There’s nothing more irritating then being asked to apologise for something you haven’t done. No, wait, there is: when the person demanding the apology is one of the friends you admire most in the world — and when the alleged victim of your non-existent crime is one of the people you most despise.

The friend’s name is Anthony Watts, meteorologist and fellow happy warrior in the great global battle against climate change nonsense. He runs the world’s most widely read climate sceptic website, Watts Up With That?, which got to the Climategate story before I did. Recently, we were both winners in the 2013 Bloggies Awards: he deservedly won best science blog (for the third year running); I was named best political blogger.

What was significant about this year’s Bloggies — voted for by readers all over the world — was the large number of categories won by notorious climate sceptics. Besides Wattsy and me, prizes went to Small Dead Animals and Australian Climate Madness, while runners-up included ClimateAudit, JoNova and Tallbloke’s Talkshop.

This was originally going to be the subject of this week’s column. The Bloggies do not have a notable right-wing or sceptical bias (my category, for example, has been won three times by the left-wing Huffington Post). So it’s surely a sign of just how rapidly the cultural ground is shifting. Even the once ardently warmist Economist has noticed: the other week it got as close as it could to writing a grovelling retraction on AGW without actually admitting to having ever been wrong.

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The subject I’m going to write about instead is far more important than that. It concerns what I call the Left-Liberal War On Metaphor. Before I go into more detail, though, let me describe what Watts thinks I did wrong. It began with a comment piece I wrote in the Australian, which concluded: ‘The climate alarmist industry has some very tough questions to answer: preferably in the defendant’s dock in a court of law, before a judge wearing a black cap.’

Next day I was surprised to see this rhetorical flourish being imaginatively interpreted on the internet by a green activist blogger as a ‘call for climate alarmists’ to face the ‘death sentence’. Clearly, from both phrase and context, this is not what I said or meant. Yes, it’s absolutely true I believe the corrupt, mendacious and destructive climate alarmist industry deserves bringing to a swift end. But I chose my words with care: you cannot put a rope round a dodgy computer model, or a £13.7 million research grant for the UEA or an hysterically misleading BBC nature documentary about vanishing polar bears. You cannot hang an industry.

So much is obvious — or should be to anyone with an even halfway functional understanding of English usage. Yet, of course, that didn’t stop one or two more desperate climate activists from trying wilfully to distort my blameless phrase for political effect. Among those now crying wolf was none other than Michael Mann, the American climate scientist responsible for the infamous Hockey Stick. He began tweeting that I had called for his ‘murder’ and demanded that I should be sacked from my Telegraph blog.

Do you see what’s going on here? I certainly could, because it’s a battle I’ve been fighting for quite some time: the way whenever the liberal-left comes up against an argument it can’t counter with facts, it plays the offence-taking game. You saw it just the other day when the Labour party feigned umbrage at the alleged insensitivity of Osborne’s and later Cameron’s remarks on Mick Philpott and welfare dependency. It’s a crude tactic but often a highly effective one. Rather than engage in a debate you can’t win, you instead close down the argument by calling into question your opponent’s moral integrity.

This was just what Mann was doing here. He was trying it on with his faux-offence-taking and crocodile tears. And he shouldn’t have been allowed to get away with this rhetorical cheat any more than he was allowed to get away with his risibly inept Hockey Stick. The facts simply didn’t support it: not at any stage had anyone called for his ‘murder’, judicial or otherwise.

I pointed all this out on a follow-up blog post. Should climate alarmists such as Michael Mann, Tim Flannery and George Monbiot face execution for the damage their foolish prognostications of doom have caused, I began by asking rhetorically. My answer was a very clearly stated ‘No’. Sure I could see the case for some kind of ‘Climate Nuremberg’ — but only, I stressed, a ‘metaphorical’ one. This, I explained, is because a) I’m against the death sentence, b) I’m not an extreme authoritarian, and c) I don’t want these charlatans dead — I want them alive, being daily reminded how utterly wrong they’ve been proved about everything they predicted.

Crystal-clear stuff, I’d say. But apparently not pellucid enough for my friend Anthony Watts, who issued a lofty encyclical on his widely read blog condemning me for ‘pouring gasoline on the fire’ of the climate debate by using ‘ugly commentary’ and demanding I ‘fix it and apologise’.

Sorry, Anthony mate, but if anyone needs to apologise here it’s you. I have far too much respect for you to call you a ‘useful idiot’. You are, rather, what Von Mises called a ‘useful innocent’. Not only have you needlessly conceded territory to a ruthless, implacable and dishonest enemy but you have unwittingly betrayed those virtues — courage, open-mindedness and intellectual rigour — which have made Watts Up With That so justly successful. When you’ve studied Areopagitica and Swift’s A Modest Proposal, when you’ve read up on Gramsci, the ‘Big Lie’ in Mein Kampf and Agenda 21, then get back to me. Till then, don’t presume to lecture me about the proper use of metaphor in the culture wars any more than I’d presume to lecture you on the correct siting of weather stations.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Anthony Watts, Climate change, James Delingpole, Language, Michael Mann