companies. The optics, Mr. Jacobs admits, would have been terrible.

This conundrum, he says, was solved by University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper, a well-known associate of Stephen Harper.

As his is privilege as a faculty member, Prof. Cooper set up a fund at the university dubbed the Science Education Fund. Donors were encouraged to give to the fund through the Calgary Foundation, which administers charitable giving in the Calgary area, and has a policy of guarding donors’ identities. The Science Education Fund in turn provides money for the Friends of Science, as well as Tim Ball’s travel expenses, according to Mr. Jacobs.

And who are the donors? No one will say.

“[The money's] not exclusively from the oil and gas industry,” says Prof. Cooper. “It’s also from foundations and individuals. I can’t tell you the names of those companies, or the foundations for that matter, or the individuals.”

When pushed in another interview, however, Prof. Cooper admits, “There were some oil companies.”

The brilliance of the plan is that by going through the foundation and the university fund, donors get anonymity as well as charitable status for their donations. In the last two years, the Science Education Fund has received more than $200,000 in charitable donations through the Calgary Foundation. Yet its marketing director Kerry Longpré said in June that she had never heard of the Friends of Science. The foundation, she said, deals only with the university, which is left to administer donations as it sees fit.

Prof. Cooper and Mr. Jacobs both affirm that the Science Education Fund paid the bills for the Friends’ anti-Kyoto video, Climate Catastrophe Cancelled. It features Canada’s most vocal climate skeptics, including Prof. Ball, University of Ottawa hydrologist and paleoclimatologist Ian Clark, Carleton University paleoclimatologist Tim Patterson and University of Ottawa lecturer Tad Murty.

It also includes Sallie Baliunas, a senior scientist with the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington, a fiercely anti-Kyoto think tank which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from ExxonMobile.

Roman Cooney, the university’s vice-president of external relations, insists that the Friends of Science is neither affiliated with nor endorsed by the school. And when he saw the University of Calgary’s coat of arms on early copies of the anti-Kyoto video, Mr. Cooney ordered Prof. Cooper to remove it.

***

There is a letter-sized piece of paper bearing the words “Friends of Science” taped to the wall in Kevin Grandia’s Vancouver office.

From that single sheet, Mr. Grandia has strung a web of string, leading to the names of individuals, free-market think-tanks, private companies and charitable foundations. And from them more strings lead, invariably, to the names of energy corporations.

Mr. Grandia is being paid full time by James Hoggan and Associates, a public-relations firm, to examine the connections between fossil-fuel companies, the climate skeptics, and the PR industry itself.

“Follow the money trail,” says Mr. Grandia, ball of string in hand. “Why the hell do all of these lead back to oil and gas?” 

Take Fred Singer, a former professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, who supplied one of the charts for Tim Ball’s slide show. A string leads from Mr. Singer’s name straight to ExxonMobile, which has given his Science and Environment Policy Project $20,000 (U.S.), according to the oil company’s 1998 and 2000 grant records.

Other strings loop from Mr. Singer to Shell, Arco, Unocal, Sun Energy and the American Gas Association. In a Massachusetts superior court deposition, he admitted to having consulted for all those companies, as well as the Global Climate Coalition, whose members in industry spent tens of millions of dollars to fight the Kyoto Accord in the 1990s.

Mr. Grandia’s boss, James Hoggan, chuckles when he sees the wall of paper and string. Mr. Hoggan, whose clients include Alcan, CP Rail, Norske Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, has assigned two of his 19 staffers to this bit of intra-industry tail-chasing. (It is supported by a donation of $300,000 from former Internet entrepreneur John Lefebvre, now an environmentalist and philanthropist.)

Mr. Hoggan says he got involved simply because he was angry that his peers in PR were muddying public understanding of climate science. “For years there have been these kind of campaigns that are aimed at manipulating public opinion, and not necessarily manipulating it in the direction of good public policy, but trying to fight government regulations that will cost industry money.

“It happened with the tobacco industry. It happened with the chemical industry. It happened with the asbestos industry. And now it’s happening with climate change,” he says.

“It makes me extremely angry. I don’t think that the people who are involved in this should be able to get away with it. My goal is to find out as much as we can about these people and make it public. Who are they? Who is paying them? What motivates them? How is it they can sleep at night?”

Several of Mr. Hoggan’s peers show up on Grandia’s Friends of Science spider web. First is Morten Paulsen of the PR giant, Fleishman-Hillard, who wears three hats. In one, he’s a long-time Tory/Reform/Canadian Alliance activist – the co-chair of the Alberta Conservatives’ 2006 convention, and one-time director of communications for Preston Manning. In another, Mr. Paulsen is the registered lobbyist for ConocoPhillips Canada, the country’s third-largest oil-and-natural-gas production and exploration company.

Mr. Paulsen also happens to be the registered lobbyist for the Friends of Science. Indeed, he used to be listed as the main public-relations contact on the Friends’ website. Then, in June, his Tory connections were revealed on Mr. Grandia’s blog (desmogblog.org). Mr. Paulsen’s name no longer appears on the site.

Then there is Tom Harris, Ottawa director of the High Park Group, which is a registered lobbyist for the Canadian Electricity Association and the Canadian Gas Association.

Mr. Harris has written several essays attacking Kyoto and the science behind climate change for the National Post and the CanWest newspaper chain. In his articles, he quotes several members of the Friends of Science advisory board – including Profs. Ball, Khandekar, Patterson and Murty – but he never mentions his own connections to the Calgary organization.

In 2002, for example, Mr. Harris organized the Friends’ first Ottawa press conference in 2002, and helped make their video, according to Mr. Jacobs. And as recently as May, he organized a trip to Ottawa for Tim Ball, paying him $2,000 to give a presentation to federal MPs.

***

The election of a Conservative government to Ottawa presented a golden opportunity for the Friends of Science to help reopen the debate on Kyoto. By this year, they had circulated thousands of Climate Catastrophe Cancelled DVDs among politicians and news outlets, ran a radio ad on stations in Alberta, put up a web site, and jetted Tim Ball across the country for face time with media, business and politicians.

The climax of the spring campaign was an open letter to Mr. Harper, printed in the Financial Post and other CanWest chain newspapers on April 6. The letter, signed by “60 experts in climate and related scientific disciplines,” exhorted the Prime Minister to hold public consultations on the government’s climate-change plan. (Jacobs says the Friends didn’t write the letter, which is featured on the front page of the society’s web site. The society’s advisory board and president all signed it.)

Members of the climate and meteorological science establishment quickly noted that only a third of the names on the petition were Canadian. Many of them were economists and geologists, not climate experts. One of them, Gordon Swaters, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Alberta, later said that he disagreed with the letter completely. 

Several of the other signatories had received money from the oil, gas and coal industries in the U.S. – Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, for example, was handed more than $100,000 for climate skeptic work by the coal-based Intermountain Rural Electric Association this July, according to the Associated Press.

“These people are ignorant. Well-meaning, but just plain ignorant,” fumed Ian Rutherford, executive director of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, which represents 800 Canadian atmospheric and oceanic scientists and professionals.

“The Friends of Science are driven by ideology and some kind of a misplaced understanding of how the world works. Many are what you would call paleogeologists. Looking at the geological record, they see evidence of wild swings in climate. Of course these swings are there: If you go back hundreds of millions of years, 40-million years, even 400,000 years, you will find wild swings in temperature over long periods of time. But that’s irrelevant. There was hardly any life on earth, let alone human life, at that time. So their time scale is all out of whack.

“None of them ever come to our scientific conferences. They know they would be laughed out of the building. The stuff they say, some of it is so nonsensical it’s hardly worth discussing.”

In its own letter to the Prime Minister, the Meteorological and Oceanographic Society objected to the Friends’ complaints about a lack of debate, pointing out that Canadian climate scientists from universities, government and the private sector participate actively in the IPCC’s international reviews. The government, it argued, should be relying on IPCC reports for good scientific information.

But various levels of government have gone on to give Prof. Ball an audience. This spring he addressed the Alberta Tories in Calgary, as well as the province’s standing policy committee on energy and sustainable development. On the trip Tom Harris organized for him in May, he met with the Ottawa Citizen editorial board, and gave his slide show to a half-dozen federal Conservative MPs and a clutch of Tory staffers. (Prof. Ball is not listed in the federal government’s Lobbyists’ Registry.)

He made a particular impression on Brad Trost, MP for Saskatoon Humboldt: “It really broadened the perspective. You know, maybe there is more uncertainty on [climate change]. Maybe we need to put more research into this to get a better idea,” says Mr. Trost. “Just like the Y2K problem, we were a little oversold on that one. You sort of wonder. Just because something is repeated often, it doesn’t make it true.”

“In public relations,” says Mr. Hoggan, “we call this the echo-chamber technique. You have Tim Ball saying the polar bears are fine. Then you get Tim Ball’s PR guy writing the same thing. And then Tim Ball takes to the road, talks to reporters and does press briefings, making sure the message is repeated over and over.

“The effect is to delay public judgment on climate change, and thereby delay policy.”

***

In his speeches and interviews, Tim Ball consistently denies any knowledge that he is receiving funds from oil companies.

“I wish I was being paid by them,” he deadpanned at his Comox show. “Maybe then I could afford their products.”

Like Mr. Jacobs, Prof. Ball says he doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know, who forks out the money for his expenses and activism. He simply wants to talk about the science, and will do so to whomever will listen.

Certainly, climate skepticism isn’t exactly making Prof. Ball rich. He says that although he has earned as much as $5,000 for speeches to industry groups such as lime producers, he more frequently gives talks for free.

He is a warm, likable character, and there is no reason to believe he is not sincere in his concern for science and public policy. He clearly relishes the spotlight, and seems to grow taller, sharper and brighter on stage. He punches the air with his microphone, and breaks out into a broad grin at the crowd’s response to his jabs at Environment Canada.

Still, it must take something more than conviction to propel him through the more than 100 barn-burning speeches he gave across the country in the past year. He angrily claims that his stance has led to being denied research funding from Environment Canada, although he admits that he has not actually applied for federal climate-research funding in more than a decade.

One old colleague at the University of Winnipeg puts Prof. Ball’s passion down to sheer anti-authoritarianism. “He is a contrarian. He lives to challenge authority,” says the professor of geography, who would speak only anonymously.

“If the IPCC scientists suddenly recanted,” he jokes, “Tim would be the first one out there saying, ‘Wait a minute, global warming really is happening!

Prof. Ball’s adversaries admit that skeptical inquiry serves to make the science better. They just wish he would conduct new research and practice his skepticism on the pages of the peer-reviewed journals.

For his part, Prof. Ball insists that the reason he lobbies so tirelessly on the issue is his frustration that the skeptics’ arguments aren’t reflected in the pronouncements of scientific institutions like the IPCC. Perhaps so, but his hard work is helping weaken the power of such internationally respected institutions.

The proof, for Friends of Science founder Albert Jacobs, is in the policy.

“Our success is very recent, and our success is tied to the Conservative government,” Mr. Jacobs says. “Rona Ambrose, she has been tearing down that Kyoto building.”

The next big challenge, he says, is to reach children. The Friends of Science is now lobbying to have its message included in the grade-school curriculum.