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« Something a bit neffy | Main | Walport and his evidence »

The works of Lord Deben

This is a guest post by Matt Ridley.

Lord Deben is chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, a body funded by the British taxpayer. He draws a salary of more than £35,000 from you and me. On the masthead of its website the committee claims to give “a balanced response to the risks of climate change” and “independent, evidence-based advice to the UK government and Parliament”.

Yet the committee consists entirely of people who think climate change will be dangerous; no sceptics or lukewarmers are on it, even though most hold views that are well within the “consensus” of climate science. Under Deben’s chairmanship since 2012 its pronouncements have become increasingly one-sided. Deben himself is frequently highly critical of any sceptics, often mischaracterizing them as “deniers” or “dismissers”, but has never to my knowledge been heard to criticize anybody for exaggerating climate alarm and the harm it can do to disadvantaged people. These are not the actions of an impartial chairman.

In the past year, as I shall detail, Lord Deben has three times launched sharp criticisms of me for arguing that some climate change projections are exaggerated. In each case, I have replied with detailed rebuttals based on peer-reviewed scientific literature to show that his criticisms were wrong, but my replies have been dismissed or ignored by Lord Deben. I suppose I should be flattered that this vendetta against me indicates that he clearly feels that my arguments threaten some part of his agenda. But on this third occasion he has sunk to a new low.

On 28 October 2013, I made a speech in the House of Lords in which I gave “nine separate examples of ways in which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has retreated to a slightly less alarming and less certain position than six years ago”. Notice first that this was a very mild claim. I was not saying there was no cause for alarm in the new report of the IPCC. I was not even saying that overall the document was less alarming (though in my judgment, it is). I was merely saying that in nine instances, it was “slightly” less alarming than in the previous report.

In other words, I was not adopting a position of denial, or even of skepticism. I was adopting, as I usually do, a “lukewarm” position: that there is a strong chance that climate change will happen but will be comparatively mild and slow and may well do less harm than the policies promoted in its name. The IPCC is slowly coming closer to this position in its main reports. My nine examples show this clearly. AR5 has acknowledged:

  • the recent “hiatus” in temperatures;
  • the likelihood that medieval temperatures may have been as high as today’s;
  • the unpredicted increase in Antarctic sea ice;
  • that 111 of 114 models had predicted too much warming over recent years
  • that the low end of equilibrium climate sensitivity is lower;
  • that the high end of transient climate response is lower;
  • that likely sea level rise is not as high as some experts have forecast
  • that collapses of the Gulf Stream, of Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets or of methane clathrates are “very unlikely” ;
  • that there is “low confidence” in the collapse of tropical forests, of boreal forests and of the monsoon, an explosion of greenhouse gases from the Arctic permafrost and an increase in megadroughts.

All in all, it is not unreasonable for an intelligent reader of the AR5 report to conclude that in these nine respects, the IPCC is reflecting the fact that scientists are slightly less alarmed or certain than they were six years before. I am not the only person to have reached this conclusion. Professor Judith Curry, Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, testifying to the Senate recently went considerably further than I did:

Multiple lines of evidence presented in the IPCC AR5 WG1 report suggest that the case for anthropogenic warming is weaker than the previous assessment AR4 in 2007.

A chairman of a Committee on Climate Change and who read my speech might decide to argue with me, and might even commission a report from an expert to assess my claims. He would however (1) tell me he was doing so; (2) seek my response; (3) tell me he was publishing the report on my speech; (4) publish the name of the author(s) of the report on my speech. He may not be under any legal obligation to do these things; but he would be under a moral one.

Lord Deben chose to do none of these four things. He did not have the courtesy to tell me he was commissioning a report, despite seeing me regularly in the House of Lords. He did not have the caution to ask for a response in case his report had missed an important source I had used. He did not have the manners to tell me the report had been published. He did not have the courage to put the report’s author’s name on it.

I came across the report by accident one day, when checking something else on the Committee’s website. I immediately wrote to Lord Deben (letter here) asking him a set of specific questions and giving a detailed response to his report. I pointed out that his report had several errors. The most striking was that in quoting the IPCC AR5 report they had cut some words and numbers out of a sentence. Those words and numbers were the very ones that proved me right, by showing no warming during the past 15 years. The only reason for excising these words and numbers was plainly to alter the sense of the sentence to mean something other than what it plainly said.

...the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to +0.15] °C per decade), which begins with a strong El Nino, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951.

The words in bold were omitted.

In more than 30 years of science reporting I have never come across such a deceitful trick, let alone in an official government document. It is the sort of thing I might have expected to find coming from some of the more rabid and intolerant activist green groups, yet I do not think even they would stoop this low. Yet this was only one way in which the anonymous author of the report on my speech had cherry-picked, omitted, mined and distorted the words of the IPCC to try to imply that I was wrong in my moderate and careful assessment that in nine respects there is “slightly” less alarm in AR5 than there was in AR4.

I received a reply from Lord Deben that was dismissive and empty (see attached). He answered none of my questions, addressed none of my points and merely reasserted his right to commission such reports – a point I had not challenged. Having given him the opportunity to respond to my questions, which he has spurned, I am now prepared to go public.

So I am now publishing this account of the sorry saga, so that readers can decide for themselves whether my original speech was fair, whether the criticisms made by Lord Deben’s anonymous report were fair, and whether this is an appropriate way for a public servant to have behaved. I am putting it in the public domain so that, if others share my concerns about the bias of the Committee on Climate Change they can raise them with the committee themselves.

It would be interesting to ask: Who wrote this document? Why was it published without informing me? Why were key words omitted from key sentences in quotations? Why does the committee never challenge exaggerations in the same way as it challenges those arguing that climate change is moderate? How much did the preparation of this report cost? Why was I given no right of reply? Why did Lord Deben refuse to post my response to his report on his website? If you do raise these questions, please be polite, be factually accurate and be brief. And, as always, please quote exactly the words I or others used, not some paraphrase of them.

My recent experience, of being smeared in an inaccurate way about this topic of climate change policy by somebody employed in a public body is not unique. The same thing has happened to Roger Pielke Jr recently at the hands of Dr John Holdren, to Nic Lewis, Donna Laframboise and Dick Lindzen recently at the hands of Bob Ward, and to Bjorn Lomborg and Richard Tol also at the hands of Bob Ward. Not forgetting Ward’s attacks on Bishop Hill.

As I mentioned above, this is not the first time I have been attacked by Lord Deben. About a year ago, in a lecture in Oxford he mocked me for having a doctorate in biology (he has an English degree), and falsely charged – on the basis of a blog post written by a novelist (!) – that I had not cited the mainstream scientific literature when writing about ocean acidification. In fact in the relevant passage I had included direct quotations from 17 papers in the mainstream scientific literature, including a major meta-analysis of 372 peer-reviewed papers. Despite being requested twice to do so, Lord Deben declined to write to the organisers of the lecture to correct his mistake.

Later he wrote to fellow peers following a debate in the House of Lords saying that the “facts that were presented [by me in a speech] would be denied by almost every climatologist in the world”. I replied with direct quotations to show that I was citing mainstream scientific publications in every item of my speech. He ignored my letter.

In taking part in the debate on climate change over more than 25 years I have always tried to act with good manners, despite severe provocation. When I first covered this topic, I accepted alarming projections on trust. Since becoming more sceptical of exaggerated claims, I am used to being abused, ridiculed, smeared and inaccurately misquoted not only by amateur bloggers but by senior scientists and politicians and their spin doctors. I try never to respond in kind. The rudeness of the climate establishment towards anybody who argues for moderation is quite extraordinary, but I do not believe in emulating it. On Twitter Lord Deben has recently criticised sceptics for their rudeness. He should look in the mirror.

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Reader Comments (70)

HG54: "None of Lord Ridley's complaints surprise me. I've often found Lord Debden's tweets so biased, rude and offensive, that for some considerable time I thought it couldn't be him; that it had to be someone operating a spoof account purporting to be him."

Wasn't it Bernard Levin who used to respond to senders of abusive letters, sending the letter back and asking are you aware that some looney is writing using your name?

Mar 12, 2014 at 6:29 PM | Unregistered Commentermike fowle

Mar 12, 2014 at 1:53 PM | Richard Drake

Seems to have been out there for a few years with both c/k and i/o spellings. Can't recall where I saw it. But in googling I saw that commenter 'sab' at BH on 16th Feb 2014 said: "Can anyone help - should it be skeptiphobia, skeptophobia, or perhaps skepticophobia?"

'i' may be more correct but 'o' scans better I think, and mirrors 'skeptophilia' which seems also to be used.

Mar 12, 2014 at 6:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


That does sound rather like a medical condition. Still, if there are any attractive female sufferers reading, I'd be happy to do what I can to help... :-)

Mar 12, 2014 at 6:41 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

I seem to recall that His Grace challenged Deben to a debate with Lord Ridley - which Deben obviously evaded. So we can add coward to the other epithets showered upon this worthless soul.

Mar 12, 2014 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterHeadless Chicken

"The most striking was that in quoting the IPCC AR5 report they had cut some words and numbers out of a sentence. Those words and numbers were the very ones that proved me right, by showing no warming during the past 15 years. The only reason for excising these words and numbers was plainly to alter the sense of the sentence to mean something other than what it plainly said."....

Lord Deben as a member of "The Team" is using 'Mike's Rebuttal Trick". (Cf mark Steyn). Misquoting references to support the unsupporttable. The use of this 'trick' is prima facie evidence of a lost argument.

Mar 12, 2014 at 9:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan W

Matt Ridley,

Well presented. Thanks.

NOTE: I know little of British gov't and associated bureaucracies, but I presume Lord Deben's position in British gov't is equivalent to John Holdren's position in Obama's administration. They certainly both seem like unscientific and biased alarmist zealots, no matter what their positions.


Mar 12, 2014 at 10:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

Robinson wrote:
"Forgive me but Lord Deben's credibility was shot in 1989 when he fed his daughter a beef burger on TV during the BSE thing."
Strangely Gummer was right: he was applying the null hypothesis, "BSE in beef was not a problem" As it turned out to be. I remember alarmist predictions that in twenty years half of the UK would have CJD.

I twitted him, politely, with this as to why he similarly didn't accept the null hypothesis regarding climate change. Got the usual alarmist dogma as a reply.

Mar 12, 2014 at 11:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Foster

Lord Deben is a Bishop Hill VIP in the blog subject listings. Go to Navigation on the headline bar and the drop down Category Archive, and Deben boasts no less than 23 blog entries.

Mar 12, 2014 at 11:29 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Andy West: Thanks for the pointers. Very happy to cede prior art to 'sab' or anyone else. But sceptophobia really is the problem I've come to feel. I'm being a bit glib of course in saying they don't fear warming. It's a bit more complicated than that. There is an overarching sense of doom if we don't change our ways but very quickly those in the way of changing our ways become the demonic focus. Decently crafted opinion polls will tell you it's a vast majority of ordinary people but that of course doesn't suit the narrative. There must be a central cabal of deadly evil. It's so reminiscent of some nasty ancient thinking that we saw invade the most advanced civilisation in Europe after the humiliations of the First World War. Back to Norman Cohn. Can we do better this time?

Philip Foster: Unlike some others here I think you've called BSE exactly right. Very well done in putting the point to Gummer himself. Why am I not surprised he didn't take a blind bit of notice? See the first para.

Mar 13, 2014 at 12:11 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard, Philip,

Philip Foster: Unlike some others here I think you've called BSE exactly right. Very well done in putting the point to Gummer himself. Why am I not surprised he didn't take a blind bit of notice? See the first para.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, a degenerative neurological disease in cattle never was the problem, human consumption of the ganglia of diseased cattle was though and the related condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jacobs disease - a hazard for us lot. Most fortunately, the doomsday predictions, after time - have proven slightly overdone, it is yet though an ongoing experiment.

Mar 13, 2014 at 1:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

" ..........upon this worthless soul."

Mar 12, 2014 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterHeadless Chicken

Love it !

Mar 13, 2014 at 7:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterGummerMustGo

Gummer represents the landowning class. Follow the money. They get income from cows and windmills.Therefore BSE no problem but windmills needed to avoid CO2.
When landowners can get more from fracking than windmills we will see changes, even in Gummer's views.

Mar 13, 2014 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Clague

It is my bet that the climate obsessed will leave even the veneer of the IPCC behind if it does not support their dogma.
The climate obsessed do not use science to develop good policy. The climate obsessed use science to support their desired policy.

Mar 13, 2014 at 12:43 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

"There's an hilarious picture of John Selwyn Gummer on the front page of The Times;"Where's the beef? Mr John Gummer pressed a burger on his reluctant daughter Cordelia, aged four, at Ipswich yesterday to underline his message that beef is safe.""

-Gyles Brandreth, Breaking the code, diary entry 17th of May, 1990.

Anyone know what his financial interests were at the time?

Mar 13, 2014 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterRightwinggit

"Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, a degenerative neurological disease in cattle never was the problem, human consumption of the ganglia of diseased cattle was though and the related condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jacobs disease - a hazard for us lot. Most fortunately, the doomsday predictions, after time - have proven slightly overdone, it is yet though an ongoing experiment."

I know this is pulling the thread off topic but it would be very unwise to equate the condition that is supposed to result in humans from consuming material from cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy with Creuzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD) even though it is often referred to as a "new variant" thereof (i.e. vCJD).

Mar 13, 2014 at 3:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

I followed Matt Ridley's advice and submitted a detailed enquiry on the CCC website yesterday. I asked the specific points suggested by Matt plus asked why Deben refers to people who don't agree with him on Twitter as deniers. Much to my amazement I got a response today. What is less of a surprise is the content of the response which reads as follows:

"Thank you for your email regarding the Committee on Climate Change’s assessment of the recent IPCC report. It is the legal duty of the Committee to keep abreast of the evidence on the science of climate change, and to publish its assessments in this respect. This is the basis for publication of the policy note on Viscount Ridley’s nine claims, which sets out the Committee’s views on the issues raised."

I have asked CCC to respond to my specific points in view of the fact that they raise serious questions as to the integrity with which the committee is carrying out its legal obligations. I will let you all know if there is a follow up


Mar 13, 2014 at 3:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterRB

Skeptical Chymist,


I am no medical expert and it was a long time ago - the idea was variant CJD could be somehow related, investigative, microbiological techniques, medical science has advanced since those days and upon some quick reading up, the link is tenuous and not made.

Mar 13, 2014 at 10:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Who appoints the Committee on Climate Change, and who appoints its chairman? Deben should be sacked forthwith and the Committee dissolved.
On the other hand, perhaps this is a useful outlet for the extremists where they are free to parade their prejudice, trickery and dogma. If I was a green, I would be very worried about having some one like Deben on my side.

Mar 14, 2014 at 7:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterLinda Holt

According to todays Aftenposten (Oslo and Norway's most respected newspaper) Lord Debden was addressing the Norwegian Government yesterday emphasising the dangers of Climate Change and stating that it is just as CRIMINAL to doubt the climate threat as it was for doctors to doubt the link between smoking and cancer. The Norwegian Government continued their discussions and promised more concrete actions to meet their climate goals for 2020.

Mar 14, 2014 at 8:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTim Crome

As well as feeding himself from the rough, Deben is only doing his masters' bidding. This could change after the 2015 GE but I suspect that whilst the colour will change, the mindset will not. We need these characters to be very robustly and publicly challenged, but the one group whose job it is to do that, the media, are themselves complicit in the whole ruddy affair, with the BBC and Guardian (in the UK) being the worst offenders. Whilst the BBC refuse to be impartial, Deben can also remain so.

Oct 16, 2014 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterIlma

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