Canadian court slams Trump climate advisor in successful libel case

The case now goes back to the lower court to cover some unresolved issues and, presumably, for an assessment of damages.

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SOURCEDesmog Blog

Climate science denier and Trump transition team advisor Dr. Tim Ball, who a Canadian court earlier derided as incompetent, ill-intended, and apparently indifferent to the truth, has been further rebuffed in the British Columbia Court of Appeal and must now stand libel for a nearly 9-year-old attack against prominent Canadian climate scientist (and outgoing BC Green Party leader) Dr. Andrew Weaver.

Ball, a retired geography professor who for almost two decades has been giving lectures and media interviews in Canada and around the world denying the science of climate change, actually “won” this case when it was decided in the British Columbia Supreme Court in 2018. In January 2011, Ball had attacked Weaver on the populist website, Canada Free Press, in an article that BC Supreme Court Justice Ronald Skolrood later described as “poorly written,” and “rife with errors and inaccuracies, which suggests a lack of attention to detail on Dr. Ball’s part, if not an indifference to the truth.”

Yet, while finding that Ball had clearly set out to publicly question Weaver’s competence and trash his reputation — “It is quite apparent that this was Dr. Ball’s intent” — Justice Skolrood still let him off the hook, saying, “Simply put, a reasonably thoughtful and informed person who reads the Article is unlikely to place any stock in Dr. Ball’s views.”

This disdain Ball claimed as a vindication, calling the decision “a victory for free speech and a blow against the use of the law to silence people.”

Weaver appealed the free pass and Ball’s celebration ended late last month, when a three-judge panel of the BC Court of Appeal found that while the busy climate contrarian is free to speak, he is nevertheless accountable for the sting in his words, giving Weaver ultimate vindication.

Tim Ball has been a long-standing, less-than-credible scourge in the international climate conversation, overstating his own qualifications and disparaging the legitimate climate science community. In 2006, for example, he wrote a withering opinion piece in the Calgary Herald, at the end of which he claimed to have been “the first climatology PhD in Canada.”

As the Alberta academic Dr. Dan Johnson pointed out in a letter to the editor, this wasn’t even close to being the truth: Canada had minted many previous climate PhDs — and, in any event, Ball’s geography degree barely qualifies in the relevant area of climate science.

Still, Ball launched an expensive and damaging libel action against Johnson — a suit he abandoned when it was clear that Johnson’s lawyer, the formidable Canadian libel expert Roger McConchie, had assembled an overwhelming defense, including proof that Ball had misrepresented his credentials in numerous other publications and, on one occasion, in a letter to the then-prime minister of Canada in which Ball claimed, laughably, to have been “one of the first climatology PhDs in the world.” Even the Calgary Herald, the enthusiastically pro-fossil fuel newspaper in Canada’s version of Houston, dismissed Ball in its own statement of defense as someone “viewed as a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry rather than as a practicing scientist.”

In the following decade, however, Ball’s ongoing attacks on Weaver were among the most frequent and egregious. Ball and Weaver both live in the B.C. capital city of Victoria, where Weaver has been a longstanding and widely admired faculty member at the University of Victoria and a former principal editor for the Nobel Peace Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Weaver went on, in 2013, to become the first Green Party politician elected in Canada at the provincial level and to represent the party as provincial leader until earlier this year, when he announced his intention to step down. But his leap from science into politics didn’t occur until well after the attack that triggered this case.)

Ball, in the meantime, was a well-known Victoria curmudgeon, popping up on talk radio or on the Letters page of the local newspaper. He was also a tireless “climate science” lecturer among retirees and community groups and he appeared frequently on climate science–denying websites such as Canada Free Press and Watts Up With That, on the “experts” list of climate science–denying bastions such as the Frontier Centre for Public Policy or Friends of Science, and among the contrarians at climate conferences funded by organizations such as the Heritage Foundation. He was also a go-to “expert” on contrarian international media, from oddly well-financed UK productions such as The Great Global Warming Swindle to low-budget cable TV specials from Australia to Romania.

So, Ball was well-traveled, even if not well-respected. People were listening to him. Indeed, after a nine-day trial in 2018, including more than three days with Ball on the stand, the lower court Justice Skolrood seemed overexposed to Ball’s bloviating (at one point the judge leaned over and pleaded with Ball to “really listen to your [attorney’s] questions and answer the questions that he’s asking … Otherwise, we’re going to be here for a very, very long time.”)

After hearing from Ball and other witnesses, including half a day’s testimony from Weaver, Justice Skolrood couldn’t take Ball’s writing seriously and didn’t think anyone else would, either: He wrote: “While the Article is derogatory of Dr. Weaver, it is not defamatory, in that the impugned words do not genuinely threaten Dr. Weaver’s reputation in the minds of reasonably thoughtful and informed readers.”

This, according to Justice Susan Griffin, who wrote a unanimous decision for the BC Court of Appeal this year, was an error. Justice Skolrood, she wrote, made his decision “taking into account the poor quality of the writing” and “based on evidence known to the Court, but not to the ordinary and reasonable reader.” She didn’t say as much, but it’s worth noting that, in a Fox News universe, “the ordinary and reasonable reader,” might be forgiven for being confused about what’s real and what’s false on the news and opinion pages covering topics like climate change.

Reacting to the new judgment, Dan Johnson, the environmental science professor whom Ball tried to sue in 2006, said it was obvious that some people have been taking Ball seriously, in part because he had so consistently leaned on his overstated academic credentials. Ball’s “phony argument from authority convinced some to ignore the science,” Johnson said. “And we need respect for science more than ever, so it is good to see those who undermine it exposed and disregarded.”

The case now goes back to the lower court to cover some unresolved issues and, presumably, for an assessment of damages.

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