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I have considerable affection for, and some slight connection with, The Independent. More than 40 years ago, when I was editor of the Spectator, I gave a promising young journalist called Andreas Whittam Smith his first column. A decade or so later he founded, and was the first editor of, The Independent. And in recent years my elder son, Dominic, has been contributing a weekly column to the paper.

So it was with sorrow as well as anger that I read the disgraceful story splashed all over the front and second pages of last week’s issue, headed “Think-tanks take oil money and use it to fund climate deniers”, clearly implying that those think-tanks that question any part of the conventional climate change wisdom are tainted by their dependence on the oil industry. This fell well below the standards first set by Andreas, and which I had come to expect from The Independent.

In particular, your reporters wrote about a conference held in the US by the Heartland Institute last March, allegedly a “think-tank to have benefited from funding given by ExxonMobil in recent years”, stating that “A large British contingent was present at the event, with speakers including Dr Benny Peiser, from Lord Lawson’s climate sceptic think-tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF)… and Professor David Henderson, a member of GWPF’s advisory council.”

This was a clear attempt to smear and damage the Global Warming Policy Foundation, of which I am founding chairman and which, far from being a “right-wing think-tank”, as claimed in your article, is an all-party and non-party educational charity, with two Labour peers and one Liberal Democrat peer among its nine-member board of trustees).

Had either of your reporters taken the trouble to contact the GWPF before writing this, which they failed to do, they would have discovered, first, that neither Dr Peiser nor Professor Henderson attended the conference last March on behalf of the GWPF, which did not then exist. Indeed, I announced its foundation less than three months ago. I am, of course, glad that we have been able to make a considerable impact in a very short time, but that is not the point. Your reporters would also have discovered (although they could have done so from our website – – at any time since our launch in November) the explicit statement that the GWPF was “funded entirely by voluntary donations from a number of private individuals and charitable trusts. In order to make clear its complete independence, it does not accept gifts from either energy companies or anyone with a significant interest in an energy company”.

It may be, I suppose, that your reporters were aware of this policy but did not believe us. Given the stature of our board of trustees, including as it does a both a former cabinet secretary and a former private secretary to the Queen, that would be particularly outrageous.

It may, of course, be that there are some think-tanks on the sceptical side in the global warming debate that have, from time to time, accepted donations from oil companies: I would not know. But what I do know is that, in the UK at any rate, and very likely elsewhere too, the really big money is overwhelmingly financing organisations on the other side of the debate. The two principal sources are the UK government, anxious to foster support for an increasingly unpopular decarbonisation policy, and the banking sector, where carbon trading is now a multibillion-pound business, which would disappear altogether if decarbonisation policies were to be abandoned. I wonder why your reporters, in an exceptionally lengthy article on the financing of climate-change think tanks, made no mention whatever of this.

But there is a wider point. This issue is far too important to be discussed in terms of who is financing which think-tanks. The subtitle of your article last Sunday was “ExxonMobil cash supported concerted campaign to undermine case for man-made warming”. This slightly curious formulation was presumably shorthand for referring to the case for rapid and drastic decarbonisation in order to prevent man-made warming; and what badly needs to be discussed and debated, far more than it has been hitherto in the mainstream media, is the strength or weakness of that case, rather than who is providing what finance. After all, an informed public, assisted by a properly and impartially critical press, ought to be able to assess this on its merits, rather than simply dividing the world between baddies and goodies and taking sides accordingly.

It is, admittedly, a highly complex issue, involving science, technology, economics, politics and ethics. And there are a series of questions that have to be addressed. If man-made warming is occurring or is likely to occur, how much warming will there be, how long is it likely to take, and what other climatic factors are likely to complicate the picture? If it does occur, how do we weigh up the costs and the benefits, given that modern technology should enable us greatly to diminish many of the costs?

If we are to embark on a programme of rapid and drastic decarbonisation, how much will that cost, not only in economic terms but in human terms, too, through the diversion of resources that might otherwise be used for economic development, the relief of poverty, the eradication of disease, and so on? And since decarbonisation makes sense only on a global basis, is a binding global agreement a practical proposition? Certainly, the complete failure of the recent Copenhagen conference, designed to reach just such an agreement, suggests that it may not be. In which case, should we not move to plan B, and be devoting our energies to deciding what plan B should be?

The simplistic assumption that, if man-made warming occurs, present policies must be right and must not be challenged, and if they are challenged it is only by wicked oil companies, will not do. There is far too much at stake.

Finally, I am grateful to the editor of the Independent on Sunday for inviting me to contribute this reply to last week’s article.

The Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2010