It was a ragtag group of mostly ageing male academics and politicians, no more than 100 in total, crammed into a small meeting room in central Copenhagen – a far cry from the 15,000-strong United Nations climate change summit taking place on the other side of the Danish capital.
But the global warming sceptics holding their rival conference in the city insisted the momentum was shifting in their direction after the leaked “climategate” emails exposed questionable practices among some of the world’s leading climate scientists.
“The average person is starting to wake up to the fact that something is wrong,” said Ian Plimer, the Australian geologist whose book, ‘Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – the missing science’, has become a bible for climate change sceptics. “The average person does not like to be talked down to by arrogant bureaucrats or arrogant scientists.”
If a shift is taking place, there was little sign of it at the sceptics’ conference on Tuesday. No delegates from the UN talks appeared to have turned up and the media presence was a tiny fraction of the army of reporters embedded in the other conference. There were not even any activists or mainstream scientists on hand to challenge the sceptics’ arguments.
Recent opinion polls in the US, UK and other countries, however, suggest Mr Plimer and his allies may be striking a chord with a growing section of the public as climate change drops down the list of people’s political priorities.
Craig Rutter, executive director of CFACT, a sceptics’ organisation, said the leaked emails, in which climate scientists discussed ways to avoid making their raw data public and slung insults at sceptics, had crystalised public doubts about the consensus behind global warming. “People know that when someone hides their data or resorts to name calling, they are not confident of their facts,” he told the conference. “Alarmists have been cooking the books to get the results they wanted and putting climate propaganda ahead of science.”
There was a clear right-wing slant to much of the rhetoric, with Mr Rutter describing efforts to cap carbon emissions as the “greatest threat to human freedom since the fall of 20th century totalitarianism”, while other speakers warned that the costs of action, in terms of increased energy prices and suppressed economic activity, would cause more human misery than the impact of climate change itself.
“The governing classes worldwide have gone bonkers and taken leave of their senses,” said Lord Christopher Monckton, a former longtime adviser to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and now a leading sceptic.
It was not all political bombast. Several serious scientists, with long paper trails of academic work behind them, delivered power point presentations filled with data and diagrams attempting to show why the mainstream consensus was wrong.
Nils Axel Morner, an expert in sea level changes at Stockholm University, claimed that sea levels had shown no change in the Maldives or Bangladesh – two of the countries considered most at risk from climate change – for the past 30 years. Moreover, the sea level rises predicted by mainstream scientists were far in excess of what should be expected based on the rises that occurred when ice sheets melted at the end of the last ice age, he argued.
Perhaps the main message was a call for greater humility about the limits of knowledge and the fallibility of predictive models. One speaker after another accused mainstream climate scientists of betraying the sceptical spirit of scientific discovery and of selling their souls to a political propaganda programme in return for lavish government funding.
“Science should be anarchic, not dogmatic,” said Mr Plimer. “As soon as you hear the word ‘consensus’, you are talking politics. As soon as you hear the word ‘believe’, you are talking religion.”
Mr Pilmer questioned how scientists could so confidently predict future temperature changes when so little was understood about the causes of past changes, such as ice ages. He pointed to volcanoes and solar radiation as greater influences on climate than man-made carbon emissions. “I cannot respect a theory that looks at one trace gas as being the only variable that drives a very complex, dynamic, chaotic system called the earth.”
He and other sceptics poured scorn on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the 2,000-strong group of scientists responsible for establishing a link between man-made emissions and global warming – and took pride in their absence from the panel.
“Science doesn’t go on a vote,” said Mr Plimer. “Albert Einstein didn’t go around his mates and say, ‘I’ve found this equation E=MC squared, let’s take a vote on it’.”