FRANCE: Climatology row raises a storm

Minister for Higher Education and Research Valérie Pécresse has ordered the French Academy of Sciences to organise a debate on climate change "as soon as possible" after more than 400 climatologists demanded she disown attacks made by sceptical scientists - including one of her predecessors.

The climatologists were responding in particular to accusations made by the outspoken former minister, geochemist Claude Allègre, and Vincent Courtillot, director of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris.

Allègre was Minister for Education, Research and Technology from 1997 until April 2000, when he was sacked by socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin after his proposed reforms and combative style had alienated schoolteachers, academics and researchers too far. Courtillot was his special adviser at the ministry for a time.

Allègre created a stir in 2006 when he declared his opinion that climate change was a natural process, and human activity had no impact on it. Now he has caused greater controversy with his new book L'Imposture climatique ou la fausse écologie (Climatic deceit or the false ecology), accusing climatologists of being "agents of a mafioso and totalitarian system" who were in a conspiracy to promote the idea that climate change was due to human behaviour.

Courtillot claimed in his book Nouveau voyage au centre de la Terre (New journey to the centre of the Earth), that the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, which was established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, had made errors in its research.

Climatologists - including specialists in disciplines such as atmospheric physics, geochemistry, geography, glaciology and oceanography - reacted by sending an open letter signed by 410 scientists to Pécresse, addressed also to the heads of scientific research institutions, condemning the claims of Allègre and Courtillot.

"For several months, scientists who are recognised in their respective fields have denigrated climate sciences and the organisation of international expertise, protesting about scientific deceit - as has Claude Allègre - and pointing to alleged errors of the IPCC, as has Vincent Courtillot in [his book] and in his academic lectures," they wrote.

"These peremptory accusations and assertions do not pass through the standard filter of scientific publications. These documents, published under cover of scientific expertise, are not reviewed by their peers, and because of this they evade the virtue of debate."

Allègre's and Courtillot's allegations could not have been published if they had been subject to the "rigorous demands required of a professional scientific paper", said the letter whose authors claimed to have identified numerous errors of presentation, quotations, data and graphics; and, more seriously, fundamental mistakes describing the functioning of the climatic system.

The climatologists accused their detractors of forgetting "the basic principles of scientific ethics, breaking the moral pact which links each scientist with society".

They called on Pécresse to respond to the sceptics' accusations with a "public expression of confidence vis-à-vis our integrity and the reliability of our work".

In a letter to the President of the Academy of Sciences, Jean Salençon, Pécresse gave assurances of the government's confidence in the scientific community. "I observe that the work, conclusions and methods undertaken by French climatologists over the years have been the object of indisputable recognition in the national and international scientific communities. This unanimous recognition is at the heart of the government's confidence in them," she wrote.

Their research had led the government to make the fight against climate change one of its absolute priorities, she said.

She instructed Salençon to organise as soon as possible a debate on the current state of scientific knowledge on climate change, to allow impartial examination of the opposing views and methods. This would take place in parallel with the United Nations InterAcademy Council review of the IPCC's processes and procedures, announced in March.

Allègre told Libération the climate scientists' petition was "useless and stupid" and "a reaction of people who see my ideas are gathering ground and are panicking. They have wasted lots of public money and are afraid of losing funding, afraid of losing their jobs. Their discipline is new, it's necessary to give it time to develop instead of letting these climatologists talk nonsense."