By Russell Cook
Enviro-activists who claim human-induced catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is happening, is harmful, and should be stopped, also say evidence to support their claim is found in peer reviewed, recognized science journals. It’s their gold standard for validating the credibility of scholarly papers on the topic. They admonish anyone offering criticism outside this system — if it is not peer reviewed and published in a science journal, it has no credibility and is likely corrupted by dubious outside influences.
They would say that another term for peer reviewers is “fact checkers,” outside experts not associated with the paper’s author(s) who ascertain whether there are errors in the paper prior to publication in a climate science journal, on any area related to the issue. Peer reviewed approval = no errors. CAGW skeptics (e.g. Patrick Michaels, 2011) may note that “pal-review” taints the system; as it applies to the following, a question about that arises at the end of this discussion.
A paper authored by Emily Williams / Sydney Bartone / Emma Swanson / Leah C Stokes (Williams et al.) titled “The American electric utility industry’s role in promoting climate denial, doubt, and delay” was published on September 1, 2022 in the science journal Environmental Research Letters, supposedly adhering to this exact peer review system. One of the individuals the authors cited in their paper later said in a Sept 7 Atlantic article that this paper “is the first peer-reviewed publication to survey the industry’s messaging specifically.”
I’ve devoted twelve years (70+ online articles / 345+ GelbspanFiles blog posts) examining the accusation that fossil fuel executives colluded with skeptic climate scientists to spread disinformation. If I had been permitted to fact-check review this paper, I would have barred it for publication because it contains a minimum of six major errors essentially pertaining to one specific section, namely “3.1, Mapping the network,” and lead-in assertions for that section. Each number below is a hyperlink to screencaptures of where the particular text is seen in the paper, to make finding the quotes easier in their full context. The details following each numbered item contain screencaptures / weblinks detailing what the individual problems are, along with larger associated problems.
I posit that two key errors, #4 and #5, collapse the entire premise of this paper.
#1. [within section 2.1 “Methods,’ in reference to a specific industry group in the subsequent section 3.1] “… we aimed to collect the known denial and doubt documents utility organizations and their affiliated front groups authored … denial front groups associated with the industry—the Information Council on the Environment (ICE).”
The ICE public relations campaign of mid- late-May 1991 were not a secret front group, their newspaper ads openly stated that their funding came from “a group of electric utility and coal companies.” As is readily obvious from the actual newspaper ads that were published in three different cities (as I showed here, and here), the ICE campaign itself did not deny climate change, it’s goal was to question particular CAGW claims while offering additional information from skeptic climate scientists’ assessments to show the public that there was another side to the issue.
#2. “… This set was retrieved from the Climate Investigation Center, Climate Files, and an Energy and Policy Institute report (Anderson et al 2017).”
This is an example of a “citation cascade.” Authors of papers should cite the oldest possible source available to provide all readers with the proper full context of any given authoritative statement, and should never inflate the status of a single source as being bigger than it actually is. In this case regarding the ICE campaign and documents supposedly attributed to it, the Climate Investigation Center and Climate Files are one-and-the-same single source, operated by ex-Greenpeace / ex-Ozone Action worker Kert Davies. And as I detailed at my April 11, 2020 GelbspanFiles blog post, “Anderson et al 2017” is Dave Anderson’s “Utilities Knew” report, in which he cites Kert Davies’ Climate Files for the ICE docs. The clickable link in Anderson’s report is the identical link seen in this Williams et al. section 3.1’s Table 2, Letter “f.” It goes to Kert Davies’ “1991 Information Council on the Environment Climate Denial Ad Campaign” page.
The claim that the ICE docs come from both Anderson and Climate Files is disingenuous.
Davies’ “ICE docs” collection sources from what I term “Greenpeace USA neé Ozone Action” — I name that group as such because Ozone Action president John Passacantando merged his little group into Greenpeace USA, and Ozone Action was the first place, not Greenpeace, to give real lasting media traction to the alleged ‘leaked’ “ICE docs” collection, in connection with Ross Gelbspan.
Fundamentally, there is only one source for the so-called ICE docs collection, Kert Davies / Ross Gelbspan circa 1996. Their “smoking gun memos” subset within their collection is literally worthless because it was an unsolicited proposal for the ICE campaign by the Edison Electric Institute that was rejected and never implemented.
No matter what action is proposed to any entity, the mere existence of the proposal is not proof that the recommended action ever took place. Especially if the proposal was rejected.
#3. “… the Information Council on the Environment (ICE)”
Information Council FOR the Environment. For, not on.
In their Section 3.1, this changes to “for.” This is not simply a careless tiny typo on the part of the Williams et al. authors, it is a tell-tale indicator of the most prominent original source of the “ICE docs” collection and the core multi-decade problem surrounding the accusation associated with those docs. As noted in error #2 immediately above, Williams et al. cite both Dave Anderson and Kert Davies as the source of the ICE docs. Anderson makes the same “on”/”for”mistake in describing the official name of the ICE campaign. Kert Davies’ Climate Files page also makes that same mistake, more than once. This “on”/”for”mistake traces back through Ross Gelbspan, (more than once) and as I also showed above in error #2, it goes all the way back to the Ozone Action circa 1996 pages. In January 2022, Wikipedia itself labeled this basic situation as an “Obvious error,” since someone with editorial power finally noticed their nearly 18-year “Information Council on the Environment” page did not match the official logo of the ICE campaign.
#4. “… ICE was a short-lived, pilot climate denial campaign, whose primary goal was to ‘[r]eposition global warming as theory (not fact)’ through both print and radio advertisements (ICE 1991, p 7).”
Again, ICE was not a climate denial campaign. But the massive error here is to attribute the “reposition global warming” strategy goal to them. This suggested strategy, along with the audience targeting suggestion of “older, less educated males” and “younger, lower income women” and alternative words to fit the ICE letters were – again – an unsolicited memo set proposed to the Western Fuels Association that was rejected and never implemented in any form by any subsequent entity.
But notice that this Williams et al. paper places the “R” for “reposition” in lowercase between brackets? Why? Because in their clickable reference (make sure the “Show references” is selected at the bottom of their paper, which enables clicked links to go straight to the citations) is for the “page 7” at Kert Davies Climate Files ICE ads document scans page. What’s there at his scan? “Reposition global warming” with a capital “R.” What’s on his page 6 immediately preceding this? The rejected, unsolicited “Informed Citizens for the Environment” name. This contradiction should have stopped the Williams et al. authors dead in their tracks, so that they could ask probing questions about it. They did not address it all. Neither does Dave Anderson at his 2017 “Utilities Knew” report. Anderson does, however, muddy the waters with his blatantly wrong caption for the “Chicken Little” add by calling it “Informed Council on the Environment,” thus indicating he is an uninformed, unreliable source for facts. Kert Davies did in cursory fashion by parenthetically noting that ICE just happened to also be known as “Informed Citizens for the Environment.” No, it never was. Plus, regarding the “Chicken Little” ad, observe where Kert Davies crops the image there. What does it say below that line? The old Greenpeace USA’s Greenpeace Investigations pages (prior to those pages disappearing earlier this year) showed it: “Informed Citizens for the Environment.” The identical image that Dave Anderson incorrectly captioned. And again, as I showed here, and here, that Chicken Little ad was never published in any newspaper anywhere.
#5. “… This campaign was co-founded by EEI and the Western Fuels Association (WFA)”
Anyone reading that assertion would interpret it to mean the Edison Electric Institute and the Western Fuels Association were co-equal creators of the ICE campaign. No different than Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard of the Hewlett Packard Corporation. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Regarding this Williams et al. paper, their assertion about EEI as a co-founder is contradicted by EEI’s own statement back in 1991, where their spokesperson unequivocally stated that EEI “is taking no part in the campaign except to provide survey results.” This is corroborated in the second-to-last paragraph of a May 12, 1991 Minneapolis Star Tribune article which specifically states, “… Neither the National Coal Association nor the the Edison Electric Institute has gotten involved in the ICE campaign…”
It is irrational to believe that a group which “co-founds” a significant public relations campaign would then have no involvement in running it a mere 4½ months later.
#6. “… With the collapse of ICE, WFA next founded GES …”
“Collapsed” is an unsubstantiated claim. Kert Davies Climate Files / CIC websites provide no such evidence for that claim. This Williams et al. paper’s other source, the Dave Anderson “Utilities Knew” report, only stated in a vague and unsubstantiated way, “Once exposed, the ICE campaign had a relatively brief shelf life …” The implication is that its exposure in the news media is what caused its demise. Ross Gelbspan said as much back in the early years of his “The Heat is Online” website, but it turns out that he couldn’t name 2/3rds of the news media names correctly. However, this is contradicted by an article at The Nation circa November 1996 written by David Helvarg in which he states, “The l.C.E. campaign lasted six months, and then was terminated by the Western Fuels Association…” with no indication that ICE’s end was any sort of public / news media-induced collapse.
There is an additional area of concern for error #2 above, namely where the authors stated about the ICE documents they acquired, “… To the best of our knowledge, for the two relatively short-lived denial front groups associated with the industry—the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) … all publicly available documents were included in the analysis.” The documents tally at Kert Davies’ Climate Files page, which these authors cite, is 27. To offer some latitude to the authors, the other Climate Files ‘ICE docs’ files that they do not cite, “1991 Information Council on the Environment Test Denial Campaign Plan and Survey” has 19 docs. Thus, 46 total attributed to ICE. The “Greenpeace USA neé Ozone Action” ‘ICE scans’ collection — no longer publicly available as of recent months, while a downloaded PDF file copy version still is at my blog — is 50 pages. However, one page is Ozone Action’s cover page, and page 6 is a duplicate of page 2, pg 14 is a duplicate of pg 7, pg 15 is a duplicate of pg 8, pg 43 is a duplicate of pg 39, and pg 35 (as I detailed in my August 20, 2022 GelbspanFiles blog post) is an extraneous addition to the “Greenpeace USA neé Ozone Action” scans that was written by somebody apparently not connected at all with the ICE campaign. So the “GP neé OA” actual tally is 44 documents. Kert Davies added an unpublished newspaper ad draft copy variant with the wrong name to his docs collection, while his pg 20 is a duplicate of his page 16, in the identical way as the “GP neé OA” pg 6/pg 2 situation. However, as David Helvarg said in his Summer 1996 publication, there were 53 pages of ICE docs.
A minimum of 9 missing pages. Did the Williams et al. authors know that, and did the expert reviewers of their paper know that, or express any interest on what the origins of this collective ‘leaked documents pile’ were? This Williams et al. paper provides an ‘out’ on what they might not be aware of, with their line, “Since many climate denial documents are internal, it is likely that further information exists on utilities’ involvement in climate denial organizations that is not public.” Yes, but the opposite also plausible, that other documents might be found which further prove that the EEI-sourced “reposition global warming” memos subset was unsolicited by ICE campaign officials and never used. Since basically no top administrator of the ICE campaign actually saw this rejected memo set, it could not therefore have been passed along to the next ‘Big Coal / Oil’ / Electric Utility CEO to serve as some kind of template for ‘disinformation campaigns.’ A Western Fuels Association office person told me directly that WFA’s copy went into the garbage in the same way that unused contribution material from association members for WFA’s annual reports were thrown out.
All of the above pertains to just one paragraph of this 12-page Williams et al. paper, and the couple of directly-related lead-in bits for that paragraph. If that many errors are in just that small area of text, how many more errors are in this paper?
Who were the “fact checkers” for this paper?
Even if there are no other errors, these alone are enough to warrant a retraction request. However, it was suggested to me by a prominent scientist that a retraction effort would be a waste of time, considering the apparent stranglehold the ERL editor-in-chief has over the content of the journal, and considering his, well, association with climate scientists who’ve hurled unsupportable – unsupportable! – accusations. Even if a retraction was achievable, it might take a year to accomplish.
What might be more effective is for the Williams et al. authors to be made aware of their embarrassing lack-of-research errors – somehow – to an effective enough extent that they decide to voluntarily withdraw it, so as to draw less attention to the way peer review can abysmally fail.
And maybe they might not want to people to see the one other potentially crippling problem this paper seems to have: its funding, and the people connected with that funding.
Enviro activists have, for years, suggested that even a hint of association with funding from the fossil fuel industry taints the credibility of anyone daring to question any aspect of the CAGW issue. If that’s fair game, then should it not apply equally well in reverse? Notice that Williams et al. disclose at the bottom of their paper that their “research was financially supported by the Rockefeller Family Fund.” Who is one of the top administrators for the Rockefeller Family Fund? Associate director Lisa Guide. Who is she married to? John Passacantando — they’re photographed together at Washington DC high society dinner events. Who is John Passacantando? To repeat – he’s the man who headed Ozone Action back in the late 1990s who gave the worthless “reposition global warming” memos their first major, lasting, effective, media traction as so-called “smoking gun evidence” proving skeptic climate scientists were on the payroll of the energy industry to undercut the certainty of CAGW. If the accusation is that those scientists were corrupted by industry money because they ‘do not dispute the material they are funded to disseminate,’ then why would it not apply here that Williams et al. operate in an identical way, such that they jeopardize their funding if they dare to bring up all the crippling faults surrounding John Passacantando and his beloved “reposition global warming” memos?
All these problems put the Williams et al. authors in a world of hurt where the best escape for them is to self-censor. Later on, if the next U.S. Congress chooses to investigate both the data-tampering part of CAGW and the political accusations from certain enviro-activists, the option these authors might have is to turn state’s evidence against whoever it was who came up with the idea for this paper.