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Dismissed by James Cook University, climate sceptic Peter Ridd sued for unfair dismissal and won. Now, he’s touring the globe, and being feted for insisting the Great Barrier Reef is fine and the science behind claims to the contrary is broken. By Max Opray.

Peter Ridd and the climate sceptics

“This group here is a fringe group,” marine physicist Peter Ridd tells the room. “We’re on the outside. We’re deniers, right? But the replication crisis – that is mainstream.”

In the Dutch city of Leiden, Ridd is speaking at an event staged by the Dutch Climate Intelligence Foundation (Clintel), which has links to conservative politics and mining and is dedicated to challenging the scientific consensus on climate change. This is the first of Clintel’s new “Icons of Climate Alarmism” series, advertised as “Peter Ridd: the man who was fired because he thinks coral can handle climate change very well”.

Ridd is one of hundreds of prominent sceptics who signed Clintel’s open letter to the United Nations in September 2019, declaring “there is no climate emergency”. Today, he is presenting to a room of about 70 people, largely older men, at the Hilton Garden Inn, on the last day of the hottest October on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. This is just one stop on a tour of climate sceptic events around Europe. Ridd has been feted as the headline act at the Natural Variability and Tolerance conference in Oslo and delivered a talk quietly organised by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in a committee room of the House of Lords in London.

After he was fired by James Cook University in 2018, Ridd became something of a hero to those who believe academia is silencing dissent to climate change studies. The university says Ridd was fired for multiple breaches of its code of conduct, after his assertive public campaign that dismissed the work of his colleagues on the Great Barrier Reef. However, the Federal Circuit Court found the dismissal was unfair and awarded Ridd $1.2 million for lost income and other penalties.

Despite the sizeable payout awarded by the Federal Court, Judge Salvatore Vasta made clear this dispute was limited only to the terms of Ridd’s contract with JCU – the court did not take a view on whether he had a point when it came to the science.

“Media reports have considered that this trial was about silencing persons with controversial or unpopular views,” Vasta said. “Rather, this trial was purely and simply about the proper construction of a clause in an enterprise agreement.”

Introducing Ridd in Leiden, Clintel’s co-founder Marcel Crok says one of the most “frightening things” the physicist told him is that the university has hired top lawyers to appeal the decision in a bid to “get rid of Mr Ridd”.

During the first trial, supported by right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, Ridd successfully raised $260,000 to cover his legal expenses. He’s returned to crowdfunding for the next skirmish – but this time on an international scale, elevating his target to $1.76 million for the appeal. So far, he’s raised more than $700,000. In Leiden, Ridd tells the Clintel conference he expects to have to take the case all the way to Australia’s High Court.

A marine physicist who has studied the effects of sediment on the reef, Peter Ridd confidently positions himself in direct opposition to the findings of hundreds of his peers. He tells the room that climate change, “whether it is caused by burning coal or is natural”, will benefit the Great Barrier Reef. Everything from coalmine dust, to pesticides, to starfish plagues, he says, poses little to no threat.

Ridd justifies his position by arguing that science itself is fundamentally broken. He refers continually to the replication crisis – a debate about the fact that conclusions in a significant number of scientific studies, in fields unrelated to climate or the reef, are difficult or impossible to reproduce, and are therefore suspect. “We’re using the replication crisis to convince the politicians that, you know, if you’ve got a problem in medical science, why haven’t you got a problem with Great Barrier Reef science,” he tells his Clintel audience. “The replication crisis is a dagger at the heart of the climate alarmists and Great Barrier Reef alarmists.”

Ridd says that in Australia there is “quite a large group of us now that are pushing for this at a very high government level”. He says he expects “proper reviews” of reef science in the next few years. In September, the senate approved a Liberal-backed inquiry into whether farm runoff and poor water quality are harming the Great Barrier Reef. This followed a Queensland speaking tour by Ridd, which Guardian Australia revealed was supported by sugarcane industry managers campaigning against farm regulations. In August, a panel led by former chief scientist Ian Chubb likened Ridd’s campaign to the disinformation strategy employed by the tobacco industry. On Wednesday Ridd confirmed on his GoFundMe page that he will be making a detailed submission to the senate inquiry into Great Barrier Reef science.

University of Wollongong Associate Professor Sarah Hamylton, who is vice-president of the Australian Coral Reef Society, questions the need for the kind of government-led reviews that Ridd wants to see. “The need to assess reef science is surprising given the overwhelming agreement from a strong and diverse community of coral reef scientists in Australia,” she tells The Saturday Paper. Hamylton notes that hundreds of academics and scientists are collecting data from thousands of monitoring sites to reach their conclusions. She points to an Australian Institute of Marine Science study showing there was more than 50 per cent coral loss between 1985 and 2012 in the Great Barrier Reef – and that’s before extreme bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

Ridd dismisses coral bleaching as a defence mechanism that is of little concern. He tells his audience the Great Barrier Reef is just one battle in a much larger war. “I think it is a lot easier to show the reef is not in trouble, than to demonstrate unequivocally that the climate change thing is a total myth,” he says. “If we can suddenly change everybody’s mind that actually the reef is fine, it will get them thinking ... ‘When they’ve been telling us [the reef is dying] for so many years, then what about all these other things we’ve been told?’”

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Fiona Fidler, who recently spoke on the replication crisis in Melbourne, expressed deep concern to The Saturday Paper that Ridd is using this issue as a rhetorical strategy against climate science. She said it is a categorical mistake to apply concerns regarding other fields of science to climate change studies. Fidler says that Ridd’s comments display “the same exact biases – e.g. cherrypicking, confirmation bias – that led to the crisis in the first place”. She points to efforts to improve transparency in statistical reporting, open data and sharing analysis code as useful responses to replication challenges.

Kylie Walker, the chief executive of Science & Technology Australia, says it is false to assume that scientific endeavour is in crisis. “Around 70,000 papers are published each year by Australian researchers,” she says. “In the last 20 years, only 247 have been retracted.”

Professor Iain Walker, an expert on the social psychology of climate change, based at the University of Canberra, is not surprised that Ridd has risen to such prominence among climate sceptics around the world. “It gives the shrill voices someone with science credentials who they can use to support their claims about bogus science and conspiracy theories and so on,” he says. “Not only does Ridd’s case fit the narrative, it powerfully illustrates what happens to those who speak out against the hegemonic tyranny, or so the story goes.”

Walker says James Cook University is surely wondering if it could have handled things differently to avoid this situation, but he pushes back against any idea universities should consider how their staff management decisions might be perceived by climate deniers. “Cases have to be handled in terms of the behaviours being questioned and the processes and principles governing the situation, not in terms of how an outcome may be judged by any external party,” he says.

Ridd, for his part, is confident things are about to turn around. He assures the room in Leiden that there is going to be a wake-up call for millennials who have been raised on a climate change narrative. He says they will come to see it is a false alarm. “What’s going to happen in a few years’ time, hopefully, is the wheels are going to fall off,” he says. “Then they’re going to question everything. It’s going to be horrible because the scientists will be exposed for what they are.”

Earlier this month, more than 11,000 scientists marked the 40th anniversary of the first climate summit by warning that unless we change now, human beings face “untold suffering” around the planet due to climate change. In a way, they agree with Ridd’s last point: in a few years’ time, the wheels are indeed going to fall off, and there will be no denying it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Ridd shares". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.