The Bengtsson Affair and the Global Warming Policy Foundation

  • Date: 30/05/14
  • David Henderson, Global Warming Policy Foundation

Prologue: a resignation under duress

On 24 April 2014 I sent an email to an eminent meteorologist, Professor Lennart Bengtsson,[1] inviting him to become a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), and three days later I was happy to receive a letter of acceptance; I duly added Bengtsson’s name to our list of Council members, and his acceptance was announced on the GWPF website.

On 1 May the Dutch journalist Marcel Crok published on his blog an interview with Bengtsson. He began by posing the question: Why did you join the GWPF Academic Council? Bengtsson’s response was as follows:

I know some of the scientists in GWPF and they have made fine contributions to science. I also respect individuals that speak their mind as they consider scientific truth (to that extent we can determine it) more important than to be politically correct. I believe it is important to express different views in an area that is potentially so important and complex and still insufficiently known as climate change.

Crok’s final question was:

Are you satisfied with the role that the GWPF has played so far? What could or should they do differently in order to play a more successful and/or constructive role in the discussions about climate and energy?

To which Bengtsson responded:

My impression is that this is a very respectable and honest organisation but I will be happy to reply to your question more in depth when I have got experience of it.

Much to the regret of me and my GWPF colleagues, Bengtsson decided, only two weeks later, to withdraw his acceptance of my invitation. In the letter of resignation that he sent to me, he referred to ‘enormous world-wide pressure put at me from a community that I have been close to all my active life’; and in a letter to colleagues, announcing his decision, he likewise alluded to ‘massive objections from colleagues around the world’.

Though only a few of these ‘massive objections’ have come my way, they presumably have a common theme. The critics typically hold that the GWPF is not a reputable organisation; that the favourable impressions of it which Bengtsson had formed, as voiced in his interview with Crok, were badly mistaken; and that for any professional person to accept to have links with it would be evidence, at best of serious misjudgement, and at worst of a lack of integrity. Hence the Bengtsson affair, and the resulting publicity, have focused attention on the role and work of the Foundation.

As one who has been closely associated with the GWPF from the outset, as chairman of the Council that Bengtsson was invited to join, I offer here a brief personal perspective on the issues thus raised, chiefly with a view to providing information. In doing so, I point to what I see as misconceptions by various commentators, both friendly and hostile. I focus first and chiefly on the work of the Council, but afterwards touch on the work and role of the Foundation as a whole.

The Academic Advisory Council and GWPF reports

When Nigel Lawson established the GWPF, in November 2009, he set up the Council as a review body for the Foundation’s activities. As he described the new creation at the time:

It is a group of eminent academics and quasi-academics from a number of disciplines and with a range of views, scattered around the world, who can be called on to advise the Director (and whose advice we welcome even if it has not been sought!), to peer review the GWPF reports we are planning to publish, and to contribute to our website as and when they are able to do so.

As things have worked out, it is the peer review function that has been dominant, though some Council members have taken part in other ways. All the major GWPF publications that are given the label of reports are sent for review to all Council members. Up to now, 15 such reports have been published.

The review process has functioned effectively. In response to an assertion that our reports, unlike journal articles, were not peer reviewed, I posted the following correction, two years or so ago, on Andrew Montford’s Bishop Hill blog:

One of your commentators [on the blog] has posed the question: ‘If short journal articles are peer reviewed, why not longer GWPF pieces?’

There is a misunderstanding here. The ‘longer GWPF pieces’ have taken the form of reports: up to now, nine of these have been published, with Peter Lilley’s as the latest[2]. All of them have been peer reviewed by members of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council, of which I am chairman. The members of the Council are publicly listed. I have personally reviewed all nine reports, and commented in writing on all but one.

The GWPF procedure differs from that of a journal, in ways that in my opinion are  advantageous.

1. More potential reviewers are involved. Although no Council member is under any obligation to comment in any specific case, the number of substantive comments has typically exceeded what would normally become available through journal-style peer review. Moreover, the comments have to be prompt.

2. The process is not anonymous. The identity of the author is known to the potential reviewers, who make their comments in a personal capacity and may correspond directly with the author. It is up to the author to decide whom he thanks in the eventual published version: the list may go beyond Council members.

3. In every case, authors have made revisions to their draft texts, sometimes substantial, in response to comments from Council members.

Final responsibility for publication rests with the Chairman of the Trustees, Lord Lawson, and the GWPF Director, Dr Benny Peiser. In every case, publication is accompanied with the following formal statement:

‘Views represented in the publications of the Global Warming Policy Foundation are those of the authors, not those of the GWPF, its Trustees, its Academic Advisory Council members, or its Directors.’

In the post-Bengtsson exchanges, Professor Roger Pielke Jr. has taken the position (on Crok’s blog) that ‘If GWPF wants to contribute to the science discussion, then its members should write papers for the conventional scientific literature’. I do not accept this argument, given that:

* the readership is not the same: our reports are prepared with the general educated reader in mind, not just the specialists for whom the journals rightly cater

* because of this wide readership, draft reports are subject to informed criticism from  Council members in disciplines other than that of the author

* I believe that in general our peer review procedures are more thorough than those in the ‘conventional literature’

* once a draft goes out for review (there is often a vetting process beforehand), our publication process is more expeditious than is typical for journals

* we can publish studies which exceed the limits that most journals understandably impose: the last two GWPF reports, both on scientific subjects, extended respectively to 65 pages (in its longer version) and 39 pages;[3] Lilley’s report on Stern weighs in at 94 pages

* there is ample evidence of bias in ‘conventional’ journals against acceptance of papers that are seen as failing to reflect, or going against, generally received opinion on climate change issues; as the Bengtsson affair confirms, heretics are not well viewed in the ‘climate science community’.

Of course, GWPF associates are free to write for the ‘conventional’ journals, as many of them do. The opportunity that we provide is of a different kind.

Contrary to a (friendly) presumption made on a recent blog, we did not approach Bengtsson with a view to getting ‘scientific advice on [our] pronouncements’. His views would have been solicited as a matter of course only on draft studies; and all such studies would have been submitted by the authors on their own account not that of the Foundation.

GWPF published papers have by no means been confined to the reports: in addition to briefing papers and notes, a new category labelled essays has just been inaugurated.[4] In pretty well every case, there is a review process of some kind, in which particular Council members may become involved; but it is only for the draft reports that all the members, in every case, are sent a text for comment. As Lawson notes in the above quotation, their participation in other GWPF activities is welcomed; but these are very busy men (sadly, there are no women members) for whom, in most cases at any rate, such involvement cannot be a routine or frequent event.

As from September 2014, the present GWPF will be split into two separate parts. The Global Warming Policy Foundation will continue to exist as a registered educational charity; and it is the Foundation that will continue to publish the reports and other documents which form a large part of the educational mission. In this connection, the review role of Council members will be unchanged. Alongside the Foundation will be a newly-created Global Warming Policy Forum, which will be able to engage in campaigning and other activities which may fall outside the scope of charity law; and here the Council will have no part.

The names of all Council members are in the public domain. They receive no remuneration. Most of them, like me, have been in place from the outset. During these years we have had only one resignation, and that was due to ill health. It is unlikely that these distinguished persons would have remained in place, and continued to respond to requests for their time, if it were the case that (to quote one of Bengtsson’s scientific critics):

Joining this group would be interpreted by the media, the general public and colleagues not, as you apparently intended, as a rational contribution to an important discussion, but as an endorsement by a highly esteemed climate scientist of the political goals of GWPF (including the non-scientific methods apparently applied by GWPF).[5]

Further, it is inconceivable that all or indeed any of our members would have stayed on board if it could be shown, or even remotely plausibly alleged, that (to quote another of Bengtsson’s scientific correspondents) ‘name calling, innuendo, political games, character defamation and caricature … the latter are the methods of the GWPF’.[6] The reality is that no such departures from recognised professional standards are to be found, or would have been tolerated, in any GWPF publication.  Assertions of the kind just quoted reveal a total lack of concern with the truth.

Contrary to what is sometimes presumed, the GWPF is not a ‘right-wing think-tank’, nor is it ‘a political lobby’. Its trustees include prominent members of all three main British political parties, as well as persons who have no political allegiance. Neither the trustees nor the Council members would have allowed their names to be linked to an organisation whose aims and focus were political but which pretended otherwise.

I need to emphasise the point already made, that views expressed in our publications are those of the authors concerned and not of the Foundation. Typical of the misconceptions that can arise in this context is a recent remark (on Andrew Montford’s blog) by a GWPF sympathiser, who wrote that ‘Nigel Lawson and GWPF hold the same view as IPCC AR5’ on the relation between global warming and extreme events. The GWPF as such holds no view on that subject, nor on a range of other specific issues whether of climate science or of ‘climate change’ policies. On many such issues, not surprisingly, those who broadly sympathise with the Foundation, including Council members, might be unable to arrive at agreed statements of opinion.[7] Hence there is no extended and well articulated institutional party line, no GWPF equivalent of the Church of England’s once-famous Thirty-Nine Articles of belief.

However, this diversity of opinions goes with a broadly shared perception. It is common ground among sympathisers that the treatment of climate change issues, by governments and officially-constituted bodies across the world, has been and continues to be at fault, with consequences that are a matter of concern. (Many would use stronger language). Further, though without claiming to speak for all, I think that most would sign up to the statement in a recent paper of mine that:

In an area where so much is at stake, and so much remains uncertain or even unknown, policies should be evolutionary and adaptive, rather than presumptive as they are now; and their evolution should be linked to a process of inquiry and review which is more thorough, balanced, open and objective than has so far been the case.[8]

Common ground

The Bengtsson affair provides a good illustration of how these two elements, diversity and commonalty, are found together and can be reconciled. The origin of my letter of invitation to Professor Bengtsson was an article of his in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 15 April. If he had sent this piece to me as the suggested draft of a joint article I would have proposed substantial changes, and we might well have found it impossible to agree on a text that we could both sign. Closer acquaintance would doubtless reveal other matters on which our views are far from identical. However, I and GWPF colleagues were impressed by a number of observations in the article, including:

… the extent and speed of [global] warming are still uncertain, because we cannot yet separate well enough the greenhouse effect from other climate influences.

It would be wrong to conclude from the report of the IPCC and similar reports that the science is settled.

…the rapid transition to renewable energy has led to a considerable increase in energy prices in many countries…

These statements give expression to two of the concerns that prompted the creation of the GWPF: first, that current and prospective official measures to curb emissions are costly; and second, that the scientific arguments and beliefs that underlie such measures should not be viewed as finally established.

In his subsequent interview with Marcel Crok, Bengtsson made further points that were indicative of common ground:

I believe it is important to express different views in an area that is potentially so important and complex and still insufficiently known as climate change.

I do not believe that the IPCC machinery is what is best for science in the long term.[9]

In a more recent statement, he has further said that:

What is perhaps most worrying is the increased tendency of pseudo-science in climate research. This is revealed through the bias in publication records towards only reporting results that support one climate hypothesis, while refraining from publishing results that deviate.[10]

It was specifically to give more effective expression to ‘different views’, in an area ‘so important and complex and still insufficiently known’ and so permeated by over-presumption, bias and pressures to conform, that Nigel Lawson decided to launch the GWPF. The Bengtsson affair is further and disturbing evidence of a situation which his new venture was designed to rectify.


[1] Bengtsson was Head of Research at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts Hamburg

[2] Lilley’s report, the ninth in the series, was entitled What Is Wrong With Stern?: The failings of the Stern Review of the economics of climate change.

[3] The reports in question are: Marcel Crok and Nic Lewis, A Sensitive Matter: How the IPCC buried evidence showing good news about global warming (March 2014); and Willem de Lange and Robert Carter, Sea-Level Change: Living with uncertainty (May 2014).

[4] Essay No. 1 is by Nigel Lawson himself. It is entitled The Trouble with Climate Change, and is a slightly revised and fully referenced version of an article published in the May 2014 issue of the journal Standpoint .

[5] From an email sent to Bengtsson on 14 May 2014 by Professor Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology.

[6] From an email sent to a fellow-academic on 14 May 2014 by Professor Bjorn Stevens, a director at the Max Planck Institut and a professor at the University of Hamburg.

[7] Bengtsson himself has noted, in a recent interview (with Professor Hans von Storch, on the Klimatzwiebel blog)) that ‘There is no common view among the members of the GWPF and I might have a quite different view than from some of them’.

[8] The quotation is from a chapter that I contributed to a Festschrift commemorating the 70th birthday of Vaclav Klaus, then President of the Czech Republic. The volume is edited by Jiři Brodsky, and was published in 2012 by Fragment under the title Today’s World and Vaclav Klaus.

[9] Report No. 4 from the GWPF, by Ross McKitrick (a Council member), is entitled What is Wrong with the IPCC? Proposals for a radical reform. Both McKitrick and I, as also Gordon Hughes who is the author of two published GWPF reports, gave written evidence in 2010 to the InterAcademy Council committee which reviewed the work of the IPCC.

[10] The prevalence in this area of what can be viewed as ‘pseudo-science’ forms the main single theme of Rupert Darwall’s fine book, The Age of Global Warming: A History (Quartet Books, 2013).