Skip to content

Too many days in the sun

Suzanne Anton: The long respective arms of two offended climate scientists reach into lengthy court battles.

No issue is more politically and emotionally charged than the question around the extent of human-caused climate change, or anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

It’s a rough and tumble debate. Passionate, strident, and often abusive. The debate is everywhere: every radio, newspaper, and election campaign in sight. The place the debate does not belong is the courtrooms of our country.

The recent Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention had its share of resolutions on climate change. The “let’s go to court” resolution was proposed by the City of Victoria, suggesting the UBCM explore a class action lawsuit against fossil fuel companies.

Discretion is the better part of valour, and Victoria withdrew the motion. For the time being, we will be spared the pleasure of paying for armies of lawyers engaged in an interminable lawsuit against energy companies.

However, here in BC two separate climate-related cases have been inching their way slowly through our court system. They both involve Dr. Tim Ball of Victoria, who has been sued by prominent AGW adherents: Dr. Michael Mann from Pennsylvania State University, of "hockey stick" fame; and soon-to-be former BC Green leader Dr. Andrew Weaver, who has done computer modelling relating to climate issues, in particular for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.

Ball is a retired geography professor, and a well-known skeptic of human-caused global warming. He has not shied away from sharing his position that the issue is overblown, not supported by good data, and not an emergency.

Those passionate about the AGW issue are highly offended by Ball and his views. To them, he is a “denier.”

In Weaver’s case, in January 2011, Ball wrote an article critical of the computer modelling used in climate predictions, and of the instruction students were receiving in climate science.  He described a meeting with Weaver, which does not appear to have been particularly friendly.

As a former politician, it all seemed pretty mild to me.

The article was published online. Following a letter from Weaver’s lawyer, the article was taken down, and the publisher apologized.

In March 2011, Ball himself apologized to Weaver, and withdrew some of the comments in the article.

The apology was not enough. Weaver took the matter to trial in the BC courts, where he lost in a judgment from February 2018. The judge found the article to be derogatory but not defamatory, saying, “The law of defamation…is not intended to stifle debate on matters of public interest nor to compensate for every perceived slight or to quash contrary viewpoints.”

Well said.

Shouldn’t that have been enough? Apparently not. Weaver appealed and was back in court in May 2019 to have his appeal removed from the inactive list, which the court agreed to.

The upshot is that Weaver is continuing his case against Ball, relating to a minor, no longer published, article written in 2011. He may well have disliked the article, but it was completely irrelevant to his career. He should back off.

Next up, Michael Mann, who has a very thin skin. He blocked me on Twitter after I made a mildly critical comment following his interview on the Lynda Steele show.

Again, the case goes back to 2011. Ball, in an interview published by a think tank, made the facetious comment that “Michael Mann at Penn State should be in the state pen, not Penn State” (as quoted in the judgment). The think tank apologized, but, using the BC courts, Mann sued Ball for defamation.

The case dragged on for years; never heard. Finally after eight years of not much happening, Ball applied to the court to dismiss the action for delay. The application was granted this past August. The court found that there had been two periods of approximately 35 months in total where nothing was done – by any measure, an inordinate delay. Mann had not given the case “the priority that he should have.” Costs were awarded to Ball.

Although he said he might, Mann has not appealed.

So what was the point of the case? To silence a critic? To extract an apology? Who knows.

No matter the reason, one can imagine the case being a drain on Ball personally and on his financial resources for a full eight years.

The judge was right to put an end to it. Our courts are there for genuine disputes, not to silence your critics.

Suzanne Anton QC is a former Attorney General of BC and Vancouver City Councillor