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Oxford professors and the poor

Yesterday Myles Allen posted a highly personal attack on Matt Ridley. The Guardian has apparently failed to respond to Matt's requests to allow him to respond (I am reminded of their publication of Bob Ward's hit piece on me back in 2009, when it took days to get them to reply to me and weeks before the response was published). This being the case Matt has asked me to post the following:

Dear Professor Allen,

In your polemical Guardian article on Tuesday you produce no counter-arguments to my Times article. For example, you ask: "Is Ridley right that there is no actual evidence of harm as long as droughts, floods and storms are within historic variability?" You then do not answer that question. Well, am I right or not?

You then say:

Where Ridley may well be right is that if you are confident that citizens of 2065 will be rich enough and smart enough to cope with whatever we bequeath to them; or if you really don't care about unborn generations anyway (what have unborn generations ever done for me?); or if, like Bjorn Lomborg, you discount future damages to give very little weight to anything that happens after 2065; or if you firmly believe that the "second coming" will occur before 2065 anyway – then there probably isn't much point in trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. These are perfectly coherent ethical positions: they don't happen to be positions that I subscribe to, but if that is what Ridley thinks, so be it.

This is manifestly dishonest. To find out what I think, try reading my article rather than making up fantastic and absurd stories and then saying "if that is what Ridley thinks…". Where did I mention anything remotely like a "second coming"? Where did I imply that I "don't care about unborn generations", when I made the exact opposite point? Why did you choose to distort my argument that the citizens of 2060 will be able to cope with mild climate change into a quite different point -- "cope with whatever we bequeath them"? And why did you choose to ignore the point I clearly made that climate policy is doing more economic and ecological harm to the poor today than climate change itself, and will do so for several more decades?

Not only do I care very much about my children and potential grandchildren, which is why I do not want to burden them with biomass power stations and wind turbines that drive up energy costs, spoil landscapes and exacerbate rainforest destruction. But I also care about poor people alive today, whom you do not mention. Climate change policies are killing nearly 200,000 people a year by subsidizing bio-energy and driving up food prices.[1] Fuel poverty is being driven up by subsidies for wind energy — this may not trouble Oxford professors, but it is a real issue for many people. Hard-pressed south-east Northumberland, where I live, has just lost 500 jobs at an aluminium plant because (in the words of Civitas) “the smelter’s long-term viability is critically undermined by the government’s energy policies”.

Although you describe the climate debate as acrimonious, you will find no ad hominem attacks on you or distortions of your position in my Times article. For anybody, let alone a scientist purporting to speak with scientific authority, to write an article as vicious and misleading as this is frankly despicable. It exemplifies the sort of innuendo journalism that the Leveson report rightly criticised. Until this week I had considerable respect for you, having followed some of your work and disagreed only with the political interpretations you put on it. Now you have lost my respect.

Yours sincerely,

Matt Ridley


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Reader Comments (81)

Utter duplicity about 'fearing for the unborn'. How does this tally against the forces of dark(green)ness demanding that our future generations are never born in the first place?

May 22, 2013 at 7:47 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor

While I would not broad brush everyone with concerns about climate change as holding opinions about our planet being overly populated and far above "carrying capacity", there certainly seems to be a good percentage that do. Which makes their "concern" for future generations rather hypocritical.

May 22, 2013 at 8:03 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

Bravely said as always Dr Ridley. I often think of your illustrious ancestor in this Global Warming debate and marvel that the same blood is still providing the intelligent leadership in the world.

May 22, 2013 at 8:58 PM | Unregistered Commentermariwarcwm

Interesting that Allen should trot out the "skeptics = fundies" second coming reference, as that's surely a US based lefty / warmist smear with no relevance to the UK. Perhaps a clue as to who he has been spending a lot of time talking to?

May 22, 2013 at 9:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

When I were a lad out in the farthest reaches of t'colony of New Zealand, my more Anglophile high school teachers employed phrases such as 'the dreaming spires of Oxford' to conjure up notions of the incredible moral and intellectual superiority of the inhabitants of those 'dreaming spires'.
Professor Allen has laid that old chestnut to rest by his utterly dishonest and disgraceful ad-hominem attacks on Matt Ridley, to say nothing of finally laying waste to his own reputation.

May 22, 2013 at 10:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

Only just seen Paul Matthews' response of 4:55 PM. I clicked over to see it was James Delingpole - and laughed before I read a word. :)

May 22, 2013 at 10:43 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

From Allen's article:

"The relevant comparison is not with the 2.5C response of one model, but with the average of climate models used by the UN's climate science panel in its upcoming major report, which is 1.8C. Now 1.3C is 30% less than 1.8C, but this is hardly a game changer: "

This guy is a scientist? Since when is 1.3C 30% less than 1.8C?

Leaving aside the questionable nature of using percentages at all in relation to temperature, I can only suggest that next time he uses Fahrenheit. The "percentage" would be even more dramatic then. In Kelvin, not so much.

The author of this comment has not formally studied science or maths since high school, BTW. Perhaps being an Oxford professor has a degenerative effect on the ability to reason.

May 23, 2013 at 8:34 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Good spot johanna. There was so much other nonsense in there that that slipped through.

What a schoolboy howler!

You see it in Guardian comments quite often.

That would be a good mistake to get Mr "brain the size of a small planet" Allen to fess up to.

May 23, 2013 at 9:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterSimonW


In this context saying that 1.3C (which is shorthand for 1.3C change in temperature per doubling in CO2) is 30% less than 1.8C (ditto) is perfectly sensible. The result would be the same in Kelvin (1.3K vs 1.8K), and up to rounding errors the same in Farenheit (2.3F vs 3.2F) or even Rankine (2.3R vs 3.2R).

Please don't let your evident contempt for Oxford professors lead you into foolish mistakes.

May 23, 2013 at 9:50 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones


I understand your point, and indeed understood it when I read the article - but you misunderstand mine.

First, it is simply misleading to use percentages in this way. A percentage implies that there is such as thing as 100%, and is therefore inappropriate for any discussion of changes in global temperature. There is no such thing as 100% of global temperature in a quantitative sense, even assuming that you believe that the term has any useful meaning at all.

Secondly, if the temperatures under discussion had been expressed in Kelvin, the change would have been infinitesimally small. But let's just do it in Fahrenheit. 1.3C is 34.4F. 1.8C is 35.24F. The percentage change (to use Allen's terminology) is around 40%. If the temps had been expressed in Kelvin, the change would have been embarrassingly small, but would at least have had the virtue of relating to some absolute value as a baseline.

I hope this clarifies the situation. I thank my high school science teacher, Mr Connery, who pointed this fallacy out to us in 1971.

(PS - calculation done with pen and paper - maybe I need a sophisticated computer model to get the "right" answer!)

May 23, 2013 at 10:39 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Poor Oxford. Sic transit gloria mundi.


May 23, 2013 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterPointman


I'm afraid you don't understand my point, and your reply just makes that completely clear. There is a temperature fallacy which one sees depressingly often in newspapers, but that fallacy is not involved in this calculation.

The comment is about a 30% decrease in a predicted change in globally averaged temperature anomaly. One could argue over whether such averaged anomalies are meaningful, but since you immediately leaped to the issue of temperature scales I assume that is not your major concern.

As the temperatures in question are anomalies they are invariant under shifts in the origin (zero point), and so you get the same result in Celsius and Kelvin. Since the calculation involves changes in temperature, it is once again invariant under shifts in the origin. And since the final stage involves taking ratios the result is invariant under scale changes, and thus is the same in Celsius and Farenheit.

The result is the same no matter what temperature scale you use.

May 23, 2013 at 11:15 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

City of Expiring Dreams?

May 23, 2013 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

totally get the point about % of anomaly..

but it is being talked about as if it is a change in the temperature.

May 23, 2013 at 11:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

"How grateful the warmista elite must be for AutoTrader, keeping their house journal afloat - for the time being, anyway."

I think that the Guardian sold AutoTrader a while ago. They also changed the nature of the holding company to benefit from a tax break on the profits from that sale. It is no longer a trust, it is now a plc.

May 23, 2013 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterEddy

Barry: People, including journalists, should have to spell out GATA - globally averaged temperature anomaly - far more often than they do. It's really quite a abstruse concoction. But thanks to that other Oxford professor for putting us right in this case.

May 23, 2013 at 12:03 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Note how I did exactly that, in writing for the non-specialist, in my four numbers that tell a story on the last day of 2011 - a post Josh was kind enough to tweet something nice about. That also allows me to slip in where my technical blogging has ended up, for now, after Posterous kindly closed me down.

May 23, 2013 at 12:07 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Well you could also say that the previous estimate of 1.8K was a whopping 38% in error compared to the latest (more accurate) figure of 1.3K. It depends how you want to play it.

And since the last century produced only 0.6K of warming and the current business as usual scenario is not increasing that trend (in fact apparently decreasing it), then the new numbers are likely still too high anyway.

But the essence of Allens argument seems to be reality doesn't matter; only the message that fossil fuels are evil is important; despite the fact that he depends on them as much as the rest of us.

Now if it were easy to decarbonise.....Alas it isn't! Decarbonising without having a viable, ready replacement is criminally stupid. As it stands the green-friendly cure is worse than the putative disease.

I don't believe Ridleys boundless optimism is too useful either though. Sound energy policy determines whether the lights stay on, not the flawed free-market thinking that brought down his own bank.

May 23, 2013 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

@Paul Matthews, I agree

May 23, 2013 at 1:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrute

JamesG: I'm not an expert in Ridleyism but I feel that I know his optimism isn't boundless. For one thing, he knows and acknowledges that governments curtailing freedom can do great harm. Clinton's interference in the housing market in the States, trying to use coercive state power on lending institutions to make it easier for blacks to obtain mortgages, going on to cause the credit crunch is quite a neat example. That doesn't excuse Northern Rock's rather un-rock-like business strategy of course but it does make one look back to thinkers like Thomas Sowell who warned about this kind of thing at the time. (And this wasn't the only cause - but it's not often enough mentioned.)

May 23, 2013 at 2:02 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

<Mrs Lovejoy> Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children! </Mrs Lovejoy>

May 23, 2013 at 2:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterratty

Jonathan Jones, the point is not whether a couple of dozen of the climate science cognoscenti who read the article understand that he is referring to temperature anomalies - it is that the statement he made is just plain wrong on its face. It doesn't matter what you think he meant - I am simply referring to what he said, in his own words.

My little exercise in scale conversion illustrates what someone who is not a mind reader would derive from the words on the page, if they were lucky enough to have taken Mr Connery's science class.

Not being a mind reader, I do not know why Allen wrote what he did. I do know that it is misleading. But your condescending responses rather reinforce my point about the way that many academics regard their responsibilities in communicating with lesser beings.

May 23, 2013 at 7:12 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna


If the article had used Fahrenheit not Centigrade scales, the relevant numbers would be 2.34F (=1.3*9/5) and 3.24F (=1.8*9/5). And the difference between the two would still be 30%

The Kelvin scale just uses the same set of degrees rebased to another zero point. The numbers in question would remain at 1.3K and 1.8K. And the difference at 30%.

Jonathan is right that for this example..and anything else that uses temperature differences

'The result is the same no matter what temperature scale you use'.

May 23, 2013 at 9:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

PS - I am not an academic. And if accused of being one, I wouldn't necessarily take it as a compliment.....

May 23, 2013 at 9:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

Eddy , nope the Guardian is still propped up by Auto trade but yes they changed their tax system to make use of off-shore tax 'efficient ' schemes . The same approaches they attack others for doing in many articles , but oddly not one person who has written for them on this has chosen to mention this fact , odd that ?

May 23, 2013 at 10:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterKNR

When people have no argument they invent them. I have no respect for Allen why would I? After all he's wrong about everything and right about nothing?

May 24, 2013 at 12:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterStacey

(1.8-1.3)/1.8 = 0.27777... = 28%

May 24, 2013 at 7:06 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A


aha, I see that he is talking about anomalies not temperatues so you are correct it isn't the usual Guardian error. Mea culpa.

Apologies to all, hangs head in shame, tail between legs etc

In future I'll try and let the coffee kick in before letting my knee jerk.

(out and about yesterday)

May 24, 2013 at 11:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterSimonW


Always glad to help. The key thing is that he is talking about changes in temperatures, not temperatures themselves, and so the offset doesn't matter and the fallacy doesn't arise. Talking about anomalies has the same effect, because anomalies are, fundamentally, just changes in temperature from some base period. Since he was talking about changes in anomalies he is on doubly safe ground.

The article does, of course, have major problems, but they lie elsewhere.

May 24, 2013 at 11:56 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

The same people who are worried for the "future children" would be so happy to see a world without children, a planet with only half a billion people. The greatest threat to our children and their children is green extremists not global warming, which has not occured for a longer time than it did. If these green extremists were to have their way, my six grand children would not be here today.

May 26, 2013 at 6:03 PM | Unregistered Commenteralex

Bish - please can you add an "allen" tag to this post too? Thanks

May 27, 2013 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

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