Heartland Institute finds route into U.S. science news conduit through China

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 01/23/2015 08:13 AM EST

For global warming deniers, the latest outlet appears to be the Chinese publishing industry, and through that venue they arrive at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) portal for journalists. After that, a study popped up in a major global newspaper.

For global warming deniers, the latest outlet appears to be the Chinese publishing industry, and through that venue they arrive at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) portal for journalists. After that, a study popped up in a major global newspaper.

The study appeared last week in the Science Bulletin, a journal of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and was authored by well-known climate change deniers. The study — not surprisingly — challenges the basis of climate change models in use today and has been called flawed by numerous scientists.

"We didn’t even think of publishing in the West," said Christopher Monckton, a climate denier who is also the lead author on the study. "We decided the West is now no longer doing science, it is doing propaganda via the learned journals, so we weren’t playing that game anymore."


To make the study freely available to the public, Monckton turned to the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank made infamous in 2012 for its billboard ads on climate change featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The organization also promotes the tobacco industry. Heartland paid the journal a $3,000 open access fee.

The journal’s public information officer then submitted a press release, originally penned by Monckton, to EurekAlert, a platform run by AAAS that informs journalists of upcoming studies in over 1,900 journals. EurekAlert published the release, which was picked up by the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail Online, which uncritically asked, "Is climate change really that dangerous?"

EurekAlert’s director of editorial content, Brian Lin, said in an email that the journal is a "credible, peer-reviewed journal." It is in the Science Citation Index, which lists all credible journals. In the hierarchy of publications, however, Science Bulletin comes in rather low, with an impact factor of 1.36 (in comparison, Nature has an impact factor of 42.35). It is primarily read by Chinese researchers.

Beyond validating the journal, EurekAlert does not vet individual press releases, Lin said.

"Our disclaimer states clearly that the accuracy of the release rests with submitting public information officers, and further that news releases submitted to the EurekAlert services do not represent any endorsement by AAAS," he said.

Geologists dig into it

As for the journal itself, its editors said the study underwent two rounds of peer review by three anonymous reviewers before they decided to accept it. Most editors associated with the journal on the masthead appear to be geologists and not climate scientists or modelers.

"My question for you is: why we can’t decide to publish it??" Yaoling Niu, a geologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom and an executive editor of the journal, asked in an email.

He said the journal would be open to publishing any rebuttals of the study. Previously called Chinese Science Bulletin, the journal was rebranded this month to match a new vision envisaged by the CAS as a "China-based flagship international journal."

Niu said he did not know who sent out the press release, which equates Science Bulletin with Nature or Science. The release then states that the study shows there are "elementary but serious errors in the general circulation models relied on by the UN’s climate panel, the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]."

The target of the study is climate sensitivity, a measure of the degree to which global temperatures rise when carbon dioxide levels double. The IPCC currently predicts temperatures will rise by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius as CO2 concentrations double.

Monckton, who is not a trained physicist or physical scientist, borrows assumptions from the field of process engineering to rejigger fundamental equations used by climate modelers. In doing so, the study suggests a world with low climate sensitivity.

The authors "cherry pick numbers" to support their hypothesis, Piers Forster, professor of physical climate change at the University of Leeds, said in an email.

"Such a low-sensitivity world is unlikely when factoring in other evidence that was ignored by the authors," he said.

But even using the climate model outlined in the paper, "we can still expect significant manmade warming in the decades ahead," Forster said.

Earlier China ploy fizzled

This is not the first time that the Heartland Institute has been linked with the CAS. In 2013, the National Science Library ordered the institute’s Climate Change Reconsidered, a publication that discounts human-caused global warming, to be translated to Chinese.

Heartland trumpeted the release as an endorsement by CAS. The academy reacted with a press release stating, "The claim of the Heartland Institute about CAS’ endorsement of its report is completely false."

Heartland then issued a statement acknowledging the academy does not share its skeptical views.

With this latest study, Monckton said the idea to publish in China came from co-author Willie Soon, an astrophysicist from Harvard University and prominent global warming denier who is also affiliated with the Heartland Institute.

"We persuaded them in the exchanges that go on between the reviewers and the authors over the months before this was published that what we are doing is questioning the official figures from the IPCC and from the big climate models on the properly scientific basis," Monckton said. "We were raising legitimate and nontrivial questions."