Phelim McAleer is a self-styled journalistic skeptic out to upend the global-warming consensus at the Copenhagen summit—if only he can dodge the incoming sandwiches aimed at his head.
It’s an open question whether the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen—where world leaders, including President Barack Obama, are attempting to strike a deal to curb industrial pollution and global warming—will produce tangible results.
But it has already been a PR bonanza for documentary filmmaker and self-styled “environmental journalist” Phelim McAleer.
The 42-year-old McAleer—a native of Omagh, Northern Ireland, who speaks with a brogue—has spent the last nine days as the skunk at the garden party, stalking conference attendees with a freelance camera crew and peppering them with hostile questions—Aren’t you a bunch of hypocrites for warning about the dangers of CO 2 while traveling to the conference by carbon-emitting jetliners?—and getting rewarded with favorable attention from such widely trafficked venues as the Drudge Report and the Fox News Channel.
• Richard Wolffe: Is Obama Too Late to Salvage Copenhagen? In a couple of memorable YouTube moments that have been rebroadcast on American television, McAleer tangled with a Stanford University climatologist about the so-called Climategate emails (and was confronted by a burly U.N. security officer who demanded that he shut his camera off) and later chased Nobel laureate Al Gore through Copenhagen’s Bella Center in a 60 Minutes-style ambush as the former vice president’s handler kept repeating, “We’re not doing interviews right now,” and a second U.N. security officer broke his microphone in half.
“I’m a journalistic skeptic about global warming,” McAleer, a former foreign correspondent the Financial Times, told me from Denmark. “I think the science is still out on it. I don’t know whether it’s junk science, but it strikes me as junk politics for people to be saying that manmade climate change is happening and the only solution is stopping carbon emissions. That amounts to a death sentence for hundreds of millions in the underdeveloped world—the industrialized nations are stopping the Industrial Revolution in poor countries in Africa.”
“It strikes me as junk politics for people to be saying that man-made climate change is happening and the only solution is stopping carbon emissions,” McAleer says.
McAleer is clearly reveling in his role as an inconvenient sleuth. “I have lots of footage of the backs of people’s heads as they walk away from me,” he said. But conference attendee Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me he was happy to answer McAleer’s questions.
“He asked me, did I care about the integrity of science, and I said, nobody cares more about the integrity of science than the Natural Resources Defense Council.” said Deans, a former White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers. …I thought his questions were quite good. He was professional about it and I found myself responding as seriously as I could. I told him, what we do know for a fact is the ice is melting, the deserts are widening, and more and more people are looking for clean water, and all the emails in the world haven’t changed those facts.”
McAleer’s skepticism, not surprisingly, often crosses the line into outright disbelief. His presence in Copenhagen is largely in the service of hyping his feature film Not Evil Just Wrong, an anti-Al Gore polemic disputing the validity of widely accepted global-warming science; it could have been concocted by the spinmeisters at ExxonMobil. But McAleer says he made the movie independently with $500,000 raised from relatives and friends.
“I’m just a journalist, I’m just here asking questions,” he explained to Fox News host Neal Cavuto on Wednesday—one of his many media appearances from Copenhagen this week. “But in the climate-environmental world, you have to suspend your normal journalistic principles and not ask hard questions.… A lot of people skeptical about climate change are called ‘deniers,’ but the true deniers are here at this conference.”
McAleer spoke in reasonable, logical tones, and the seriousness of his argument was undercut only slightly by the fact that he was dressed in a polar bear costume. It was ornamented with a cardboard sign demanding the whereabouts of British scientist Phil Jones, the University of East Anglia climatologist who was accused of sending private emails admitting that he fudged data to support global-warming theory. “What kind of reaction are you getting?” Cavuto asked. “A very negative reaction actually,” McAleer told Cavuto from the Copenhagen conference center, over boos and catcalls from detractors on the periphery. “They wouldn’t attack a polar bear, would they?”
At which point he was pelted on live television by an unidentified flying object—a direct hit to his left cheek. “Oh, for God’s sake!” Cavuto exclaimed as the startled McAleer tenderly rubbed his eye. The Fox News host urged his guest to flee immediately to safety, but McAleer stood his ground and joked, “I’ve seen worse in Belfast on a Friday night.”
A few minutes after the attack, McAleer told me the weapon was apparently a well-aimed vegetable sandwich, hurled by a young woman carrying the credentials of an NGO. “That was quite a shock,” he said. “It does hurt a little.”
“That’s what happens when you question the environmental orthodoxy,” he added. “They don’t like it. It’s like a religion. When you challenge the faith, it must be punished, even if they have to resort to vegetables.”
On Thursday, McAleer returned as a guest on Cavuto’s program, where the attack of the killer vegetable sandwich was played over and over again.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.