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Peter Ridd’s European adventure

Nov 26, 2019 • 15m 08s

A speaking tour of Europe has revealed the strategy behind Peter Ridd’s rejection of reef science: he believes that if people doubt the reef is dying, they will doubt climate change more broadly.

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Peter Ridd’s European adventure

129 • Nov 26, 2019

Peter Ridd’s European adventure

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

A speaking tour of Europe has revealed the strategy behind Peter Ridd’s rejection of reef science. He believes that if people doubt the reef is dying, they will doubt climate change more broadly.

Max Opray on the Australian physicist whose sacking became a rallying point for climate denialists.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Max, where are we reaching you right now?

MAX:

I'm speaking to you from the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, where controversial Queensland Marine physicist Peter Ridd recently gave a presentation staged by Clintel.

ELIZABETH:

Max Opray is a reporter and Schwartz Media’s morning editor. He’s based in the Netherlands.

MAX:

Clintel is a climate skeptic organisation. It was founded by a Dutch scientist and a Dutch journalist who were skeptical of the narrative around climate change, and they founded this organisation to challenge that.

In September, Ridd was one of hundreds of prominent skeptics to sign Clintels open letter to the UN, declaring there is no climate emergency. And he was here on October 31, which happened to be the last day of the hottest October on record, to give a talk for the organisation's Icons of Climate Alarmism Series.

Peter Ridd isn't the only icon of climate alarmism that Clintel have featured as a speaker. A couple of weeks after Ridd’s speech they invited Susan Crockford to present her case on why polar bears are going to cope just fine with with climate change.

Archival tape -- Susan Crockford:

“So the polar bear has been an icon for global warming, climate change and reduced sea ice since the turn of the century. We're knocking this climate change icon off its pedestal.”

ELIZABETH:

And so what are these sessions with Peter Ridd like, who attends them and what do they look like?

MAX:

He presented to a room of about 70 people, largely older men at a Hilton Garden Inn. The event was was marketed as Peter Ridd, “the man who was fired because he thinks Coral can handle climate change very well.”

He did this Clintel event as one stop on his European tour that also included other climate skeptic events, including the Natural Variability and Tolerance Conference in Oslo and a talk organised by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in a committee room of the House of Lords in London.

Over the last few years, he's positioned himself in direct opposition to an overwhelming scientific consensus regarding threats to the reef's future.

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“The Great Barrier Reef is absolutely fabulous, it's still by far the best reef in the world, it is one of the most pristine environments in the world. Full stop. Don’t worry about it.”

MAX:

Climate change, in his words, whether it is caused by burning coal or is natural, is likely to actually benefit the Great Barrier Reef.

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“If there is sea level rise from climate change, then this area of the reef will explode with new life, so we actually need sea level rise and global warming and this area here will become uh…”

MAX:

More than that. Everything from coal mine dust to pesticides to plagues of crown of thorns starfish, he says these all pose little to no threat.

ELIZABETH:

And I can understand the attraction of that idea, that the reef is resilient and that it can take all the different changes in the environment that are thrown at it. But we also know that things like coral bleaching seem like an obvious sign that the reef is under stress. How does Ridd respond to things like that?

MAX:

He does talk about mass coral bleachings. He dismisses this as a natural defence mechanism that is of little concern. And that coral is capable of recovering after a bleaching.

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“I like to say bleaching is a little bit like a bushfire and we have a lot of these. It's very spectacular. And everything gets killed, apparently, but it grows back and it grows back within about 10 to 20 years.”

MAX:

Much like bushfires, however, the concern is not actually whether coral can recover from mass bleaching events in the right circumstances. It can. But as the Australian Coral Reef Society notes, the issue is whether the Great Barrier Reef can cope with how large and frequent these mass bleaching events are becoming.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk in the question and answer session that followed was that he explained to this meeting that the debate around the Great Barrier Reef is actually just a means to winning a much larger war. He says that while it's difficult to specifically demonstrate that, as he puts it, “the climate change thing is a total myth”, he says it will be easier to show that the reef is doing just fine. And that if they can suddenly change everyone's mind about the reef, and that actually it's doing okay, it will get the public questioning everything else they've been told about climate change.

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“If we can suddenly change everybody's mind about, actually the reef was fine, then people will start thinking, well if the reef was actually fine when they’ve been telling us for so many years, what about all these other things we’ve been told?”

ELIZABETH:

And what did you think of what he had said to people in Leiden? Like, what went through your mind?

MAX:

I think I was most surprised about how candid he was about about his strategy.

He hasn't quite been this explicit about the reason for why disputing Great Barrier Reef science is so important to the broader climate skeptic movement and his specific desire to undermine the consensus on climate change generally

ELIZABETH:

And how did Peter Ridd end up here? How does he come to be delivering anti-climate lectures across Europe?

MAX:

Well, Ridd used to be an academic at James Cook University. And famously, last year, he was fired for what the university says were multiple breaches of its code of conduct. This came after he had mounted a very long and assertive public campaign that dismissed the work of his colleagues on the Great Barrier Reef.

When he was dismissed, he sued and he was supported by right wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and he successfully crowdfunded $260,000 to cover his legal expenses.

Archival tape -- Gideon Rozner:

“Gideon Rozner here from the IPA, reporting on day three of the Peter Ridd case at the federal circuit court in Brisbane, in what has been another explosive day for this important fight for free speech on climate change.”

MAX:

The federal circuit court found in his favor, ruling that the dismissal was unfair and awarding him $1.2 million for lost income and other penalties.

The presiding judge made it very clear, though, that this dispute was limited only to the terms of Ridd’s employment contract with the university. So the court didn't take a view on whether Ridd had a case when it came to the science.

But that's ended up being a bit of a moot point, in a sense, because Ridd's case has become the prime example for those that believe academia is silencing all forms of dissent to the climate change consensus.

And the university is now appealing the decision. So Ridd has returned to crowdfunding for the next skirmish. So far, he's raised more than $700,000. And in Leiden, he told the crowd that he expects staff to take this court case all the way to the High Court.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Max, Peter Ridd is touring Europe right now to present the case that climate change isn't harming places like the Great Barrier Reef. What are the grounds on which he's rejecting the otherwise broad scientific consensus that climate change is a catastrophic threat?

MAX:

Ridd really justifies his position by arguing that science itself is fundamentally broken. He tells the room that while climate denialism isn't taken seriously in scientific circles anymore, there is something else that is. This is an issue known as the “replication crisis.”

The replication crisis is indeed a topical issue for the social sciences and medicine, fields where a significant number of studies unrelated to climate or the Great Barrier Reef have been difficult or impossible to reproduce and are therefore suspect.

So you should be able to, if you’ve done a study, if you can replicate the conditions in which the study took place, you should be able to get similar results. That is something that some fields of science are having difficulty with at this moment.

ELIZABETH:

And so Ridd is saying: if medical science is having this issue, then we cannot assume that climate science isn’t having a similar one.

MAX:

Yes, I mean, Ridd’s concern is that in a lot of science, there is cherry picking of data, there’s an inadequate peer review system where people who are conducting peer reviews aren't being paid and so they’re rushing the job. These are the sorts of concerns he’s raising, but there hasn’t been any indication that this is happening with climate science or reef science.

So in Leiden, Ridd disclosed that he's using this replication crisis to convince politicians back in Australia that if there is a problem in medical science, for example, then how can we trust Great Barrier Reef science? In his words, “the replication crisis is a dagger at the heart of the climate alarmists and Great Barrier Reef alarmists.”

ELIZABETH:

And so how are others in the scientific community responding to his criticisms and to this point of replication crisis

MAX:

Ah, not too well, Elizabeth. I spoke to University of Melbourne Associate Professor Fiona Fidler about this as she works on open science, reasoning and decision making and statistical practices. She herself presented on the replication crisis at an event in Melbourne earlier this month. And she is as concerned as anybody about this issue. But she was also concerned to hear that Ridd is using it as a rhetorical strategy against climate science.

She said it's a categorical mistake to apply concerns regarding other fields of science to climate and reef studies.

ELIZABETH:

So Peter Ridd obviously remains in the minority within the scientific community, but I suppose the other side of that is, how successfully his message connects with the public. How successful has he been with that?

MAX:

Well, he hasn't been completely unsuccessful here. He says he expects, in his words, proper reviews of reef science to take place in the next few years. He and many others have been talking with people in high places about making this happen. In September, the Senate did approve a Liberal-backed inquiry into the science that is warning how farm run-off and poor water quality is harming the Great Barrier Reef. This inquiry was approved after Ridd did a speaking tour through Queensland, which was supported by a sugar cane industry managers campaigning against farm regulations.

So, Ridd argues that scientists can't be trusted anymore. But there are concerns about whether politicians can investigate reef science fairly without pushing their own agenda.

A lot have serious questions about Ridd's influence. The independent expert panel run by the former chief scientist Ian Chubb, which extensively reviewed Great Barrier Reef science, this year compared his campaign through Queensland to the disinformation strategy employed by the tobacco industry.

ELIZABETH:

So what does Peter Ridd think will happen? Do we have any insight into that?

MAX:

Well, for his part, he's confident that things are going to turn around for climate skeptics. In Leiden, he said there is going to be a wake up call for millennials who have been raised on a climate change narrative. And he says it's going to be horrible because the scientists will be exposed for what they are.

For climate skeptics, it used to be an issue of outright denying that that the world is warming. But as that's become ever more clear, the argument has evolved to, well, the world might be warming a little bit, but who knows why? And maybe it'll be beneficial.

ELIZABETH:

Max, thanks for speaking with us.

MAX:

Yeah, likewise, Elizabeth. Thank you.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Scott Morrison has pledged $537 million towards fixing issues in the aged care system, following the publication of a damning interim report released as part of the royal commission into the sector. Morrison’s plan aims to increase the number of home care packages by 10,000 places, to reduce the use of chemical restraints, and remove younger Australians with disabilities out of residential aged care homes. On Monday, Morrison said quote, “We can and must do better in providing improved support for our older Australians.”

And early individual vote-counts in the Hong Kong local elections point to an overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates. In an unprecedented turnout, more than 71% of the electorate, or nearly 3 million people, cast their vote, leading pro-democracy politicians to take control of all of the city’s 18 district councils.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you Wednesday.

A speaking tour of Europe has revealed the strategy behind Peter Ridd’s rejection of reef science: he believes that if people doubt the reef is dying, they will doubt climate change more broadly. Max Opray on the Australian physicist whose sacking became a cause célèbre.

Guest: Morning editor at Schwartz Media Max Opray.

Background reading:

Peter Ridd and the climate sceptics in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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129: Peter Ridd’s European adventure