Fabricated quote used to discredit climate scientist

Sir John Houghton explains how the anti-science crowd operates

The Denier-Industrial Complex cranKs habitually fabricate quotes to smear climate scientists and climate hawks. Their latest victim is NASA’s Gavin Schmidt — see my post here and Tamino’s “Not a Misquote. A Nonquote” and Deltoid’s “Pearcegate” (who notes that the source of the smear, “tallbloke,” is an “ether crank”).

For the cranKs, it doesn’t matter what a scientist actually said, it only matters what they say he really thinks.

All this reminded me of a February 2010 story in the UK’s Independent, “Fabricated quote used to discredit climate scientist,” that got buried in my backlog of 1,1oo draft posts.

But, as Abba says, “the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.” The story illuminates the simple modus operandi of the Complex, so here’s an extended excerpt:

For climate sceptics it was a key piece of evidence showing that the scientists behind global warming could not be trusted. A quotation by one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists was supposed to demonstrate the depths to which he and his ilk would stoop to create scare stories exaggerating the threat of global warming.

Sir John Houghton, who played a critical role in establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), was roundly condemned after it emerged that he was an apparent advocate of scary propaganda to frighten the public into believing the dangers of global warming

“Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen,” Sir John was supposed to have said in 1994.

The quotation has since become the iconic smoking gun of the climate sceptic community. The words are the very first to appear in the “manual” of climate denialism written by the journalist and arch-sceptic Christopher Booker. They get more than a 100,000 hits on Google, and are wheeled out almost every time a climate sceptic has a point to make, the last occasion being in a Sunday newspaper article last weekend written by the social anthropologist and climate sceptic Benny Peiser.

The trouble is, Sir John Houghton has never said what he is quoted as saying.

The words do not appear in his own book on global warming, first published in 1994, despite statements to the contrary. In fact, he denies emphatically that he ever said it at any time, either verbally or in writing.In fact, his view on the matter of generating scare stories to publicise climate change is quite the opposite. “There are those who will say ‘unless we announce disasters, no one will listen’, but I’m not one of them,” Sir John told The Independent.

“It’s not the sort of thing I would ever say. It’s quite the opposite of what I think and it pains me to see this quote being used repeatedly in this way. I would never say we should hype up the risk of climate disasters in order to get noticed,” he said.

Even though the quotation appears on about 130 thousand web pages, no one seems to know where it originated. On the few occasions a reference is cited, it is listed as coming from the first edition of Sir John’s book, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, published by Lion Books in 1994. But Sir John does not say it in this edition, nor in subsequent editions published by Cambridge University Press.

Christopher Booker, a newspaper columnist, considers the quotation so important that he lists it at the top of the first page of his most recent book on climate scepticism, The Real Global Warming Disaster, published last year. Mr Booker also cites the 1994 edition of Houghton’s own book on global warming as the source of the quotation, even though there is no mention of it there. Mr Booker did not respond yesterday to enquiries by The Independent.

Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, also cited the 1994 edition of Sir John’s book as the source of the quote, which he used last Sunday in an article denouncing the alarmism of climate scientists. Dr Peiser admitted to The Independent that he had not read the book recently and had only used the quote “from memory” because it is so widely cited in other books on climate scepticism.

“I’ve seen it printed in many books. He is well known for making these statements. I’ve used that quote on many occasions from one of the books on climate alarmism. If he makes the claim that he never said this then he has to clarify that,” Dr Peiser said.

“If he publicly says that he never made that statement then, of course, I wouldn’t use it, but this is the first time I’ve heard [his denial] and this has been going on for 15 years. This quote has been used for the past 15 years,” he said.

In fact, the earliest record of the quote comes not from 15 years ago but from November 2006 when it appeared in a newspaper column written by the journalist Piers Akerman in the Australian newspaper The Sunday Telegraph. Akerman, a controversial right-wing columnist and global warming sceptic, appears to be the first person to use the quote verbatim in an opinion piece criticising the Stern Review, which looked at the economic effects of global warming.

“This alarmist approach reeked of stupidity, snake oil, and misguided gospel preaching but was in line with a formula adopted by the first chairman of the IPCC, Sir John Houghton, who produced the IPCC’s first three reports in 1990, 1995 and 2001 and wrote in his book Global Warming, The Complete Briefing, in 1994: ‘Unless we announce disasters no one will listen’,” Mr Akerman said.

Within three years of Akerman’s piece being published, climate sceptics had jumped on the supposed quotation, citing the source as Houghton’s 1994 book. Mr Akerman said that he could not remember where the quote came from but he will check his records.

Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, also cites the 1994 book as the source of the quote, which he uses extensively in his writings and lectures advocating climate scepticism. The quotation, he says, is a prime example of the alarmism and exaggeration of the climate change community and the IPCC.

After this article appeared (and one by the BBC), the Denier Industrial Complex cranKs dug up a version of the quote that they think vindicates their smear, but, as SheWonk explained at the time in a post titled, “One of these things is not like the other”¦” [her graphic]

Apparently someone dug up an old interview from 1995 in which Sir Houghton talks about religion and his beliefs in God as proof that while he may not have actually said the words attributed to him, he said similar things or things that could be twisted into meaning almost something similar “” if one plugs one’s ears and squints one’s eyes”¦

Not that I’m questioning the motives of these fine gentlemen, or their reading comprehension but seriously, they need to go back to play school and watch some Sesame Street.

Let’s play “One of these things is not like the other”

“Unless we announce disasters no one will listen”.

“If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster. It’s like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there’s been an accident.” [edited to add the rest of the quote in so that denialists the hard of reading comprehension won’t lie misunderstand]

The two are not the same.

The first one “” a false one “” has been used by deniers to charge that the IPCC knowingly exaggerates the risks of global warming in order to hype the issue and get attention. The second states that its human nature to ignore problems until they reach critical mass. One need only look to how technology has changed in the wake of serious disasters. The Indian Ocean tsunami is a case in point. The year prior to it, scientists were talking about the possibility of the megathrust fault failing, causing a tsunami. It wasn’t until a quarter million died that a warning system was finally put in place.

It is painfully obvious, especially in this country — where the anti-science, pro-pollution disinformation campaign has captured an entire political movement and by extension an entire political party — that we are not going to act simply because scientists tell us multiple catastrophes await us on our current path of unrestricted emissions. Scientific warnings might have been enough to save the ozone layer — just in the nick of time — but even that required seeing the unexpected ozone hole and a rational conservative, Ronald Reagan, rejecting the recommendations of his hard-core ideologue advisors.


We will be unlikely to act until climate change causes multiple climate “near-term climate Pearl Harbors” as I’ve said many times. Indeed, we’re going to have to suffer through far more of these Pearl harbors than I had originally feared because the DICKs — combined with a largely compliant and complacent media — make it harder for the public and policymakers to connect the dots and identify many of the early warning signs that we have seen recently as climate Pearl Harbors (see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010).