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« Geoffrey Boulton and the IPCC | Main | Keenan responds to Jones »

No, he did say it....

...or something very like it.

I'm referring to the recent kerfuffle over whether Sir John Houghton did actually say the controversial words that have been ascribed to him for many years. These words:

Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen.

A few days ago, after years of this quotation doing the rounds of sceptic blogs, Sir John suddenly denied that these words had ever passed his lips, pointing out that they didn't actually appear in his book, to which early citations had pointed as the original source. Cue much gnashing of teeth and wailing about "deniers".

There has now been another development in this story, reported by Benny Peiser, who took a certain amount of stick for repeating the quotation over the years, including a demand from Sir John that he issue an apology. In a posting on the GWPF website today, Benny relates how Professor John Adams has unearthed from his archives an clipping from the Daily Telegraph, dating right back to 1995. In it, Sir John is quoted as follows:

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

Oh dear.

The story was originally broken on Professor Adams' blog here. More here.

[Update: Benny asks me to make absolutely clear that he is passing the story on and the credit is due to Professors Adams and Stott]

[PS: If you ever get the chance to read Professor Adams' Risk, it's well worth it. It's one of those books that makes you smile with its deliciously counter-intuitive thinking.]


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Reader Comments (60)

More spin than Roger Federer. No, he still didn't say it.

Interesting to hear Adams has a blog though.

Feb 16, 2010 at 2:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer

You better tell the Independent, Guardian and Observer, since they all made a big deal of the false quote being used to misrepresent his views and discredit him.

(On seconds thoughts perhaps you should tell the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Express, since they are more likely to pick up this part of the story).

The Independent went with "Fabricated quote used to discredit climate scientist" - and quotes him as saying that he thinks the opposite at :-

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.

Feb 16, 2010 at 2:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterAWatcher

No, he did not say exactly that but as close as to warrant no apology.

Feb 16, 2010 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterJosh

@Frank - I'm prepared to fully accept he didn't say the precise words that were falsely attributed to him. But isn't it even more interesting what he *actually* did say? Why would you think it uninteresting to learn what he *actually* did say?

Feb 16, 2010 at 2:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterAWatcher

"Interesting to hear Adams has a blog though."

That puts him beyond the pale, presumably.. :-)

Feb 16, 2010 at 4:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

“isn't it even more interesting what he *actually* did say?”

I would say so - and more damning. The disasters that need to be announced are hypothetical, while those that “we’ll have to have” are real.

Feb 16, 2010 at 4:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

F O'D,
I stand vindicated.
You stand as what we in our part of the English language call a 'lint picker'.

Feb 16, 2010 at 4:36 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

Hans Von Storch reported this in the peer-reviewed European Physical Journal - Special Topics, Volume 176, Number 1 / September, 2009:

"A clearly religious dimension is associated by some prominent climate scientists, such as the previous chairman of working group 1 of the IPSS, Sir John Houghton, about whom was written by Frances Welch, 10.9.95 in an article “me and my God” in Sunday Telegraph, 10.9.95: "An expert on global warming and Chairman of the Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution, Houghton warns that God may induce man to mend his ways with a disaster. ‘God tries to coax and woo, but he also uses disasters.’ Und [sic]: ‘If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.’”

And also in the journal 'Leviathan' ,Volume 37, Number 2 / June, 2009, under the title
Klimaforschung und Politikberatung – zwischen Bringeschuld und Postnormalität:

Fragt man nach der Ursache, so stößt man auf „menschliche Gier“ und „Dummheit“ als
Antwort. Das sei der Mechanismus der Gerechtigkeit, der Rache der Natur, die zurückschlägt. Manchmal ist dann auch von Gott selbst die Rede. So berichtet Frances Welch unter der Überschrift „Me and My God“ in Sunday Telegraph (10.9.95) über den früheren IPCC Vorsitzenden Sir John Houghton: “An expert on global warming and Chairman of the Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution, Houghton warns that God may induce man to mend his ways with a disaster. ‘God tries to coax and woo, but he also uses disasters.’ Und: ‘If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.’”

So, Sir Johns words from 1995 reported again only 6 months ago in a peer-reviewed European physics journal, and in English! Those journalists at the Observer, Guardian and Independent could easily have checked whether Houghton had really said something like that. They are bad, lazy journalists.

Feb 16, 2010 at 4:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterScientistForTruth

@Frank O'Dwyer

Have to agree with you, Frank, it's not the same quote; or even the same kind of quote, as far as I can tell.

He's talking about actual disasters showing people the errors of their ways rather than just reported ones; i.e. no specific reference to, or justification of, fear-mongering.

The tone of "Me and my God" is not a little "left field", though, but that's beside the point as far as substantiation, or otherwise, of the originally attributed quote.

Feb 16, 2010 at 5:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterdoobie

Pardon, but this isn't the same statement at all. The original quote promotes _lying_, and that's what Sir John said he wouldn't support doing. The actual quote just means that it's hard to get people to listen unless a disaster shocks them.

Feb 16, 2010 at 5:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeR

In the most alarmist article I have ever read, in the Guarniad in 2003, Houghton said that the impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a "weapon of mass destruction".


Feb 16, 2010 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Actually, the statement is ambiguous. There are two semantic interpretations; in the first, you have to put (false) before the disaster as the implication/inference.

It does not have to mean lying. A straightforward semantic interpretation of the misquote, equivalent to the real quote, could be: If a disaster happens, you then announce it and people listen, and a good environmental policy is generated.

Like, for example, all the Arctic sea ice disappearing and the polar bears starving to death, and we get the IPCC.

Errr... or something like that.

Feb 16, 2010 at 5:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrian Williams

Could be, Brian, but if that's what Sir John meant, no one would care. The interpretation that I think was controversial was, Present the scariest possibilities or no one will listen.

Feb 16, 2010 at 5:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeR

I'm with Frank, Doobie and MikeR on this one. Mike hits the nail on the head: there is an enormous difference between advocating lying and saying that people living in a fools paradise (as Sir John no doubt thinks that I am, for one) may one day be "mugged by reality" and only change their minds at that point.

As a fellow evangelical Christian I've long been bothered by a great deal of what Sir John has come out with - not least his claim to the House of Lords select committee in 2005 that climate models prove positive feedback. As a software guy with experience of time series modelling and other kinds of simulation I consider a wholly fallacious argument, unworthy of any serious scientist. He may be a nice guy and a great Christian in other ways but to have someone that inept in a senior role at the IPCC was a great concern.

Then consider Houghton's apparent fixation on climate change sceptics as funded by big oil and other other fossil fuel interests - and thus obviously without any moral scruple. There can be, for me, a unedifying combination of substandard science, moral superiority and naivety (about the impact of the massively larger amounts being sunk into the AGW scare story from governments, foundations and NGOs) on show in much of what the ex-IPCC luminary is on the record as having said.

So please don't give the man good reason to write us all off as the moral reprobates he seems to believe. He is owed an apology by Peiser if he has never advocated announcing disasters to further the cause - and I see no reason to doubt him on that.

I normally yield to no man in my admiration for Philip Stott. And the piece he cites that Adams has dug out from the Telegraph in 95 is indeed fascinating and worth discussion. But it's beside the point for the moment, until all the sceptics that have misrepresented Sir John show their commitment to the truth by saying sorry.

Feb 16, 2010 at 6:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

I think the actual quote and the alleged quote both point to the same mindset.

"Unless we announce disasters" means either 1) we predict scary scenarios (e.g. the glaciers will disappear), or 2) we attribute an actual disaster to global warming (e.g. Katrina)

The actual quote "we will have to have a disaster" sounds more like 2, but could easily be 1

Both versions suggest that environmentalists should use actual or predicted disasters to scare the public into policy change - so no apology needed

Feb 16, 2010 at 6:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndyL

"Both versions suggest that environmentalists should use actual or predicted disasters to scare the public into policy change" I think you're projecting; I see no such suggestion in the words. I think it's better to apologize than to say, "I think I understand your words in a negative way, so I'll assume that's what you meant."

Feb 16, 2010 at 7:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeR

AndyL, "Unless we announce disasters ..." is what the guy was accused of saying by Peiser but he utterly denies it and quite clearly nobody can find it. Peiser's use of the supposed quotation "from as early as 1994" was to agree with the premise of what he thought Houghton had said:

Without the prospect of near or imminent catastrophe, there would be no social movement and little political pressure for extremely costly and exceptionally risky climate policies.

So Peiser is accusing Houghton of advocating 1, in your terms. And if I had only ever said “If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster,” I would certainly argue that it referred to a genuine disaster in the future the attribution of which to global warming was beyond doubt. Especially if I felt (as Sir John clearly does) that I had resolutely stood against exaggeration of future disaster as both morally wrong and counterproductive.

Peiser has been caught out by his lack of adequate research (not enough oil money on this side after all, it seems) and he needs to admit it. Simple as that.

Feb 16, 2010 at 7:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Benny Peiser should not pass on silly stories, he should retract the false quote.

Feb 16, 2010 at 7:15 PM | Unregistered Commenterharold

@Awatcher: ""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."" Well that would seem to have been shown conclusively to be either a lie or an error. Perhaps Peiser and Houghton could each apologise for his untruth? Though I suppose we now know that Houghton's statement here is untrue, whereas we can only suppose Peiser's to be untrue. Still, we can't reasonably ask Houghton to prove a negative, can we?
I should declare an interest here; it was a statement by Houghton years ago, that showed him to be either a crook or a fool, that turned me into a refutenik.

Feb 16, 2010 at 7:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterProf Jones's Mum

Richard Drake et al,

You are missing how the quote was actually used, it was far more dishonest than that. Monckton, for example, has a slide with a picture of Houghton above that text and under the slogan "We're all going to lie!", and in this manner literally and figuratively frames the fabricated quote. The purpose is clear, you are supposed to believe the disasters will be simply made up by Houghton (and by extension, every climate scientist). Now it is the likes of Monckton who are shown to be the agenda-driven liars.

Because even if the quote were genuine, this sort of quote-mining is fundamentally dishonest in the first place, and doesn't support the claim anyhow. The claim itself is also manifestly asinine. This isn't a James Bond movie - the villain doesn't publish his plans in a freaking book or a press release.

And this is not an isolated incident. It's just the latest fabricated quote. How many have we had, in the last week or two? And credulously lapping it up and passing it around is just SOP for the vast bulk of the 'sceptics', who as plain as day are anything but.

Sceptics aren't supposed to make that many silly mistakes. Sceptics aren't supposed to make stuff up. Sceptics are supposed to check things, they're not meant to be credulous morons. Sceptics are supposed to be using a method that self-corrects. Sceptics are supposed to change their mind in the face of evidence. 99% of your fellow travellers don't match this description.

Those of you who are really sceptics may care to ponder who is feeding you all that bullshit and why they can't make their case using the facts.

Feb 16, 2010 at 8:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer

"Those of you who are really sceptics may care to ponder who is feeding you all that bullshit and why they can't make their case using the facts."

Exactly the reason why I am a sceptic. Well put Frank O'dyer.

Feb 16, 2010 at 8:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterLord BeaverBrook

Philip Stott makes an interesting observation in his piece:

Nobody is saying that the intention is to ‘invent’ disasters; rather...the key issue is how one interprets, and employs, disasters when they occur.

Now I think it's fair to say that the original spurious quote has not been used in that way, so I think I would take issue with Prof Stott there, but the use of disasters to promote policy ends remains an integrity issue.

Feb 16, 2010 at 8:47 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Frank OD

Haw can you ascertain that the quote isn't genuine? The only think we (seem to) know is that Houghton's book wasn't the source. Given what he has said on multiple occasions, it does not at all ring implausible to me. Especially if the word were spoken, and not written down by its (supposed) origin.

And the same goes for all the people who thought it was a genuine quote. If it hasn't been disputed (anywhere?) for 15 years, one can quite reasonably assume that it is genuine. Remember: Until a few days ago nobody, not in the entire warmist community was seriously contending that statement!

Moreover, how can you (at all?) ascertain that the alleged 1st written occurence (by one P Akerman of the australian Daily Telegraph) really was the origin of this quote? This sounds very implausible to me! And how can you be shure that the mistake of its source is not the all too common sloppiness of journalism? That he got serveral things mixed up in interview about quotes and books and alarmism?

So even if the exact quote is a dud (which nobody can vouch for, even Houghton only says it's not the kind of thing he'd say), this would only very slightly alter his recorded position, and only to the extent that we don't really know if the quote is real or at least reasonably authentic in its meaning!

To me it looks like you want to accuse Peiser and lots of others for one (at worst) very slight oversight of not being exaclty right on one detail.

How would that compare to all the exaggerations by both media, and all the political and scientific proponents of man made warming and catastrophy?

Not at all! If I were to be the judge ...

Feb 16, 2010 at 8:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonas N


"but the use of disasters to promote policy ends remains an integrity issue."

That is simply begging the question. There is no integrity issue if the disasters really are caused or exacerbated by global warming.

If your doctor tells you just had your warning heart attack, and you might want to quit smoking, s/he may want you to be alarmed, but s/he's not being alarmist.

Some of these 'sceptics' round here don't seem to be able to tell the difference, just as they seem to think that any two sentences with the word 'disaster' in them must mean basically the same thing. We now must add basic reading comprehension to the long list of basic skills these 'sceptics' do not possess.

But using fabricated quotes and similar trumped up nonsense to smear scientists, now that really is an integrity issue. Houghton didn't do that so why are we still talking about him?

Feb 16, 2010 at 9:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer


That's what I meant by "it's an integrity issue" and what Prof Stott meant by "the key issue is how one interprets, and employs, disasters when they occur".

Feb 16, 2010 at 9:33 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

The statement “If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.” is peculiar. If we require that the goodness of a ”good environmental policy” is about its connection to reality, the requirement implies that at any given time, the policy should be consistent with our current knowledge of the climate system.
Why policy ”goodness” can come about in the future only in case of a future disaster, Sir John Houghton is not telling.

Feb 16, 2010 at 9:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterSvjo


Of course but why is that the issue here. The integrity at issue here is not that of Houghton, is it? People have smeared Houghton so why don't we talk about them?

Incidentally there is a similar twisted quote from Schneider that does the rounds, again to try and insinuate the same point. That one is typically twisted by leaving out the end - which is pretty ironic given the quote itself.

And then we have the recent wholesale fabrications and omissions from the likes of the Daily Mail and Jonathan Leake (who is both a Hack and a Leake).

This clearly isn't an isolated incident from the 'sceptics', by now being guilty of their own accusations is looking more and more like a hobby.

Feb 16, 2010 at 9:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer

But Houghton did say:
"There are those who will say 'unless we announce disasters, no one will listen', but I'm not one of them,"

So, who are those that will say it? Give me their names and numbers, Mr Houghton!
Is one of them Frank O'Dwyer?

Feb 16, 2010 at 9:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Silver

Frank, thank you for your robust reply addressed to me (et al) a bit earlier.

I fully admit that up till now I was dealing solely with Benny Peiser's use of the offending quote, which I accept misrepresents Houghton. I study what some AGW folks say more than others and I have a fair collection of Houghton-isms in my personal wiki. I didn't have the fabricated quote at issue, no doubt because I couldn't find an original source. And I at once accepted Sir John's testimony on the subject - that he would never say such a thing - because he strikes me as someone of basic integrity, albeit naive.

I wanted to deal with the most immediate and recent use of the quote, to argue against the view that Sir John 'had it coming' in any sense. Peiser was enough for that. But he's clearly not the only one that should apologise.

But there is a really major issue about disasters and that is the anthropogenic signature, indeed the anthropogenic-CO2-emissions signature. Even if a given disaster can credibly be ascribed to an increase in the Globally Averaged Temperature Anomaly (and I think that's often harder that is made out) there's no proof from that sad fact that man's carbon emissions had anything to do - or how much they had to do - with the increase in GATA.

Climate is such an exceptionally complex system. I thought Sir John's arguments and his use of the word 'phenomenal' to describe recent warming to the House of Lords select committee in January 2005 astonishingly bad - and potentially very harmful given his prestigious role in the IPCC from 1988 till 2002. You cannot possibly argue from computer models that way. And thus you cannot know that man emissions have caused some kind of natural disaster - not until the science of climate is far more advanced than it is today.

Feb 16, 2010 at 9:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

AGW promoters are out either supporting terrorists, like Hansen is diong right now, or silently letting people like Hansen do it, or having to defend by way of word parsing long after the fact if they were either backing or endorsing the same.
And since AGw is at heart an apocalyptic popular mania, why should anyone be surprised when its promoters hunger, as all pocalyptic promoters and profiteers do, for the great catastrophe?
Whether it is bs'ing over sea level rises, glaciers melting, storms, floods, draghts, snow, or any other weather event, the AGW community has over stated, over hyped and over predicted nearly everything to do with weather and climate for the past ~20 years.
Frankly let Houghton come out, on a timely basis, disavow the hype he and his ilk have enabled, and then we have something to talk about.
Now, when the wheel are coming off the AGW train, to engage in some sort of self-righteous parsing, is a bit of theater. Come out, apologize for building a culture of climate hysteria, demand that the IPCC, Hansen, CRU, etc. etc. etc. all get real, and then we can have something to chit chat about.

Feb 16, 2010 at 10:10 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

Frank seems very hot under the collar considering the AGW crew have been using scare, disaster and impending apocalypse to subjugate the masses for a decade or more. Houghton certainly took advantage of that, as do the money men, and those looking for grants to study the oncoming doom. Frankly, I'd read his climbdown as just that, - a backing off from a position that he found in the new light of day he couldn't justify. Climatologists are just going to have to make do with science, after all these years of puffery.

Feb 16, 2010 at 10:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Some quotations are doomed to be recorded in time even though they may not be true, possibly because they embody the sentiment or empathy of a situation.

This I feel will be one of those and will probably be attributed to Sir John in future history books, it's already logged in Hansard in May 2008.

Feb 16, 2010 at 11:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterLord BeaverBrook

Hunter: not all AGW proponents are like James Hansen. Cumbrian Lad: perhaps Houghton was just in the right place at the right time, as Margaret Thatcher got interested in the anthrogenic global warming theory, unlike the money men who came later (or before perhaps, in the case of Maurice Strong). Indeed Thatcher's initiative seems to explain fully his initial involvement. Don't tar everyone with the same brush. Treat everyone with absolute fairness. Admit when you've got something wrong, however small. Win friends and influence people. Easy, isn't it :)

Feb 16, 2010 at 11:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

"52. Some scientists present extreme accounts of catastrophic impacts related to climate
change in a popular format with the claim that it is their task to alert the public. How
much do you agree with this practice?"

Feb 16, 2010 at 11:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeR

Lord Beaverbrook: It's an amusing fact of history how many famous quotes are wrongly attributed or at least subtly misquoted. But that doesn't excuse being lax in the present - and it sure won't win over the floating voters on an issue like this in our own time.

John Silver fastened on a key aspect of this case, but then (to my mind) lost the sympathy vote by using it in a crude ad hominen against Frank O'Dwyer. The point remains though and it links to yours: Houghton admitted that some in the AGW movement do advocate lying about future disasters. I particularly dislike it though when the bad eggs in any group fasten the worst kind of attitude on one of the more honourable in their midst. It's an old trick: hide the bad stuff behind the kindly old buffer who won't spot or complain that he's been stitched up. But in this case, Houghton, quite rightly, has complained. And made it clear that some in the AGW don't have the same scruples. A big dig here sign, as John implied.

Feb 16, 2010 at 11:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

@Frank O'Dwyer:

I'm personally willing to accept that he didn't say the words that were attributed to him.

And I'm also willing to accept that the precise wording of the false quote, doesn't mean the same thing as the actual quote.

But the actual quote, is interesting and revealing don't you think? Why not focus on that? Why ignore it?

In my opinion:

If he had meant to say "Environmental policy will only begin improve after we have suffered a disaster resulting from the present policy", a fairly pessimistic prediction of the future, he could easily have said that, or words to that

But he didn't. He didn't word it as a prediction, he instead said "if we want", i.e. how can we achieve.

I will also say this. I agree with those who have said it's not clear from the quote whether he meant an actual disaster, or to predict a disaster - but if we conceed it's the former - in my opinion, it's somewhat unfortunate to suggest having a disaster would be the method to achieve a better environmental policy.

Feb 16, 2010 at 11:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterAWatcher

The Hans von Storch paper (in European Physical Journal – Special Topics, Volume 176, Number 1 / September, 2009) that I mentioned in my earlier comment makes for some interesting reading. Von Storch, Professor at the Meteorological Institute of the University of Hamburg, is certainly not a 'sceptic' and does hold to the AGW hypothesis, but he makes some refreshingly honest observations about matters of faith and ‘trust’ in AGW, the uncertainties in the rate and magnitude of natural variation and so the uncertainty in being able to detect an anthropogenic signal, scientists deliberately exaggerating threats, disinformation linking extreme weather events to climate change, and the propensity of humans to believe prophets of doom that these natural weather variations are actually 'climate catastrophes':

“…How fast can climate change when only natural causes are operating? This rate may be described by a probability distribution…This distribution is not known…It is not possible to prove that the estimation is “right”...I personally believe that our estimates are approximately correct – but I have to admit that I may be wrong with that assessment.

…the quality of estimating the magnitude of naturally caused variability is a key issue in this exercise. This magnitude is not known but must be estimated. Accepting its estimated value is a matter of trust. If somebody believes that the estimate is inadequate because of the limited data base, then I can not disprove this assertion. The same is true for my belief that the data base is good enough to allow a reasonable educated guess of this quantity – possible opponents are not able to prove that I am wrong.

…We humans – at least in the western culture – seem to be predisposed to accept “anthropogenic climate change” as an acceptable explanation for uncommon events even if they are natural and simply rare. This may be one of the reasons why the prophets of “climate catastrophes” and disasters are so successful in communicating with the general public – they articulate a primal fear, so to speak an eigen-oscillation of public perception.

…often the implicit assumption is made that when a climate change signal is detected in the global mean temperature, which is attributable to increased greenhouse gas concentrations, then all extraordinary meteorological events, like disastrous storms or extensive floods, must also be causally related to this anthropogenic climate change…There are even scientists who admit that exaggeration of the threat of climate change would be in order – because
without exaggeration the public would not take the threat sufficiently serious (Bray and von Storch, 2007).

…If every extreme event is considered a support of the concept of anthropogenic climate change – how would we be able to falsify the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change, if it would actually be false? Only by the absence of extreme events – which would, on the other hand, be a sure proof of climate change, as extreme events are integral parts of the statistics of weather.

The emphasis on “protection of climate” and the wrong causality of emissions and weather extremes is…a detrimental disinformation. It causes people to falsely believe that normal weather extremes are really related to climate change, and that such extreme would no more happen as soon as a successful climate policy is installed. The vulnerability against weather extremes is enhanced because of the false perception that we are facing a revengeful environment which is striking back against the perpetrator instead of the view that extremes of this sort are “normal” and need preparation on our side even if these events are rare.”

Feb 17, 2010 at 12:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterScientistForTruth

Richard, whatever reason Dr Houghton had for becoming involved (and since he was at the Met Office at the time I think, he must already have had an interest) he certainly has stayed in through his beliefs, not just because it was convenient. Beliefs that is in science, as well as his christian faith. He is very close to ascribing the wrath of God as behind any forthcoming disasters. Irrespective of the precise origin of the quote, he has been pretty good over the years at hinting very strongly, using data and 'forward looking statements' together in such a way in front of non specialist audiences that make scientifically unwarranted conclusions by such audiences almost inevitable. A few examples:

Sir John Houghton, former chief executive of the Meteorological Office - and the first senior figure to liken the threat of climate change to that of terrorism - said: 'If the Pentagon is sending out that sort of message, then this is an important document indeed.
(Pielke Jr)

While politicians and political advocates
might sometimes be expected to
stretch the bounds of scientifi c accuracy,
it is particularly troubling to see leading
scientists join them. For instance, the
former head of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), Sir John Houghton, testifi ed before
the U.S. Senate last July that increasing
disaster losses could be attributed to
increased storminess (Houghton, 2005).

[In the text of the Senate hearing given above, Houghton states that the probability of 20,000 deaths in the European heatwave being due to global warming was "very likely"]

Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agrees. "Global warming is already upon us, he said. "The impacts of global warming are such that that I have no hesitation in describing it as a weapon of mass destruction."

Sir John Houghton: "Many people of course, in many countries and many cities, will be able to buy their way out of it, but at a cost, by putting up better sea defences, But if you live in Bangladesh, or if you live in South China, if you live in the Nile Delta of Egypt, if you live on islands in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, then much of your land will disappear. Tens of millions live in that land and they will become refugees.

He is not at all given to understatement is he?

This next one is not Houghton, but Botkin, a very interesting piece that is well worth reading.
Some colleagues who share some of my doubts argue that the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right and even necessary for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my belief in open and honest assessment is naïve. "Wolves deceive their prey, don't they?" one said to me recently. Therefore, biologically, he said, we are justified in exaggerating to get society to change.

Feb 17, 2010 at 12:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

I see no difference in how the rest of the political establishment sees crisis mode reaction.

As Rahm Emmanuel said right after the 2008 election, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste!"

Saul Alinsky taught that point well.

If you dont have one handy, create it; if that is not feasible, make it up.

Feb 17, 2010 at 1:31 AM | Unregistered Commenterpettyfog

It is less than a week since the Independent article (which says that the 'quote' links to 130,000 web pages) was printed. Who can say what evidence, one way or the other, may turn up in the fullness of time?

Feb 17, 2010 at 2:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterTony Hansen

** Retracting the TONE of my last post **
Which was written more or less Stream of Consciousness.
Reading the published comment, it could well be that he meant that policy probably would require a catastrophe to change. Very feasible and true on its face.

The problem is that it seems tailored to 'plausible deniability'. Some advocates choose the words well, just for that purpose. I think the answer is in the whole of his writings and statements.

Feb 17, 2010 at 2:20 AM | Unregistered Commenterpettyfog

John Houghton is certainly guilty of intemperate prose. From LexisNexis:

"The Guardian (London)

"July 28, 2003

"Comment & Analysis: Global warming is now a weapon of mass destruction: It kills more people than terrorism, yet Blair and Bush do nothing

"BYLINE: John Houghton

"SECTION: Guardian Leader Pages, Pg. 14

"LENGTH: 1178 words

"If political leaders have one duty above all others, it is to protect the security of their people. Thus it was, according to the prime minister, to protect Britain's security against Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that this country went to war in Iraq. And yet our long-term security is threatened by a problem at least as dangerous as chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, or indeed international terrorism: human-induced climate change.

"As a climate scientist who has worked on this issue for several decades, first as head of the Met Office, and then as co-chair of scientific assessment for the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change, the impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a "weapon of mass destruction". Like terrorism, this weapon knows no boundaries. It can strike anywhere, in any form - a heatwave in one place, a drought or a flood or a storm surge in another. Nor is this just a problem for the future. The 1990s were probably the warmest decade in the last 1,000 years, and 1998 the warmest year. Global warming is already upon us.

"The World Meteorological Organisation warned this month that extreme weather events already seem to be becoming more frequent as a result. The US mainland was struck by 562 tornados in May (which incidentally saw the highest land temperatures globally since records began in 1880), killing 41 people. The developing world is the hardest hit: extremes of climate tend to be more intense at low latitudes and poorer countries are less able to cope with disasters. Pre-monsoon temperatures this year in India reached a blistering 49C (120F) - 5C (9F) above normal.

"Once this killer heatwave began to abate, 1,500 people lay dead - half the number killed outright in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. While no one can ascribe a single weather event to climate change with any degree of scientific certainty, higher maximum temperatures are one of the most predictable impacts of accelerated global warming, and the parallels - between global climate change and global terrorism - are becoming increasingly obvious.

"To his credit, Tony Blair has - rhetorically, at least - begun to face up to this. In a recent speech he stated clearly that "there can be no genuine security if the planet is ravaged by climate change". But words are not enough. They have to be matched with adequate action. The recent announcement of a large-scale offshore wind generating programme was welcome, but the UK still lags far behind other European countries in developing renewables capacity.

"The latest report on energy and climate change by the royal commission on environmental pollution addressed the much more demanding global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will be required over the next 50 years (in addition to the Kyoto agreement) and how these could be achieved. Given that the UK needs to take its share of the global burden the commission recommended that we should aim for a cut in these emissions of 60% by 2050. It also pointed out the urgent need for an adequate mechanism for negotiating each country's emission target and advocated a globally implemented plan known as "contraction and convergence". The energy white paper published earlier this year accepted the royal commission's 60% reduction target, but it is disturbing that it provided no clarity on UK policy regarding the framework for international negotiation.

"Any successful international negotiation for reducing emissions must be based on four principles: the precautionary principle, the principle of sustainable development, the polluter-pays principle and the principle of equity. The strength of "contraction and convergence" is that it satisfies all these principles. But it also means facing up to some difficult questions. First, world leaders have to agree on a target for the stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a sufficiently low level to stave off dangerous climate change. Second, this target, and the global greenhouse gas budget it implies, has to form the framework for an equitable global distribution of emissions permits, assigned to different countries on a per-capita basis. Countries with the largest populations will therefore get the most permits, but for the sake of efficiency and to achieve economic convergence these permits will need to be internationally tradable. This is the only solution likely to be acceptable to most of the developing world, which unlike us has not had the benefit of over a century of fossil fuel-driven economic prosperity. And it also meets one of the key demands of the United States, that developing countries should not be excluded from emissions targets, as they currently are under the Kyoto protocol.

"Nowadays everyone knows that the US is the world's biggest polluter, and that with only one 20th of the world's population it produces a quarter of its greenhouse gas emissions. But the US government, in an abdication of leadership of epic proportions, is refusing to take the problem seriously - and Britain, presumably because Blair wishes not to offend George Bush - is beginning to fall behind too. Emissions from the US are up 14% on those in 1990 and are projected to rise by a further 12% over the next decade.

"It is vital that Russia now ratifies the Kyoto protocol so that it can at last come into force. But while the US refuses to cooperate, it is difficult to see how the rest of the world can make much progress on the much tougher longer-term agreements that will be necessary after Kyoto's mandate runs out in 2012.

"Nor does the latest science provide any comfort. The intergovernmental panel on climate change has warned of 1.4C to 5.8C (2.5F to 10.4F) temperature rises by 2100. This already implies massive changes in climate, and yet the current worst-case scenarios emerging from the Met Office's Hadley centre envisage even greater rises than this - a degree and speed of global warming the consequences of which are hard to quantify or even imagine.

"So Blair has a challenge. The world needs leadership, and the British prime minister is well placed to stand at the head of a new "coalition of the willing" to tackle this urgent problem. He is also uniquely placed to persuade Bush to join in this effort, given their joint commitment to making the world safe from "weapons of mass destruction". But even if he fails to persuade him, there are other allies who would still respond to his leadership - even if this means opposing the US until such time as it no longer has an oilman for president. If Blair were to assume this mantle, history might not only forgive him, but will also endorse Britain's contribution to long-term global security.

"Sir John Houghton was formerly chief executive of the Meteorological Office and co-chair of the scientific assessment working group of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. He is the author of Global Warming: the Complete Briefing."

Feb 17, 2010 at 2:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterPat Frank

The word "want" in the Houghton quote is very peculiar because it implies an action must follow to fulfil the desire.

What is the action to be? To find a disaster, or to create one? What other options are there? To actively avoid taking any action to prevent a foreseeable disaster?

There are lots of other ways he could have expressed himself to avoid these implications but he chose these words. He has certainly been misquoted, but I'm not so sure he has been misinterpreted.

Feb 17, 2010 at 2:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Wilkinson

Pat Frank (and Cumbrian Lad): I fully agree that Houghton's prose has been intemperate - but that's because I buy Lindzen's argument that the only really hard data that we have is an increase of temperature of about 0.6 deg C over a hundred years, with about 75% of the forcing due to a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere having taken effect during that time. Because the relationship is logarithmic and we're unlikely to see more than another doubling of CO2 this century it's very unlikely we'll be dealing with anything more than an increase of 1 deg C - and other factors may well mean it's much less or a cooling. As you have said yourself, very eloquently, there is so much we don't know. The models can't get clouds and water vapor even roughly right and cannot be trusted on feedbacks, compared to the very simple hard data already given. Someone needs to come up with S. McIntyre's engineering-type explanation of positive feedback, something comprehensive and credible. Until then, such claims as Houghton makes seem to me to be barmy.

But I don't deduce that he's saying things that he knows aren't true or likely to be true. That's the point at issue. He utterly denies and repudiates that approach and on that I believe him. Certainly nobody can produce the source for the quotation that has been attributed to him. For that he's asking for an apology and I'm clear he should get one.

Feb 17, 2010 at 2:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

The quote in full provided the context:

“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.”

Sloppy, Bishop, sad and sloppy work, particularly given the subject matter.

Feb 17, 2010 at 2:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterWadard

Richard Drake, it's not, "that [John Houghton]'s saying things that he knows aren't true or likely to be true." It's that he's being dead certain concerning that about which there is no scientific evidence whatever.

Case in point; Houghton: "[O]ur long-term security is threatened by a problem at least as dangerous as chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, or indeed international terrorism: human-induced climate change."

What is the scientific evidence on which to base that statement? Does the lack make it a lie?

How about the very next sentence: "As a climate scientist who has worked on this issue for several decades, ... I have no hesitation in describing [the impacts of global warming] as a "weapon of mass destruction." Is John Houghton not speaking without foundation? Does that make his second comment a deliberate lie?

AGW is not an unqualified fraud. It's a pious fraud. How else to account for the irrational and apocalyptic language its avowers use to announce it?

It's exactly akin to the lurid exaggeration of sexual moral failures employed by religious nutcases to cry the coming divine wrath.

Feb 17, 2010 at 4:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterPat Frank

I have been looking over some Houghton-related articles online. I don't have anything against him, and may be it's because I'm not myself religious, but I do find his mixing of old testament religious stories and climate change prediction to be bizarre, e.g.

Feb 17, 2010 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterAWatcher

Pat, would it be fair to summarise your view then that Sir John is owed something very special indeed, the relationship of which to a normal apology is somewhat akin to how a Glasgow kiss relates to a kiss?

The piety has been all wrong, that I'll grant you. Never has so much evil been dressed up in such self-righteous clothes.

I've been wanting for a long time to discuss publicly Sir John's reactions to the programme The Great Global Warming Swindle in March 2007. Because, although everyone else ignored it, Houghton didn't entirely duck the utterly crucial end sequence, including that black African economist's cogent claim that the AGW movement was an attempt to finish off the 'African dream': that the impact of these apparently high-minded policies would be that those currently without electricity would never be able to save or improve the lives of their families and children. Everyone else seemed to concentrate on small quibbles in the earlier part - the Carl Wunsch stuff - and totally ignore this searing, humanitarian argument, which was to my mind the very heart of the film and what was driving Martin Durkin's passion on the subject (a man, like you, I imagine whose patience with the pieties expressed by the likes of Houghton are, shall we say, limited!)

But John, to his credit, in his critique, did deal with this part:

9. Action on climate change by developed countries may have a negative influence on development of the world's poorer countries – POSSIBLY TRUE.

A strong non scientific point made towards the end of the programme concerned the possible effect of pressure from the developed world on developing countries to develop without use of fossil fuel sources of energy. There is something inherently unfair in such pressure that could hamper growth of developing country economies especially when rather little is being done by developed countries to reduce their own fossil fuel emissions. Further, the greater proportion of the damage from climate change will tend to fall on developing countries. The responsibilities of developed countries therefore are clear, first to reduce their own emissions as rapidly as possible and secondly to assist developing countries with resources and skills to develop their energy and other requirements in sustainable ways

I also still find it plausible and indeed very interesting that within Houghton's own mental universe there were those around him in the AGW camp who were urging deliberate use of imminent disasters that everyone 'knew' weren't for real - and that he was standing up to such immoral pressure.

Make of it what you will. I don't think you have anything to apologise for.

Feb 17, 2010 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Houghton (a devout evangelical Christian) is just a relgious fear monger and speaks out of his religion instead of his science background, no matter how much context and semantics you try to throw in as a diversion. When warming cannot be contributed to nature it must be an act of God punishing mankind for it's bad behavior. "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction." (No, not Houghton, it's Psalm 73:18).

A very revealing interview about his religious motives:

"We're doing God's science" :

"Houghton says that Cizik's efforts are crucial. "The biggest problem in the world is getting the American religious right on board, because if that happened, the whole thing would be transformed."

Feb 17, 2010 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterHoi Polloi

Wonderfully defiant ,Bish...but he did not say it. He most certainly did not say ' unless we [climate scientists] manufacture disasters no one will listen'. What he unambiguously means is that unfortunately it will take disaster to make legislators act. This is a pretty unremarkable observation,given the numerous examples of all sorts of socially useful legislation following nasty events.

Feb 17, 2010 at 10:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick

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