The B.C. Court of Appeal has found that climate scientist and former B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver was defamed in an 2011 article written by global-warming skeptic Timothy Ball.
In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the Appeal Court set aside the trial judge’s dismissal of Weaver’s defamation lawsuit.
The case will now go back before the trial judge to decide the amount of damages, and whether the article was fair comment.
“An ordinary person, not unduly sensitive but reasonable, would read the article as an attack on Dr. Weaver’s professional competence and qualifications as an academic. These statements would tend to lower Dr. Weaver’s standing in the community and therefore meet the classic test for defamation,” the Appeal Court found.
The decision emphasized the impact of being defamed in the digital age, when a false statement damaging a person’s reputation can spread “widely and rapidly, instantly and often permanently available to anyone who uses an internet search engine.”
It found many internet publications purport to report news and information without employing standards of professional journalism.
The lawsuit arose in January 2011, when Ball, a retired University of Winnipeg geography professor, wrote an article connecting Weaver to the field of “corrupted” climate science.
At the time, Weaver was a professor in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in applied mathematics from Cambridge University, and is a leading advocate of the need to take action to address climate change.
Weaver was also a lead author on a number of reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international scientific body established to study issues related to climate change. He taught university courses on climate modelling and atmospheric sciences.
Ball was a frequent speaker on climate change, giving public lectures and appearing on television and radio broadcasts. His article Corruption of Climate Science has Created 30 Lost Years appeared on Canada Free Press’s website.
Weaver was upset when he read the article and found it had been republished on other websites. He hired a lawyer to write to Canada Free Press on Jan. 14, 2011, demanding a retraction and an apology, which happened four days later.
Weaver’s lawyer also demanded an apology from Ball. When Ball did not immediately issue an apology, Weaver filed a notice of civil claim against him.
Weaver claimed the article implied that he was incompetent and unqualified to teach climate science at the university level and that he cheated Canadian taxpayers by accepting public funds for climate-science research.
In 2018, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ronald Skolrood dismissed Weaver’s claim. He found that while the article was “derogatory,” “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.”
Ball’s article was “rife with errors and inaccuracies” that showed a lack of attention to detail and an indifference to the truth, Skolrood wrote.
The “article is poorly written and does not advance credible arguments in favour of Dr. Ball’s theory about the corruption of climate science. Simply put, a reasonably thoughtful and informed person who reads the article is unlikely to place any stock in Dr. Ball’s views, including his views of Dr. Weaver as a supporter of conventional climate science,” Skolrood wrote.
Ball’s words “lack a sufficient air of credibility to make them believable and therefore potentially defamatory,” the judgment concluded.
Weaver appealed that decision.
In its unanimous decision released Thursday, the Appeal Court concluded that the judge erred in his approach in determining that the words in the article were not defamatory of Weaver.
“Applying the classic test of whether the words have a tendency to injure the person’s reputation in the estimation of reasonable right-thinking persons, the words were defamatory,” wrote Justice Susan Griffin.
“A reasonable person would read the article as alleging that Dr. Weaver was not professionally competent or qualified and was academically biased in his field of climate science.”