Sir John Houghton explains to Steve Connor how global warming sceptics have misrepresented his views
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. …
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. …