Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference in 2013 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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MPs who reject science are undermining the public interest

On climate change and other issues, parliamentarians are ignoring the evidence. 

In another blow to the reputation of Parliament, a new report provides further evidence that a handful of MPs are using their positions to promote unscientific ideas, such as homeopathy, astrology and climate change denial.

There is little that is controversial about the final conclusions of the inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change into the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Among its main findings are that "[T]here is increased confidence in the IPCC projections that, with rising greenhouse gas concentrations, we will continue to see warming (and the changes to the climate associated with warming) in this century and beyond".

But tucked away in the back of the report are the minutes of a meeting that show two members of the committee had a radically different view about the scientific evidence. Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, together attempted unsuccessfully to remove the sentence endorsing the IPCC's projections of future climate change. They also tried to edit out a paragraph which suggested that the temporary slowdown, or hiatus, in the rate of global warming "does not undermine the core conclusions" of the report, and that "warming is expected to continue in the coming decades".

These were last-ditch attempts by Lilley and Stringer to give the Committee's report a "sceptic" slant. They had already ensured that the Committee devoted an oral evidence session to "sceptics" who rubbished the IPCC report. The hearing would not have been out of place if it had been held on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, where Republicans regularly invite witnesses to promote climate change denial to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.

It is perhaps not surprising that Lilley, who juggles his job as an MP with a part-time post as vice-chairman of Tethys Petroleum, continues to reject the findings of mainstream climate research. He was, after all, one of just five MPs who voted against the Bill to introduce the Climate Change Act in 2008.

A few other MPs have also publicly cast doubt on the science of climate change, including David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, and, of course, Owen Paterson, who has just returned to the backbenches after being sacked last week from the post of environment secretary. Paterson has been criticised not just for ignoring the findings of climate researchers, but also for proceeding with a badger cull against the advice of leading scientists.

Stringer's climate change "scepticism" is relatively long-standing, as shown by his dissent against a previous inquiry by House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. He argued that independent investigations into the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia in 2009 had not been rigorous enough to clear scientists at the Climatic Research Unit of misconduct.

But climate change is not the only scientific issue on which Stringer disagrees with the experts. He has also courted controversy by describing dyslexia as a "fictional malady". Stringer was joined on the science and technology committee last year by David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth. Tredinnick, who is also a member of the health select committee, last week told the BBC that astrology could have benefits for patients. He has created outrage in the past by championing homeopathy, and wrote to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to call for a wider range of alternative treatments to be made available.

While these examples only apply to a handful of MPs, what is most surprising is that Paterson was elevated to a cabinet post that has traditionally required a high degree of scientific literacy, while Tredinnick, Lilley and Stringer are all currently serving on committees that are supposed to scrutinise whether the policies of government departments are evidence-based. Their senior appointments might be seen as another consequence of there being but very few MPs with scientific backgrounds. However, it should be noted that while Tredinnick has a master's degree in the humanities and Paterson read history, Lilley studied natural sciences and economics at the and Stringer graduated in chemistry.

It appears, therefore, that the unscientific views of some of these MPs have developed in Parliament despite having scientific qualifications. Whatever the reasons, their rejection of mainstream science undermines both evidence-based policy-making and the public interest.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage