Sir John’s Memory Lapse

  • Date: 16/02/10

“If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.” Sir John Houghton,  ‘Me and My God’, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, September 10, 1995.

On Sunday last, Sir John Houghton, former Chief Executive of the Met Office, founder of the Hadley Centre, and former Co-Chair of the IPCC had a somewhat intemperate ‘Letter to the Editor’ published in The Observer, which went as follows:

“Dr Benny Peiser, director of the the Global Warming Policy Foundation, writing about my work as the chair of the first IPCC Scientific Assessment , quotes me as saying: ‘Unless we announce disasters no one will listen,’ thereby attributing to me and the IPCC an attitude of hype and exaggeration. That quote from me is without foundation. I have never said it or written it …This quote is doing damage not only to me as a responsible scientist but also to the IPCC which in its main conclusions has always worked to avoid exaggeration. I demand from Dr Peiser an apology that he failed to check his sources and a public retraction of the use he made of the fabricated quotation.”

Oh dear! Oh dear! To adapt slightly Queen Gertrude speaking in Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2: “The Gentleman doth protest too much, methinks”.

Well-Kept Archives

Unlike some we might mention, my good friend and colleague, Emeritus Professor John Adams of University College London (UCL), keeps impeccable academic archives, and he has just called Sir John’s bluff and bluster on his excellent blog: Risk in a Hypermobile World.

Professor Adams has unearthed, from his vast store of newspaper records, The Sunday Telegraph of September 10, 1995,(*) in which Sir John was the subject of a piece entitled: ‘Moral outlook: earthquake, wind and fire’ in the ‘Me and My God’ column [right], the second and third paragraphs of which are especially illuminating:

“God tries to coax and woo, but he also uses disasters. Human sin may be involved; the effect will be the same.”

Yet, particularly noteworthy is this quotation:

“If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.”

Well, well, well! Professor Adams further points out that he himself has used this latter quote in a book review he wrote for the journal, Nature [see: John Adams, Nature 381, 125 – 126 (May 9, 1996) doi:10.1038/381125a0], under the MS title ‘Is God an environmentalist?’, and the final published title ‘Is God green?

Thus, this particular quotation has been out there in the public domain for some time.

So, was Dr. Peiser entirely wrong in attributing to Sir John and to the IPCC “an attitude of hype and exaggeration”? And, is “that quote” quite so clearly without any foundation?

I think not. The key point is that you have to ‘attribute’ causes to a disaster, and that is where the danger lies. Over the years, many disasters have been attributed to ‘global warming’ when it is abundantly clear that the causes have been far more down-to-earth and complex, such as blocked drains, bad building techniques, poor defences, ill-judged land management, geological down-warping and sinking, and, of course, just plain poverty and lack of development.

Perhaps, Sir John and The Observer should be apologising to Dr. Peiser, not the other way round.

What Does All This Teach Us?

I believe this little episode teaches us four important lessons:

(a) First, none of us can recall everything we have said and written, and, although viral quotations may become slightly distorted through time, they may still correctly reflect our sentiments as actually expressed. This is abundantly the case with the Houghton quotation. Nobody is saying that the intention is to ‘invent’ disasters; rather, as I state above, the key issue is how one interprets, and employs, disasters when they occur;

(b) Secondly, we see, yet again, that it is the Blogosphere that has provided the exposé, while the mainstream media (MSM) has failed journalistically, being both compliant and uncritical;

(c) Thirdly, the Houghton newspaper interview of 1995 reinforces strongly the essentially-religious character of the Global Warming Grand Narrative; and,

(d) Finally, this tiny ‘disaster’ [Hm!] re-emphasises the potential problems that can be encountered when science becomes subject to religious passions and/or to ‘politicisation’.

I await with interest to see how The Observer (but also The Independent) responds to this revelation.

And, many, many congratulations to John Adams for his well-kept archives.

*John now informs me that he even made an annotated Power Point slide of the article, which he has found again through his Mac search facilities.

The Clamour of The Times, 16 February 2010

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