What were New Zealand climate sceptics like Vincent Gray and Owen McShane doing in New York this week? They were flown there to speak at a climate sceptic conference on global warming funded by US think tanks who take money from ExxonMobil to challenge climate science.This is a new aspect to New Zealand's Climate Science Coalition, who appear to have been taken up by the Exxon-funded climate denial industry with vigour.

I'll get to the details, but a bit of history might be useful.

In the early 1990's, as negotiations began for international action on climate, I was working for Greenpeace International's climate campaign, based out of London. There, I witnessed the birth of a new industry, as big business (especially the oil, coal and gas industries), started to lobby against any action on climate. The Global Climate Coalition (GCC) was formed - and it was extremely effective, not least in the USA.

One of the GCC's main arguments was that the science wasn't settled, that global warming wasn't happening. They started to employ, as their "experts", a few "scientists" who helped them run this argument.The scientists weren't engaged in climate research - they were largely lobbyists. The GCC spent, literally, millions in ad campaigns across the US, convincing the public that global warming wasn't happening and that the scientific evidence wasn't clear. And they were very convincing.

Why challenge the climate science?

If you convince people that global warming isn't happening then nobody will call for action and Governments - like the US - can sit on their hands. Action on climate would affect these companies' bottom line because their core business (oil, coal and gas), when burned, is the main source of the global warming gas, carbon dioxide.

Fast foward to 2001. The IPCC had released its third assessment report and had declared that global warming was not only happening, but that we, as humans, were causing it.

I was again working with Greenpeace, at the StopEsso campaign in London. After George W Bush walked away from Kyoto, we started a campaign focussing on the then largest company on the planet - ExxonMobil (or Esso - known in New Zealand as just Mobil).

ExxonMobil's history of climate denial

Exxon, at that point, was one of the few remaining oil companies which continued to question the scientific evidence. Both Exxon and Mobil, before their 1997 merger, had been at the forefront of the anti-global warming science campaign in the USA. And they had a powerful influence over the Bush Administration.

My colleague in the US had also been tracking Exxon's involvement in climate science denial - through its charitable donations. Included in the annual list of donees were the very same organisations and "experts" who had been working with big oil, coal and gas way back in the early '90's.

We launched a website called ExxonSecrets to show how the web of Exxon-funded groups were working together.

The kiwi sceptic connection

In 2004 I returned to New Zealand to work for Greenpeace NZ, and found a high level of scepticism here. Then the Climate Science Science Coalition was launched - our very own think tank set up to question global warming science.

What's this got to do with Exxon, you ask?

One of the biggest proponents of climate scepticism, and recipient of nearly US$800,000 in Exxon Funding since 1998, is the Heartland Institute. Heartland has been leading the charge in the US against Al Gore, the climate science, the IPCC - using the usual, tired arguments we've seen for years. They are the same arguments NZ's Climate Science Coalition uses.

So imagine my shock when I see that the biggest gathering of sceptics for years, organised by Heartland this week in New York, had New Zealanders on its speaking list.

The Climate Science Coalition's lobbyist Owen McShane and retired scientist Vincent Gray were on the speakers list. So presumably Heartland paid them the rather handsome US$1000 fee, plus travel and accommodation at the plush Marriott hotel. Heartland assures everyone that no oil money paid for this conference, but it's a pretty specious argument given that Exxon's donations would free up other money to pay for the conference.

Real Climate did a great blog about the gathering, which is worth a read - they called it a "PR event aimed at generating media reports" rather than the "scientific" conference it purported to be.

My colleague Kert was there in the corridors (he didn't waste Greenpeace money to register). He has done a map of all the groups and speakers there - and a blog on our website.

Much of the media and many bloggers were pretty sceptical, like Andrew Revkin at the New York times, who pointed out that when an organiser asked all the scientists in the large hall to come to the front for a photo opportunity, only 19 men stood up.

Key speakers were the same old names I saw back in the early 1990's: names like Fred Singer - who may be familiar to New Zealanders, having been brought here by the then Business Roundtable. Business NZ continues this practice, having hosted another sceptic, Lord Nigel Lawson, only last year.

Now why would Business NZ want to bring Lawson, et al to New Zealand? Same reason as Exxon questioned the science. If people don't think the science is clear, they won't pressure the Government to act.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE many areas of scientific uncertainty on climate change - from how much the sea levels will rise, to the impact of rising temperature on hurricanes. These must and should be discussed and clarified. But when the denial industry's discussion is centred on arguing global warming isn't happening when an overwhelming body of evidence shows that it's happening and we're causing it, that's simply irresponsible.

But even worse is the fact that New Zealanders like McShane and Gray have bought into this argument and have accepted oil-tainted money from Heartland. Neither of them have published any peer reviewed science on climate lately, if ever.

They also went to the Bali Climate conference in December, along with the CSC's Bryan Leyland. Who paid for them to go there, I wonder? Was it New Zealand Business or was it Exxon-funded Washington think tanks? Bryan led the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow's delegation. CFACT, too, has received more than half a million from Exxon.

- Cindy Baxter