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Under-informed, over here

During the 1990s, parts of the US oil industry funded - through the so-called Global Climate Coalition (GCC) - a lobby of professional sceptics who opposed action to tackle climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The GCC was "deactivated" in 2001, once President Bush made it clear he intended to reject the Kyoto protocol. But the denial lobby is still active, and today it arrives in London.

The UK has become a target because the government has made climate change a focus of its G8 presidency this year. A key player in this decision is chief scientific adviser Sir David King, who became public enemy number one for the denial lobby when he described climate change as a bigger threat than terrorism.

In December, a UK-based group, the Scientific Alliance, teamed up with the George C Marshall Institute, a body headed by the chairman emeritus of the GCC, William O'Keefe, to publish a document with the innocuous title Climate Issues & Questions. It plays up the uncertainties surrounding climate change science, playing down the likely impact that it will have.

It contrasts starkly with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's most reliable source of information on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In its last major report in 2001, the IPCC adopted an evidence-based approach to climate change and considered uncertainties on impact. It concluded that "overall, climate change is projected to increase threats to human health, particularly in lower income populations, predominantly within tropical/subtropical countries", and that "the projected rate and magnitude of warming and sea-level rise can be lessened by reducing greenhouse gas emissions". More than 2,000 of the world's leading climate experts were involved in compiling the report - the most authoritative scientific assessment to date.

But today, the Scientific Alliance is holding a forum for members of the US and UK denial lobby to challenge the case for acting on the findings of the IPCC. The intention appears to be to get its retaliation in first before a meeting of climate change experts next week at the Hadley Centre, at which Sir David King will take part.

Possibly more worrying is how much prominence their views are receiving in the UK media. The Daily Telegraph bizarrely used an anonymous leader on the tsunami in Asia to question the value of cutting emissions: "Whether or not this would have the effects claimed by ecologists - and the science is inconclusive - any gain would be insignificant next to the changes in temperature caused by forces outside our control."

But the Daily Mail seems keenest to board the well-oiled bandwagon. Fresh from its now discredited campaign against MMR, it has run six opinion pieces over the last year questioning the science of climate change. David Bellamy and columnist Melanie Phillips have perhaps predictably joined in, but more surprising has been the conversion of Michael Hanlon, the paper's science editor.

Last week, Hanlon cited Michael Crichton's research for his new novel as a further indication that climate change science is a con. The theme of Crichton's story is that environmentalists exaggerate the threat from climate change and eventually trigger its extreme effects themselves.

It demonstrates the flakiness of the Hanlon case that he should need to rely on a sci-fi writer who has previously warned of the dangers of bringing dinosaurs back to life and of nano-robots turning the world into grey goo. All entertaining scare stories, all complete nonsense.

So there we have it. On one hand we have the IPCC, the rest of the world's major scientific organisations, and the government's chief scientific adviser, all pointing to the need to cut emissions. On the other we have a small band of sceptics, including lobbyists funded by the US oil industry, a sci-fi writer, and the Daily Mail, who deny the scientists are right. It is reminiscent of the tobacco lobby's attempts to persuade us that smoking does not cause lung cancer. There is no danger this lobby will influence the scientists. But they don't need to. It is the influence on the media that is so poisonous.

In a lecture at the Royal Society last week, Jared Diamond drew attention to populations, such as those on Easter Island, who denied they were having a catastrophic impact on the environment and were eventually wiped out, a phenomenon he called "ecocide". It's time for those living in denial of the evidence about the impacts of climate change to take note.

Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society and was chief scientific adviser to the government 1995-2000

Editorial Notes: The Guardian ran a related article in the same issue "Oil firms fund campaign to deny climate change." by David Adam. -BA

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