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An Interview With Donna Laframboise

Donna Laframbois, journalist, campaigner and author of The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert, in conversation with Pan Pantziarka of LondonBookReview.com.

PP: There has been an attempt recently to characterise 'deniers' as 'white, male and conservative'. As someone who is a feminist and a civil libertarian, how do you respond to such charges?

DL: I think one of the reasons we're witnessing a steady decline in public opinion sympathetic to the climate cause is because climate activists haven't taken the time to understand other points-of-view. Anyone who disagrees with them gets reduced to a stereotype - and then dismissed out-of-hand.

The skeptics with whom I've come into contact are a diverse group of people. Many of them embrace environmentally conscious lifestyles and hold what can only be considered progressive views on topics such as gay marriage and reproductive choice. But in this case they smell a rat, and they expect their concerns to be addressed. Others skeptics, however, do identify with various shades of conservative thought. And thank goodness for that - because a diversity of political analysis is as important to a healthy society as a diversity of other kinds of culture.

Reducing a broad spectrum of people to the cardboard caricature of 'white, male, and conservative' is a sign of lazy thinking. It's juvenile and self-indulgent. Rather than diminishing people in that manner I work hard to see - and understand - the world in its infinite permutations.

PP: We've seen a response from the WWF to the issues you raise in the book. Do you expect an official response from the IPCC?

DL: I've given up expecting the IPCC to demonstrate any sort of professionalism or accountability. I think the internal culture there is so rotten, the situation is quite hopeless.

I expect the IPCC to do its best to ignore my book's existence. But the genie's already out of the bottle. Anyone can Google the title and find it in a second. Depending on which sample they stumble across, they can read the entire first six or seven chapters instantly - and for free. My book isn't going away. It is now part of the public record and is readily and cheaply available to everyone.

PP: The book focuses on the IPCC and not the underlying science. But in doing this research how has your view of the science evolved?

DL: I think my initial views have strengthened over the course of my research. Depending on the particular topic under discussion, climate science can be so complex that it's quite possible for talented, sincere, and experienced people to come to dramatically different conclusions after examining the same data. I think there are good scientists on all sides of the climate change debate. Which is why I think that everyone deserves to be heard. I certainly don't presume to know who's right.

There's an epigraph at the beginning of my book that quotes the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson (whose writing I admire and whose judgment I trust). He says that science is "a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions."

To me, that's another way of saying that no one has all the answers. A particular scientist may be correct about point A. Another scientist may be correct about point B. No one person is capable of grasping, or understanding, everything. We are all potentially both right and wrong. Collectively, we're stumbling around amid shadow and mystery on a planet that was dancing to its own drummer billions of years before we appeared.

PP: The issues you raise ought to have been picked up by the mainstream press. Do you think your work will have any influence in how the mainstream media treat the IPCC?

DL: The mainstream media has a couple of serious problems. First, many journalists routinely cover matters about which they know almost nothing. They don't understand the history of the issue, they don't understand the internal politics, they have no real depth of understanding. Since journalists are under increasing pressure to produce more stories more quickly than ever before, they have no hope of developing an informed view. Thus, their analysis grows ever shallower.

The second problem is that most journalists stepped into the climate activist camp a long time ago. They self-identify as environmentalists. Which means that their own identities are now being challenged by people like me. I expect a lot of journalists to reject the main message of my book (that the IPCC is neither credible nor trustworthy) because to do anything else would be to admit that they - personally and professionally - were suckered. For as long as they can, they'll pretend that what I'm saying isn't newsworthy.

PP: Your book does not mention any of the controversies regarding Rajendra Pachauri's financial arrangements. In fact there is little coverage anywhere of the IPCC's finances, and the finances of its top officials. Do you think that this is an issue that ought to be explored?

DL: Other people have examined those issues and found reasons to be concerned. Because I personally don't have a financial background, I'm not the best person to investigate that kind of thing - but it certainly warrants attention.

My book is about the IPCC as an organization. I think Rajendra Pachauri has been an abysmal chairman, but the IPCC's lack of genuine checks-and-balances pre-dates him. If this were a corporation and Pachauri were a CEO he would have been dumped years ago. The fact that no one in the IPCC's leadership apparently understands that this organization has no chance of appearing credible so long as he remains at the helm is a symptom of much deeper problems.

PP: What next for Donna Laframboise? Do you have any other projects waiting to take off now that the book has been completed?

DL: There has been too little photography in my life recently. I look forward to shifting back into that headspace. For me photography is about capturing - and sharing - wonder and beauty. Whether it's in a human being, a landscape, or a wild creature, recording those gorgeous, fleeting moments feeds my soul.

I will continue to blog about the IPCC and related issues because I think voices such as mine are needed, but at the moment I don't have any large writing projects in mind.

PP: You seem very pessimistic about the future of the IPCC and feel it ought to be disbanded. How do you see the future of the organisation unfolding?

DL: I think the IPCC is steadily losing influence. By far the biggest reason is that many parts of the world currently face profound economic challenges. There isn't a lot of extra time, attention, or money to squander on hypothetical future problems. (Personally, I'm a big fan of the idea that the future will take care of itself. We now have tools, knowledge, and abilities that were undreamt of 30 years. Thirty years hence our children will be well equipped to cope with whatever the world throws at them.)

Toward the end of the writing of my book I began to understand quite clearly that IPCC reports are a means to an end for UN bureaucrats. From a UN bureaucrat's perspective these reports serve a particular purpose - they get everyone singing from the same hymn book so that an emissions treaty can be negotiated.

By pursuing such a treaty UN officials were attempting to expand their mandate and their funding. From the perspective of a bureaucrat this was perfectly normal - and thoroughly predictable - behaviour.

But since it seems less likely by the day that any global emissions treaty will be signed - or any large sources of funding will be forthcoming from national governments - I expect the IPCC will wither on the vine. When it becomes clear that all possibility of a treaty has evaporated, I think lots of people will lose interest in the IPCC. That organization reached its zenith back in 2007. It will never again be that admired or powerful.

PP: It is clear that Peter Gleick attempted a very negative review on Amazon without having read the book. He has clearly embarrassed himself, and tarnished his reputation as a scientist. Do you expect similar attempts in other media from defenders of the IPCC?

DL: We need to have a professional, courteous, grown-up conversation about the IPCC. I think it is remarkable that this organization has been around for 22 years old, that it has won a Nobel Peace Prize, that it is so important and influential - and yet mine is the first book to take a close and critical look at it.

If others wish to follow in Gleick's footsteps and declare that no one needs to read my book, they're welcome to do so. But I don't think the average person is impressed by that sort of behaviour.

Contents © London Book Review 2011. Published October 27 2011