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UK climate change sceptics group is stronger than ever

Image credit: Pierre Markuse, Sentinel data

An E&T investigation reveals that a prominent British climate change sceptics group is taking advantage of a favourable political environment while strengthening its ties to international supporters and surviving an examination by the Charities Commission. Keen to engage in online climate change debate, the GWPF growing its influence in the engineering and technology sector too.

Who could have imagined that climate change scepticism would see such a moment of revival – especially in the UK, with new net-zero legislation in place and youth pressure mounting? The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) did. Patiently it waited for years for this moment. It seems there has never been a better time to insert its unscientific views into UK politics and the engineering sector. Last year’s annual lecture by the group was all about engineering. Its speaker argued that the UK's commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 was beset by superficial thinking that ignores engineering reality.

With the appointment of a retired Cambridge engineering professor as a trustee last summer, GWPF made serious forays into tech and engineering. With substantial investments required to accommodate solutions to mitigate climate change, the sector could be receptive to its scepticism. But critics warn that without these investments the UK may not reach its net-zero emissions target stipulated in law. One fear is that viable solutions could tumble without policy support, especially those in early development. 

Time is also critical. To limit warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, emissions must be cut by 15 per cent a year every year, starting now, all the way to net zero. That is a tall order. Even 2˚C warming would see severe heat events grow 2.6 times worse. Under such conditions, plant and vertebrate species are expected to be lost, alongside many insect species and marine fisheries. Scientists warn that commitments to reduce emissions must triple to meet the 2˚C target.

Michael Joseph Kelly is the latest addition to the GWPF board of trustees and he arrived with a wealth of credentials and achievements. He was a professor of technology at the University of Cambridge from 2002-2016, had a spell as chief scientific advisor to the Department of Communities and Local Government and his awards include the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal in 2006. Kelly’s accession looks great on GWPF's CV. Shortly after he joined, the group offered him the distinguished opportunity to give the 2019 annual lecture last November. He concluded his public debut with: "It is clear to me that, for the sake of the whole of mankind, we must stay with business as usual”.

E&T showed the document to Julian Allwood, the current professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Cambridge. The two know each other well but have little in common in their conclusions on climate change. Allwood told E&T that “GWPF’s peer-review is lacking substance”.

“He has written it in this iconoclastic I-am-telling-you-the-truth-don’t-believe-anyone else type of language, which is unhelpful”, he says.

On page 18 of the lecture document Kelly wrote: ”In the 1990s the global average surface temperature had been rising sharply for 15 years, and many predicted that this rate of warming would continue, when in fact it has halved. This lesson of history is regularly ignored as the current level of climate alarm is cranked up.”

Allwood says he is “always suspicious of these statements”. “If you chose your moment precisely, you could make the conclusion that Mike has made,” he says. “But not if you used the most recent data point.” 

Allwood told E&T he disagrees with the conclusion of Kelly’s report but he would use similar statistics to those Kelly used. At the end of November, Allwood published a 60-page report on how to cut Britain’s emissions by 2050, with resource efficiency at the heart of the industrial strategy.

Global mean estimates based on land and ocean data

Image credit: NASA/GISS/GISTEMP v4 - Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)

The two men agree on the scale of the task: “[it] is absolutely enormous".   

“But [Kelly’s] conclusion is that it won’t happen,” says Allwood. “Our conclusion is there is the law that it has to happen. So, what needs to happen to get us there?” He says, electrifying everything, expanding renewables at the current rate, could offer 60 per cent of the electricity that we need. “There is no difficulty to imagine we could live well with that”.

Kelly’s support of GWPF confuses Allwood: “It's odd to me that Mike Kelly has aligned himself with them. He obviously is an intelligent person.” Kelly even proposed him to be a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Allwood says. “On this issue he set himself up as an iconoclast, which is potentially a dangerous thing to do”.

It seems organisations distance themselves from Kelly. After several attempts to contact Cambridge University about its stance on his GWPF lecture and his use of the Cambridge University logos on his presentation material, his Cambridge University profile went offline. The marketing team told E&T that views expressed are his own and “both current and retired academics have freedom to express [theirs]”.

In 2016 the Royal Society issued a statement in response to that year’s GWPF lecture stating ‘the idea that such worldwide agreement [Paris Agreement] is the result of a global conspiracy to suppress dissenting views by a nearly complete corruption of the well-established process of peer review does not strike us as reasonable.” But Kelly said in the interview he is ‘trying to get a meeting with the Royal Society’. When E&T contacted the organisation, they said no recent meetings were held with Kelly. 

Kelly’s lecture came after a series of lectures delivered by other famous speakers. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivered his GWPF annual lecture in 2017. This January Abbott told a radio host “the world is in the grip of a climate cult”. In recent months, Australia has suffered some of the most catastrophic wildfires due to historic dry conditions. Abbott denied all arguments of carbon dioxide driving global warming.  

Modified Copernicus Sentinel and Terra MODIS images about 2019/20 wildfires in Australia

Image credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2019] and Terra MODIS data through NASA Worldview, processed by Pierre Markuse

With new trustees like Kelly, GWPF looks much stronger than before. Support from abroad provides additional uplift. GWPF is closely connected to America. One of the first online media that covered Kelly’s lecture was right-wing content website Breitbart News. Last year, Wikipedia downgraded Breitbart as an unreliable source for facts. Its coverage on Kelly led with: “The green energy targets being pursued by Britain’s main political parties are so impossibly deluded, fantastical and overambitious that they could only be achievable with the intervention of herds of magical unicorns”. In November, one week after giving his lecture at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Kelly agreed to an interview with E&T. Questioned on the coverage by the right-wing news outlet, he chuckled and said, “I rather liked it”. 

GWPF’s ties to the US are important financially. Financial records prove the charity has never had more money in the bank than it had in 2018. The group still refuses to disclose where it get its funding from, saying this is to protect the privacy of donors. Kelly puts it this way: “if I was giving them [GWPF] fifty thousand pounds a year, I don’t want to have a whole lot of homeless people hanging outside my house saying give me the money”. 

Benny Peiser, the director, told E&T in an email that “revealing personal financial information about individuals without their consent would be illegal under the Data Protection Act and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR),” though when asked "whether he asked any of GWPF donors if it would be ok to reveal their identities" he pointed out that “quite a number of our donors have openly stated their support for the Foundation”.

E&T’s investigation revealed that substantial amounts did come from abroad. The Charity Commission responded to E&T's freedom of information request. Funders from outside of the UK gave £29,073 in donations.

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, sees a problem in foreign unknown donors supporting the charity. He says it is not illegal but it has ethical issues when funders remain unknown.

In the interview, Kelly mentioned a potential donor in the US who "can see the high quality of the stuff". The ‘stuff’ is GWPF publications, which are reviewed by a panel of what the group calls the ‘GWPF academic advisory council’. Almost every member of that council has a sceptical stance on climate change, some more radical than others. Most prominent examples include William Happer, a member until 2018. A Greenpeace investigation revealed Happer to have offered to write reports on the benefits of rising CO2 levels and coal in exchange for money.

Kelly claimed to E&T that the alleged donor from the US has pledged a "very large amount of money, each year, on the condition that ten of the publications, each year, get sent personally to every member of parliament, every member of the House of Lords , and every member of the [US] Senate, and every member of [US] Congress.” It was not possible for E&T to establish whether these claims were accurate. Ward said that UK civil servants did receive GWPF reports.

Peiser did not say whether this was true but told E&T that all donations for the Foundation (the charitable arm of GWPF) larger than £5,000 would be ‘vetted’ by GWPF’s board of trustees. Among the presently listed eleven trustees on the Charity Commission website this also includes Kelly and the current chairman Terence Charles Mordaunt, co-owner and chairman of Bristol Port. He recently gave generously to the official pro-Brexit campaign and most recent campaigns by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. He only recently moved from his former directorship position at The Global Warming Policy Forum (the lobbying arm) to being chairman at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Peiser also points out that GWPF would be unique among charities, “[because] we do not accept any donations from energy companies or anyone with a significant interest in an energy company”. Critics say this can not be verified because of a lack of transparency.

Ward says “essentially, what [GWPF] is doing here is having American money used to influence British policy. I think the average person on the street would consider it as a rather unreasonable thing.” 

But Peiser points out that receiving money from abroad is something others do too. “Many hundreds of UK charities have American friends and donors and have set up non-for-profit organisations in the USA to support their charitable work, just like the GWPF”, he told E&T.

Another sign of close ties to funders outside the UK is the foundation of of ‘American Friends of the GWPF’. This is a group set up in April 2015 to help GWPF establish a lasting US presence. The US organisation enables US funders to take advantage of tax benefits. GWPF’s annual accounts revealed significant increases in expenditure for fundraising in 2018 of £52,000 versus only £4,380 a year earlier. 

In other areas such as mainstream media the group also seems to be having more success in spreading its views. Despite setbacks - Kelly says Nigel Lawson, the founder of the group, is “now barred from giving comments to the BBC” – it engages more eagerly. In December, trustees were invited to a BBC Radio 4 programme. Both Ridley and Kelly were interviewed for the Today programme on 28 December. Charles Moore, another GWPF trustee, guest-edited the episode.  

There are signs that further uplift for the group could come from three other directions. The internet is one of such sources. GWPF’s online influence is growing. GWPF has an online donation profile with Paypal, the US multinational online payments system operator. Supporters can make donations anonymously via a ‘donate via Paypal’ page. At the time of writing the page is still active. Paypal said it could not comment due to ‘customer confidentiality’. 

The group's strategy is now fully invested in online publications. And it seems to work. Ward says he believes [GWPF’s] newsletter goes out widely, including in Whitehall, because he is often asked by senior civil servants, who have received it and raised it with their colleagues, to verify or disprove statements. He says “they then say ‘one of my colleagues has seen this piece by Matt Ridley in the Telegraph, what do you say?’, and then I have to rebut it. I think [GWPF]’s model for disseminating propaganda in Whitehall works”. 

GWPF is also using Twitter more often. From its official account the group posted around eight times a day in December and January. During the UK election campaign it tweeted messages like ‘don't let the climate alarmists take our natural gas! All the major political parties at this election are planning to remove your gas boilers/cookers as part of their Net Zero plans '. No party made such claims. 

Data confirms GWPF became less active online with its lobbying arm, via a separate entity called the Global Warming Policy Forum and the respective website. E&T analysed posts published by the two GWPF websites. TheGWPF.org is the educational charity. TheGWPF.com represents the lobbying arm. GWPF set up the Forum after Bob Ward notified the Charity Commission in 2014 that it was in breach of Charity Commission rules. GWPF got away with a warning by creating the Forum to appease concerns by the regulator.

Number of online posts published on GWPF.com

Image credit: E&T, TheGWPF.com

The analysis by E&T confirms that the website of the charitable arm receives more attention. It published posts more frequently while performance for the lobbying site dropped. Alexa website online popularity ranking confirms those results, too.

Last March, the Charity commission published new guidelines for ‘charities with close links to non-charitable organisations’. There are signs that lines between GWPF’s Foundation, the charity, and the Forum, the lobbying organisation are blurry. Both organisations are based at 55 Tufton Street and share personnel. Both websites have the same mobile contact number. Peiser is wearing two hats, as a director at the lobbying arm and the charity. In his email response to E&T, Peiser’s email signature as director at the Global Warming Policy Foundation depicted the same contact number as for the lobbying organisation, the Forum.

Ward thinks GWPF is still in breach of Charity Commission rules and he sent a renewed warning to the UK public body last October. He gave several specific examples where GWPF's reports were inaccurate and misleading on the science. To E&T, he says "all their output on the science is sceptical. They don't publish mainstream science.” In his interview with E&T, Kelly said that he “no longer argues about the science of climate change”.

But over recent years the science of climate change remained a central theme. The online posts by the group confirm this. E&T analysed the text content of a sample of 240 online posts published by the TheGWPF.org website, the charity arm. Of those, 81 posts contained the word ‘science’. Among the more than 18,000 online posts by TheGWPF.com, the lobbying arm, more than 5,600 mentioned ‘science’.

Word analysis TheGWPF.com vs TheGWPF.org

Image credit: E&T

One such example on GWPF.org is a post from 2019 where the Foundation calls on the withdrawal of a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed scientific journal, on the decline of insect populations in the rainforest in Puerto Rico. None of the four GWPF members who authored a letter to the editor of PNAS – including Benny Peiser, the director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Ridley, Paul Homewood and Andrew Montford – had ever published any research relating to this issue.

GWPF “only ever publishes information that appears to undermine the consensus on the causes and potential consequences of climate change,” Ward says. In his letter he concluded, “the foundation is seeking to systematically mislead the public, policymakers and the media with its publications, in violation of the Commission’s rules. Such actions also damage the reputation of the UK charity sector.” Three examples published on GWPF’s charity website illustrate Ward’s criticism on GWPF's inaccuracy in publishing on science. 

According to Ward’s analysis, Tony Abbott’s annual lecture in 2017 revealed a number of inaccurate and misleading claims. Abbott, who has no qualifications or expertise in climate science, said “it may be that a tipping point will be reached soon and that the world might start to warm rapidly but so far reality has stubbornly refused to conform to the IPCC’s computer modelling”. Ward says it is incorrect because “the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 compared projections of changes in global mean surface temperature from previous assessments with observed temperatures and concluded that even though the projections from the models were never intended to be predictions over such a short timescale, the observations through 2012 generally fall within the projections made in all past assessments”. 

Paul Homewood’s pamphlet from last year on ‘Tropical Hurricanes in the Age of Global Warming’ would also fall short. Homewood is a retired accountant and has no qualifications or training in climate-related science, Ward says. Homewood claims the increase in the frequency of strong hurricanes in the North Atlantic since 1970 is due to a natural cycle, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) and “not linked to climate change”. In seeking to defend his claim Homewood would have “ignored much of the scientific literature on the issue and misrepresented the findings of those he did cite". Ward said Homewood would have misrepresented both papers “through selective quotation that gave the false impression that they had ruled out the influence of climate change on the increase in the frequency of strong hurricanes in the North Atlantic”.

Another of Homewood posts claimed: “using the recently published UK Met Office’s State of the UK Climate 2018, along with other Met Office data, this paper examines UK climatic trends and assesses the truth of climate emergency claims”. Homewood concludes: “there is no evidence that weather has become more extreme”. According to Ward, Homewood had misrepresented the Met Office’s data and its work. At a different passage of Homewood's text, Ward finds another issue. By stating evidence from a report by the National Climate Information Centre at the Met Office, Ward refutes Homewood's assertion that there is no basis for the claim that “climate change causes more extreme rainfall, at least as far as the UK is concerned”. 

E&T was told that the Charity Commission responded to Ward’s letter by saying it had decided that it does not intend to review the charity’s activities further at this time.

In GWPF’s official response to E&T, Peiser says that “the Charity Commission has fully rejected Mr Ward's recent complaint about the Foundation and has written to Mr Ward accordingly.” But Ward objects to this explanation and says Peiser does not describe it accurately. In the last paragraph the Charity Commission wrote: “We do not have the resource or the expertise to examine the charity’s research reports to determine whether they are acceptable activity.”

Letter to Rob Ward by Charity Commission in response to warning

Image credit: Rob Ward, UK Charity Commission

“It is a surprise that the Charity Commission believes it does not have the resource or expertise to investigate the reports published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Effectively, this means that the Commission is no longer able to uphold its own rules, and after being sanctioned in 2014 for breaches, the Foundation is now free to publish inaccurate and misleading information with impunity”, Ward said.

Previous budget cuts and small staff may make life more difficult for the Charity Commission. To E&T, Ward said he will write again shortly to the Commission to ask it to “re-consider its position, and to also take into account the other ways in which the Foundation harms the public interest through the dissemination of misinformation, including its press releases.”

The rejection of Ward’s letter makes the removal of GWPF’s charity status by the Charity Commission extremely unlikely. Even if it re-opens an investigation into the matter, experts doubt it would do anything more than issue another warning. Status removal is unrealistic because of how it dealt with other charities in the past. One example is the warning issued to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In 2018, the IEA was investigated after offering potential US donors access to UK government ministers during the fund-raising for research to promote free-trade deals demanded by hardline Brexiteers. But the IEA pushed back and said the move had worrying implications for the wider sector.

The latest changes in political leadership could give the group even more influence. The election of Boris Johnson is a boon for the group, especially as Johnson’s stance on climate change isn’t completely clear. Johnson installed people from the camp of climate change deniers. One of Johnson’s first acts as PM was to make Monmouth MP David Davies a minister in the Welsh Office. Davies does not believe carbon dioxide is the main cause for climate change. Johnson’s move raises questions, especially in the light of previous promises made on the subject. The 2019 Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto promised “[using] our £1 billion Ayrton Fund to develop affordable and accessible clean energy that will improve lives and help us to lead the world in tackling climate change”.

And the party appears committed to the 2050 target. Yet, Johnson refused to attend a televised debate on the climate crisis in November.

The Brexit decision may also lift GWPF’s spirits. Journalists found ties between GWPF and the Brexit league in the past. Shahmir Sanni, a volunteer for the official pro-Brexit EU referendum campaign, said GWPF is one of several organisations that had coordinated meetings for a hard Brexit by agreeing on a single set of right-wing talking points. When asked about it in the interview with E&T, Kelly rejected all notion that GWPF has any connection with Brexit. 

The group is part of a larger network, called 55 Tufton Street network – a building space in Westminster with several right-wing, pro-Brexit think tanks. Past residents included the Vote Leave campaign and UK2020 UK, a right-wing think tank. Other residents in the network are Business for Britain, a pro-Brexit campaign, and The European Foundation, a Eurosceptic think tank. E&T also found Brexit to be still very much part of the Forum’s lobbying online. More than 50 of its online posts published in 2019 mentioned Brexit compared to 20 a year earlier.

Critics say GWPF’s outsized influence on the debate come from its institutional access via House of Lords members and through board members. Examples include Matt Ridley, a Brexit supporter and a Conservative hereditary peer with a seat in the House of Lords or previously Owen Paterson, a British Conservative Party politician who was part of the political advisory board of Leave Means Leave. There is also Nigel Lawson. Despite stepping down as chairman last year, Lawson, a Conservative peer and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, maintains a position as honorary president at the group he co-founded with Peiser. He was initially replaced as chairman by 85-year-old Labour peer Lord Donoughue, but the role has now passed to Terence Mordaunt, co-owner of Bristol Port. Peiser told E&T that Lord Donoughue had agreed at the time to serve for just a year because of his age.

In the past, these examples of people with power with sceptical views toward climate change offered the group what critics call an “unfair advantage” in connecting with the political elite. 

Access to power could further prop GWPF chances in succeeding in future endeavours.

With more clout, more funding and less scrutiny from the state, the group appears to be in excellent shape. Experts anticipate the group to go against future environment-conscious free-trade agreements with major polluting countries. For this, one sign is the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) report on a deregulatory US-UK free trade deal launched in partnership with the US-based libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. It represents the pro-Brexit groups' proposed blueprint on the UK’s future trade relationships. GWPF is closely associated with IFT. GWPF’s lecturer Tony Abbott is on IFT’s international advisory panel. So is Lord Peter Lilley, a GWPF trustee. IFT is a pro-Brexit and free trade think tank launched in 2017 by Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. Other evidence on GWPF’s lobbying agenda is the leaked document presented by Jeremy Corbyn at the end of last November. It shows the US is unwilling to include climate action as an item for discussion in any future trade deal.

The upcoming COP 26  UN climate change conference is also likely to preoccupy the group. Hosted by Britain in Glasgow next November, it can be a moment for groups pushing climate science denial in their host countries, experts say. It could be another moment in the sun for GWPF.

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