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Mar
02
2010

Theologian quoted out of context?

In my last blog I noted that Benny Peiser and Sir John Houghton were having an argument in The Observer about something regarding man-made global warming that Sir John might, or might not, have said.

To recap, Peiser had quoted Sir John as saying “Unless we announce disasters no one will listen”. Sir John, in a letter to the Observer (14 Feb), denied ever having said any such thing and demanded an apology. He said

Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, writing about my work as the chair of the first IPCC Scientific Assessment, quotes me as saying: “Unless we announce disasters no one will listen,” thereby attributing to me and the IPCC an attitude of hype and exaggeration. That quote from me is without foundation. I have never said it or written it.

Although it has spread on the Internet, I do not know its origin. In fact I have frequently argued the opposite, namely that those who make such statements are not only wrong but counterproductive. This quote is doing damage not only to me as a responsible scientist but also to the IPCC which in its main conclusions has always worked to avoid exaggeration. I demand from Dr Peiser an apology that he failed to check his sources and a public retraction of the use he made of the fabricated quotation.

Peiser replied the following week (21 Feb) admitting that he could find no evidence that Sir John had spoken these specific words. He offered an apology, of sorts, before plunging the knife further in:

I regret the use of a derivative quotation that has been attributed to Sir John Houghton for many years (“Unless we announce disaster, no one will listen”). A reference to Sir John’s accurate statement would have been more appropriate: “If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster.”

Sir John found this non-apology unsatisfactory and complained the following week (28 February) that he had been quoted out of context. He added what he insisted was important context:

I am pleased to accept Dr Peiser’s apology for his use of a false quotation (“unless we announce disaster, no one will listen”) that bolstered his accusation that both I and the IPCC deliberately exaggerated the evidence for human induced climate change and its likely consequences.

The new quote Dr Peiser has found is from an interview in 1995: “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.” The first sentence requires the second two sentences to provide the context for the whole quotation. It is wrong to describe the false quotation as derivative from or supported by the quotation from 1995. Their contexts are very different as is what they say. The 1995 quotation describes how attitudes might change in response to disasters after they have actually occurred. It cannot be used to prove that I am alarmist or that I promote exaggeration.

This can best be described as a non-defence against a non-apology. Although Sir John denies ever saying “Unless we announce disasters no one will listen” he clearly believes it. For years he has been brandishing his hockey stick, warning of impending disaster if we don’t mend our ways. Quoting himself from his 1995 interview casts his view of disasters and man-made global warming in an intriguing light. In the same interview he also said.

God tries to coax and woo, but He also uses disasters. Human sin may be involved; the effect will be the same.

And

God does show anger. When He appeared to Elijah there was earthquake wind and fire. Our model is Jesus. He was a man as well as being divine and He certainly showed anger.

Here the disaster he (Sir John) is clearly announcing is the forthcoming punishment that He (capital H) will inflict upon us for our sinful ways. Global warming seems a somewhat arbitrary and indiscriminate punishment for Him to inflict upon us sinners – why does He not choose one or all of the afflictions He had at his disposal when dealing with Job instead? Here the global warming debate enters difficult theological territory. The indiscriminate nature of the punishment Sir John believes He will choose raises the thorny – and, so far as I am aware, unresolved – question of why the innocent and righteous should be made to suffer.

3 comments

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  1. Nicholas Bohm says:

    Tricky stuff indeed.

    Consider “Catch 22”, where Yossarian expresses views strongly critical of God for maliciously inflicting the miseries suffered in war.

    His atheist girlfriend is upset. “But the God I don’t believe in is a kind God, a loving God,” she wails.

  2. Harry Daly says:

    Anyone still doubting that Houghton does indeed announce potential disasters should read his 2009 essay “Joseph, Pharaoh and a Climate Crisis” (http://www.jri.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/JRI_18_Joseph.pdf) In it he announces “We face a climate crisis of enormous magnitude and proportions.”

    The Joseph in this essay is the one with the coat of many colours. The same Joseph who, while working as “Pharaoh’s butler”, interpreted his master’s dream to predict seven fat years and seven lean years. So persuasive was Joseph that Pharaoh made him his “climate supremo”. In this role he organized, during the fat years, a food store that saw Egypt safely through he lean years.

    An alternative title for the essay might be “Sir John Houghton and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat”. The story of Joseph in Egypt he deploys as a parable. He assigns to himself and the IPCC the climate-supremo role played by Joseph. Like Joseph they can divine the future and, if their announcement of impending disaster is heeded, save not just Egypt but the whole world.

    Alarmism? Hype? Exaggeration? Surely not

  3. fourcultures says:

    <>

    Wasn’t global warming behind several of the plagues inflicted upon Pharaoh in the time of Moses?

    That was supposed to be a joke but I now realise blog post comments are singularly lacking as a venue for humour…

    ******************************************************
    I like your website – http://fourcultures.com/ – and your most recent posting on George Monbiot – http://fourcultures.com/2010/03/09/culture-and-the-science-of-climate-change/. Who are you? JA

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