The Viscount, the architect and Phil Hogan

The shocking images from Japan since Friday are a frightening reminder of the fact that, for all our sophistication, even the most technologically advanced societies exist at the caprice of nature. Seeing large tracts of the north coast of Japan laid waste, with oil refineries in flames, nuclear plants severely damaged and infrastructure shattered may also be seen as a portent of what the next several decades have in store, not just for Japan, but for coastal areas – and beyond – all over the world.

While the earthquake that triggered the latest deadly tsunami is undoubtedly a geological incident, in September 2009 Prof Bill McGuire of University College London at the first major conference of scientists researching the changing climate’s effects on geological hazards said: “Climate change doesn’t just affect the atmosphere and the oceans but the earth’s crust as well. The whole earth is an interactive system.”

Scientists are projecting that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mega-landslides and tsunamis are likely to become more frequent as global warming changes the earth’s crust. Tony Song of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory warned of the vast power of recently discovered “glacial earthquakes” – in which glacial ice mass crashes downwards like an enormous landslide. In the West Antarctic, ice piled more than one mile above sea level is being undermined in places by water seeping in underneath.

“Our experiments show that glacial earthquakes can generate far more powerful tsunamis than undersea earthquakes with similar magnitude,” said Song. He described glacial earthquakes as “low-probability but high-risk.” Geological hazards are one part of an extremely disturbing picture in the decades ahead if global CO2 emissions were not stabilised as a matter of urgency.

Prof McGuire put it plainly: “Added to all the rest of the mayhem and chaos, these things would just be the icing on the cake. Things would be so bad that the odd tsunami or eruption won’t make much difference.”

Serious global emissions reductions can only be achieved on a top-down basis, ie. if driven at the highest political level, no matter how many lightbulbs you or I change. Politics is the key.

The new FG-Lab coalition government is of course beset by financial woes from its inception. However, the installation in the Custom House of FG fixer Phil Hogan as Environment Minister filled few hearts with gladness. Hogan has not, to this writer’s knowledge, had any involvement in the cross-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change. In fact, I cannot recall his name being mentioned in an environmental context in the three years since my weekly newspaper column began in March 2008. Not once.

We can take it therefore that Phil Hogan is probably not exactly up to speed on the greatest threat we all collectively face. What is crucial, therefore is the calibre of expert advice available to him. People like Dr Conor Skehan, head of the environment and planning department at Dublin Institute of Technology. Skehan is reportedly FG’s top environmental policy advisor. Skehan has been writing policy papers and scripts for FG for the last two decades. An architect by training, he has “practiced, lectured and published on EIA within the planning system since 1989 advising the public and private sectors on the practicalities of assessment, decision-making and their integration with strategic and land-use planning”, according to the DIT Futures Academy website.

What makes the architect and top FG environmental advisor Dr Skehan so noteworthy is that he is also a climate change sceptic (or denier, depending on the term you prefer). This astonishing fact came to light in a piece by Frank McDonald in the Irish Times yesterday.

Despite his position advising Hogan, he would “absolutely not” be advising the incoming Minister on what the government should do to address a crisis that its senior environmental advisor says ain’t real. Skehan told McDonald that said his scepticism about the scientific evidence for climate change was a “personal position” as a result of spending what he described as “a long time on the stump”.

He went on to bemoan the fact that it was “Labour’s policies that found their way” into the new Government’s agreed programme.

You may recall some months back the brouhaha over then Science Minister Conor Lenihan’s plans to officiate at a book launch for the anti-evolutionary ravings of a creationist constituent. This was picked up on the news wires, and Ireland’s reputation as a place where science is taken seriously took a well-earned battering. Skehan’s position at Phil Hogan’s ear is potentially far more serious.

Skehan series of diagrams, all purporting to show that there is no underlying warming trend.

In his own words: “this is a shocking series of diagrams that were done not by anyone with an expertise in climate change but by an economist…he then had the nerve to go off without asking any climatologist’s permission and he mapped average Dublin winter temperatures…we’re starting to find more and more diagrams like this that are more and more causing us to ask if we are correct in what we regards as the fundamentals of things that are driving climate and CO2 policy…we do not live in a particularly warm world”, the man with the architecture degree opined.

From there, Skehan seemed to be reading straight from the Lomborg playbook when dismissing any threat to polar bear numbers from the disappearing Arctic ice cap. The tut-tutting tone of his presentation made it clear that Skehan saw himself as someone involved in unpicking some kind of giant scientific conspiracy to kid us all about global warming (“we tried to find out what’s actually happening instead of what’s being told”).

It gets better: “The single most worrying of all is this (slide) here …1998 is the last time we had high temperatures; we are now, in June of this year (2009) in the 12th successive years of non-warming – 12 years straight, a very uncomfortable fact”, Skehan sighed. “When that type of information is combined with the most frightening of all curves, the (Keeling) curve of CO2 levels what we are starting to find is that things that we thought were truisms, that we had stopped examining in detail because we were all so sure, when we plot them against one another (the Keeling curve versus global average temperatures)…if you’re interested in science at all, science should tell you if this (CO2) is causing this (temperature rises), the two should follow each other, but the emerging evidence is that they are not”, he concluded.

If an architect wants to make a damn fool of himself by displaying his grievous non-understanding of a subject about which he is entirely unqualified and clearly harbours strange preconceptions (“personal positions”, he calls them) he is perfectly at liberty to do so. His ignorance is his own problem. When this same individual officially has the ear of an Environment Minister who is only green in the sense of knowing almost nothing about his new brief, then it’s everyone’s problem.

On a related topic, I was involved in an, ahem, lively debate last Thursday night in the TCD Philosophical Society with, among others, one Viscount Christopher Monckton of Brenchley. Monckton was an entirely affable and amiable in person ahead of the debate, and he certainly scored an early hit on sartorial elegance (see below!) and delivered a typically swashbuckling performance, dotted with copious references to obscure papers and leavened with lots of populist rhetoric about “the establishment”  (scientists, in other words) who needed to be exposed. (Thomas Ryan of the IFA is also pictured below to Monckton’s right, and my teammate Dr Neil Walker of IBEC to far right – in caption, that is!)

Monckton’s “facts” were actually a lot like Skehan’s mythical “emerging evidence”. Long on conspiratorial innuendo, and terminally short on peer-reviewed evidence. I spoke immediately after Monckton, and suggested to the students that since we couldn’t possibly sift endlessly through claim and counter-claim, they had two mutually exclusive propositions to consider: first, Monckton was broadly correct. Second, the national science academies of the US, France, India, Russia, Japan, UK, Germany and Canada, the IPCC, Nasa and hundreds of other scientific agencies, universities and public and private research organisations in scores of countries are broadly correct. One or the other.

If the devil can quote scripture to his own ends, there’s no one quite like Monckton to pluck data from thin air to buttress whatever point he wishes to make. Having no scientific qualifications whatever appears to free individuals like Monckton or Skehan from any requirement to present their arguments with even the semblance of scientific objectivity or rigour.

We laugh at Corr, we laugh at Monckton, but neither of these colourful figures are senior environmental advisors to an inexperienced Environment Minister. John May must be waiting by the phone wondering if he’s likely to be needed by this government to help refute that other nonsensical science conspiracy that life on Earth has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years. And as for your so-called ‘plate tectonics’ next thing you’ll be telling us this “caused” the earthquake in Japan on Friday. C’mon people, wise up!

The man who questions opinions is wise. The man who quarrels with facts is a fool– Frank Garbutt

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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9 Responses to The Viscount, the architect and Phil Hogan

  1. So … I watched the whole Conor Skeehan video clip from the Institute for International and European Affairs in July 2009. Actually, when he’s talking about urban planning (I presume his field of expertise) he seems pretty reasonable and sensible. Practically orthodox, even.
    (OK, there’s a throwaway remark that we should “accept the reality that the car is with us and will always be with us” [09:40 into the clip]. We wish! But petrol now at €1.51 a litre and rising, with no particular ceiling in sight, might at least give us pause for thought. Still, for the specifically urban environment case, electric transport is quickly becoming a realistic option; so if we could successfully diversify away from fossil fuel electricity, cars could conceivably be with us for quite a while. It’s a pretty big “if”, but what the heck, let’s give him at least a pass on that one.)
    Then then we come to climate change. And the first message is that if you want good climate science you should ask an economist? This from the lecture that earlier dissed anyone coming from an “engineering background” for commenting on issues of city planning? So yes, if you want planning expertise, ask a qualified planner, but if you want to know about the climate just pick up whatever random, isolated, data, comes to hand? Present a time series of temperature at just one geographical location and infer something about global climate from it?
    Which wouldn’t really matter one way or the other – except for the link with the incoming environment minister. And then it definitively does matter, and it’s of public importance both to challenge the views expressed by Conor Skeehan himself, but also, more importantly, to hear from Phil Hogan.
    What to do? Well, ideally, this calls for detailed, systematic rebuttal. Quoting George Monbiot:

    Every so often, someone with a strong stomach and time to spare volunteers to devote weeks or months of their life to a grisly task: investigating the claims of a person who dismisses the science or significance of man-made climate change. Dave Rado did it with Martin Durkin’s film, the Great Global Warming Swindle. Howard Friel did it with Bjørn Lomborg. Ian Enting did it with Ian Plimer.

    I certainly don’t have time to spare, nor a particularly strong stomach; and more importantly, I don’t really have the expertise. But I doubt that there are shortcuts on this one; so if there are others listening that want to take this on, I would certainly likely to help if I can!

  2. Oops – for the week that was in it, with Viscount Monckton in town, I should also have added this further bit of the quote from George Monbiot:

    Now another fallen idol of climate change denial must be added to the list: Viscount Monckton’s assertions have been comprehensively discredited by professor of mechanical engineering John Abraham, at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota.

  3. John Gibbons says:


    Thanks for the feedback. Whenever I hear economists being wheeled out as “climate change experts”, one immediately thinks of our own ESRI “expert” and shudders. Lack of expertise in physical science, when compounded by the neo-liberal indoctrination that appears to be standard in the academic formation of most economists is a potent combination when it comes to creating and spreading disinformation on climate change.

    Skeehan clearly has a large, angry bee in his bonnet. Maybe a tree-hugger ran away with his first girlfriend, or a polar bear stole his ice cream in Dublin zoo on a school tour? Who knows, but like a lot of specialists, he seems poorly equipped to understand the limits of his own expertise while clearly recognising this in others. He (rightly perhaps) feels planning should be left to the qualified planners, while then unselfconsciously blundering into the physical sciences like a bull in the proverbial china shop.

    As for Viscount M, well, he seemed to cut a very solitary figure in TCD last Thursday night. Regular students were overheard asking him after the debate if his “facts” are actually “just made up” (as cruelly alleged by yours truly). He looked more than a little crestfallen by the experience. He’s an extraordinarily clever fellow, if only he could find less mendacious ways to apply his impressive intellect….

  4. Barry Ryan says:

    It’s great to see some serious scrutiny being applied to the experts our new Ministers will be listening to. Perhaps if we’d taken more care to examine in detail the expertise and motives of some of the geniuses who’ve been paid big bucks to advise successive governments over the last decade, maybe we wouldn’t be quite so far up the spout today.

  5. Hey John –

    OK, so call me a hopeless optimist, but notwithstanding my
    earlier critical remarks, I’d prefer not to give up completely on
    Dr. Conor Skeehan just yet. I don’t know the man, I never heard
    of him before yesterday, and all I’ve seen so far of his climate
    ideas is that one lecture
    . So … I’d like to give him the benefit of
    the doubt, just for the moment – and hope that maybe he was just
    being provocative for a particular audience. In other words, I
    want (desperately!) to believe that he is a busy person, for whom
    this has just been a hobby rather than a core interest, and is
    just honestly mistaken, rather than an out and out “climate
    crank”. That is, he may still be open to serious scientific
    discussion and even the possibility of changing his mind (i.e.,
    quite unlike our Viscount friend and his ilk…).

    That said, his reported
    role as a “leading policy adviser on the environment” to Fine
    means that this cannot reasonably be regarded as simply
    a matter of a “personal [i.e., private?] position”. So it’s
    important to raise the question of prima facie concern about
    Skeehan’s opinions on climate science, and perfectly legitimate
    to call for clarification from both him and the minister.

    At this point, maybe it’s worth remembering that the Government
    does still have an actual honest-to-goodness (and properly
    qualified, unlike a previous
    ) “Chief Scientific
    . And on his site we can find this Survey of
    Climate Change since IPCC 4
    by Prof. Ray Bates,
    a member of the “panel of experts” who “provide the Chief
    Scientific Adviser, and by extension the Government, access to
    the best expertise available on scientific issues in Ireland”. I
    believe that Prof. Bates is a real, card carrying, climate
    scientist; and while I’m certainly not qualified to judge the
    report above in detail, I think it is completely
    consistent with the mainstream scientific consensus.

    So – what chance the Chief Scientific Adviser will be asked to
    comment on Dr. Skeehan’s “emerging evidence” on climate change?
    Or, if he was asked, what chance that he would actually answer? I
    don’t know, but it might be worth a shot. (By co-incidence I
    just heard the UK Chief Science Adviser on BBC R4 commenting on
    the situation at the Fukushima
    I Nuclear plant
    . So it’s not unreasonable to expect such a
    person to comment on scientific issues of public interest!)

    – Barry.

  6. Toby says:

    I am quite shocked to discover this snake in the grass. However, his denialist views did not seem to find their way into the Fine Gael manifesto .. it means that vigilance will have to be exercised.

  7. John Gibbons says:

    I’m inclined to go along with Bary McMullin on this. Skeehan looks more like a good ol’ fashioned contrarian, anxious to sound cleverer than “the herd” (there are lots of them around, mostly sixty-something upper middle class white males with very high opinions of their own intellectual prowess and reflex antipathy to taxes, regulations and anything else that smells remotely green).
    However, I may be wrong, and vigilance is indeed demanded. Expect to be sharing a platform with Phil Hogan in May, and if this comes to pass, will use the opportunity to smoke him out in public on his understanding of the science, or more to the point, which advisors he’s actually listening to. Watch this space.

  8. I was at the event. I circulated the email below to the climate change group members after the event as follows:

    Dear Climate Change Working Group Members,

    Yesterday’s interesting discussion on global average mean temperature
    rises prompted me to revisit the global temperature records for the
    past twelve years. The facts (which I thought may be of interest) are
    clear, undisputed among serious scientists, and as follows:

    · The ten warmest years in the period of instrumental measure of
    the have all occurred in the past 12 years.

    · 2008 was the 9th warmest year in the period of instrumental

    · Eurasia, the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula were
    exceptionally warm in 2008.

    · Except for the relatively cool Pacific Ocean, most of the
    world was either near normal or unusually warm in 2008.

    · The cooler than average temperatures of the Pacific Ocean were
    due to a strong La Niña (ie: natural tropical temperature oscillation)
    that existed in the first half of the year and depressed the global
    average temperature.

    · Given the expectation that the next El Niño would beginning in
    2009 (it already has) or 2010, it still was predicted by the
    scientific community that a new global temperature record would be set
    this year or next. This would be scientifically significant (if it
    doesn’t in the next few years watch out for climate scientists eating
    hats and searching for new employment).

    · The physics behind anthropogenic climate change has been
    understood and accepted since 18th centaury Irish scientist John
    Tyndall’s simple laboratory experiments proved that atmospheric trace
    constituents (water vapor, ozone, carbon dioxide and other GHGs)
    absorbed long wave radiation and affected global temperature (see:
    Tyndall, John, 1863. On Radiation through the Earth’s Atmosphere.
    Phil. Mag. ser. 4, vol. 25, 200-206).

    · Earlier “anomalies” in correlations between global
    temperatures and GHG concentrations are well understood and have been
    unexplained in successive IPCC reports for over a decade; see, for

    · The most authoritative source on temperature record is the NASA
    Institute of Space Studies, see: for further analysis of
    temperature records.

    If I were a polar bear I’d be pretty worried (not least by this:, or



  9. Tim King says:

    The blind leading those who don’t want to see.

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