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Beware the politician posing as a scientist

Christopher Booker squares up to Sir David King, the former Chief Scientist, whose knowledge of chemistry does little to underpin his crusading rhetoric as a green campaigner

5 March 2008

12:00 AM

5 March 2008

12:00 AM

One of the fond delusions of our age is that scientists are a breed apart from ordinary mortals, white-coated custodians of a mystery, with authority to pronounce on any scientific issue,,however far removed it may be from their own field of expertise. A shining example was the status given to Sir David King, who has just retired after seven years as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. In 2000, when he was appointed just before the foot-and-mouth crisis, Professor King’s speciality was ‘surface chemistry’. Yet almost immediately top of his agenda was the need to fight an animal disease.

The man he called in to tackle the epidemic in March 2001 was Professor Roy Anderson, a computer modeller specialising in the epidemiology of human diseases but without any experience in veterinary matters. Shutting their ears to the pleas of the world’s leading veterinary experts on foot-and-mouth that the only effective way to stop the spread of the epidemic was vaccination, the two men flouted the law by launching their ‘pre-emptive cull’, the mass-slaughter of animals which never had any contact with the disease. As many as eight million healthy animals were unnecessarily destroyed, at a colossal social and financial cost which vaccination might have reduced to a fraction.

The next big issue to put King in the headlines was global warming, which in 2004 he described as ‘a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism’. He was quoted as claiming that global temperatures were higher than they had been for 60 million years, predicting that by the end of the 21st century, unless drastic measures were taken to curb global warming, Antarctica would be the only habitable continent left on earth.

Top of the politicians’ global warming agenda at that time, led by Blair and the EU, was the need to win ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Russia, which would at last bring the treaty into force. In July 2004, King led a British team to a key international conference in Moscow, where their behaviour astonished those present. They demanded that scientists critical of Kyoto should not be allowed to speak. They frequently interrupted other speakers, or over-ran their own time at the rostrum. When the tropical disease expert Professor Paul Reiter cited evidence to contradict King’s claim from the rostrum that the melting of the ice on Kilimanjaro was not caused by global warming, King broke off in mid-sentence and left the hall.

At the end Andrei Illarionov, President Putino’s chief economic adviser, was withering about the EU team’s conduct. Their pressure on Russia to ratify Kyoto, he said, ‘was equivalent to a war on truth, science and human welfare’. Russian scientists could not accept the link between CO2 levels and global warming, or that present temperatures were higher than those during the Mediaeval and Roman Warmings, When, in a startling U-turn, Putin then agreed to ratify Kyoto, this did not reflect any change in Russia’s scientific position. As King himself now confirms, it was merely the result of a political deal, whereby the EU agreed to support Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation on favourable terms.


King then remained fairly quiet on the public stage until he recently used his status as retiring Chief Scientist to help the government by supporting various of its new policies, ranging from the need for a nuclear power programme to that for a mass-cull of TB-infected badgers to combat the epidemic raging through our cattle herds. And now, in conjunction with a popular journalist, Gabrielle Watson, he has published a mass-market paperback entitled The Hot Topic: How To Tackle Global Warming And Still Keep The Lights On (Bloomsbury, £9.99).

As might be expected from the polar bears on the cover, beneath a glowing tribute from Al Gore, the book yet again rehearses the familiar global warming orthodoxy, set out in a somewhat coy, Janet-and-John style which one suspects owes more to King’s co-author than himself. On those famous polar bears it naturally ignores the studies which show that their numbers have in most areas actually been increasing. An even bigger giveaway is a two-page temperature graph adapted from the notorious ‘hockey stick’. This is the now wholly discredited rewriting of history which became the warmists’ supreme icon because, Winston Smith-like, it suppressed the evidence that in the Middle Ages global temperatures were higher than they are today – showing temperatures running in a flattish line for 1,000 years before suddenly curving exponentially upwards.

It might seem odd that the text goes on to say ‘we haven’t seen warming like this for at least 1,000 years’, because this seems to concede that temperatures might have been as high as they are now a millennium ago – although what makes this even more startling is to recall how, a while back, King himself appeared to be claiming that the world is now hotter than it has been at any time for 60 million years.

In this respect, although it ticks off most of the familiar articles in the warmist litany, this book is careful to downplay some of the crazier excesses of Al Gore’s celebrated disaster movie, as when it concedes that global warming cannot be blamed for those vanishing snows of Kilimanjaro (obviously, after being caught out in Moscow, King must have done some homework). Again and again the book suckers in the reader with some extreme claim, but then cleverly throws in a qualification – as when, like Gore, it uses Hurricane Katrina as evidence of global warming, but then admits later that a part was played in that disaster by the collapsing levees (failing to mention, however, that hurricane activity was more extreme in the 1950s than since). Similarly it exploits the 35,000 deaths caused by the 2003 European heat wave, while later conceding that extreme cold causes more deaths than heat (though even here it cannot resist adding that this may not be of ‘much comfort for those affected by heat’).

As is usual with warmist propaganda, there is scarcely a paragraph where the clued-up reader will not notice some key piece of evidence being omitted, as when, like Gore, the authors refer to the increasing number of times the Thames Flood Barrier has had to be closed, while omitting to tell us that this is because both London and Britain’s east coast are sinking (and that in the droughts of recent years the barrier has had to be closed more often to keep river water in than to keep the sea out).

As also with Gore, however, unwittingly the most comical part of the authors’ argument comes when, having painted as lurid a picture as they dare of the looming apocalypse, they move on, as their subtitle suggests, to outline the steps we must take to avert catastrophe. Yet again we are plunged into thudding bathos, as we are solemnly told that, in order to cut our carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050, to ensure that global temperatures rise by no more than 2 degrees, we must learn not to leave our TVs on stand-by, switch to low-energy light bulbs, use trains rather than cars and build more wind turbines.

One obvious problem with global warming is that, if the threat it poses is really as serious as the politicians and ‘consensus’ scientists say it is – and if they are also right in their diagnosis of its cause – then mere tinkering about with light bulbs and windmills will not have the slightest effect in preventing it. We should all, including the Chinese who are building two coal-fired power stations a week, have to abandon pretty well everything modern industrial civilisation stands for.

The only possible source of comfort is that the much-vaunted ‘consensus’, carefully manufa
ctured with the aid of skewed computer models and shameless political manipulation, is nothing like so securely based on hard evidence as the politicians and highly-politicised scientists like to believe. As a ‘surface chemist’, Professor King may be a genuine scientist. When he turns his attention to other matters, however, he becomes merely another politician, as the woolly ragbag of unsupported assertions trotted out in this book confirms. It might seem appropriate that, having begun his career as Chief Scientist supporting one immense blunder based on the unreal projections of computer modelling, the good professor should end it on another. Like many another scientist who strays out of his field of expertise, he ends up speaking with no more authority than a man sounding off in the pub.


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