The smoking gun of evidence that climate scientists are exaggerating their claims has been shown to be a complete fabrication:
“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.
Sir John Houghton was professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford University until 1983, when he became director general of the Meteorological Office where he established the Hadley Centre. He was the first head of the scientific working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and was lead editor of the panel’s first three reports outlining the science of global warming.
Obviously such a quote would be quite embarrassing for the climate change community, but given the conservative nature of the IPCC, which Houghton helped establish, it is hard to square that quote with reality. So where did it come from?
It seems it was made up by the controversial right-wing columnist Piers Akerman writing in the Australian newspaper The Sunday Telegraph.
You mean deniers lie, and just make stuff up? Shocking!
Perhaps most humorous is what happened next. After what must have been a serious quote mining exercise by the denier community, this is the best they could come up with:
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.
Hardly the same thing. The fake quote speaks to scientists exaggerating the results of their work, while the other speaks to human nature.
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.
Yet despite having already been caught being dishonest they continue down that path claiming that the two quotes are the same, while ignoring that they also completely messed up the citation for the quote in the first place (hey weren’t deniers up in arms over en error in citation in the IPCC not long ago?). Not only that but deniers are happy to use only part of the quote to make it sound worse, leaving out the comparison to safety on public transport.
This is inexcusable. They were caught in a lie, but instead of coming clean they lie some more.
Surely given the recent scorn heaped upon the IPCC for some minor errors, that the usual suspects are screaming bloody murder that one of their own would just make up some data… why can’t I hear anything but crickets?
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