Credible source, credible argument, credible doubt

Lord Turnbull

From the GWPF come these remarks by Lord Turnbull to the House of Lords on January 12th, two days ago.

House of Lords: That this House takes note of the Government’s green agenda: My Lords, in a short debate, I will concentrate my remarks on one issue only, the governance of the science, as this is vital for the credibility of the thinking upon which the Government’s policies are based.

In a debate in December 2009 on a report by the Committee on Climate Change, I said:

“Below the surface there are serious questions about the foundations on which it has been constructed”.—[Official Report, 8/12/09; col. 1051.]

Complete decarbonisation

Over the subsequent two years my concerns have increased rather than been assuaged.

Newspapers

This is an adopted article.

The governing narrative for our climate change framework can be summarised as follows. Our planet is not just warming—this is not in dispute—but the rate of warming is projected to accelerate sharply: rather than the increase we have witnessed of less than 1 per cent per century, by the end of this century the planet is projected to be around 3 degrees centigrade hotter, taking the centre of the range. Some time during this century we will pass a 2 degree centigrade threshold, which is portrayed as a tipping point beyond which serious harm to the planet will occur. The main driver of this is man-made CO2 and the principal response must be the almost complete decarbonisation of the economies of the industrial world less than 40 years from now.

This narrative is largely based on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so the competence and integrity of the IPCC are of huge importance if it is to drive the massive social and economic changes being advocated. The reliance that one can put on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Stern, is also at issue, since it adopted large parts of the IPCC framework.

Serious flaws

Over the last two years, there have been three separate reports on the IPCC. They are: the report by the InterAcademy Council, a collective of the world’s leading scientific academies; the report written by Professor Ross McKitrick, a Canadian professor of economics who for a time served as an expert reviewer for the IPCC’s fourth assessment report; and a book, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’ s Top Climate Expert, written by Donna Laframboise, a Canadian journalist. Although they write from three different perspectives, in different styles, the message is the same: there are serious flaws in the competence, operations and governance of the IPCC.

The reality is a long way from the way that the IPCC describes itself. The IPCC claims that it employs the top scientists in the field; it uses only peer-reviewed material; its staff are independent and impartial; its operations are transparent; its procedures for review are rigorous and free of conflicts of interest; and its role is to present objective scientific advice to policymakers, not to advocate policy responses. None of these claims is true.

IPCC extensively infiltrated

There are many instances where it has not employed the top practitioners in the field, and worse, many instances where it has employed researchers who have barely completed their PhDs—and in some cases not even that. There has been substantial use of “grey”—that is, non-peer-reviewed—literature. The IPCC has been extensively infiltrated by scientists from organisations like Greenpeace and WWF. There is no transparency about how its lead authors and reviewers are selected and what their expertise is. It has been obstructive to outsiders seeking information on data sets and working methods. It is resistant to input from those who do not share the house view. It was specifically criticised by the IAC for not giving sufficient weight to alternative views.

Its review procedures are flawed, allowing too much latitude to lead authors in choosing which of its reviewers’ comments to accept or reject. It has allowed lead authors to introduce new material after the review phase has been completed. Its policies on conflict of interest are inadequate. It blatantly adopts an advocacy role rather than confining itself to scientific advice. Its Summary for Policymakers is a serious misnomer. The scientists prepare a draft but this is redrafted in a conclave of representatives from the member Governments, mostly officials from environment departments fighting to get their Ministers’ views reflected. In short, it is a Summary by Policymakers not for Policymakers.

IPCC no longer credible

In a pamphlet I wrote last year for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, I said:

“In my opinion, the IPCC and its current leadership no longer carry the credibility which politicians need if they are going to persuade their citizens to swallow some unpleasant medicine. It is therefore regrettable that the UK Government has taken no steps to find an alternative and more credible source of advice”.

I see no signs that serious reform of the IPCC is on the agenda for the fifth assessment. The IAC specifically recommended that the chair should serve only for one cycle. Meanwhile, Chairman Pachauri doggedly clings on.

In the field of governance, things are not a great deal better in the UK. We have seen a second instalment of the CRU “Climategate” e-mails, which tell us little new but confirm the culture of shiftiness, obstruction and the stifling of debate seen in the first instalment. We still hear from time to time the mantra of, “The science is settled, the debate is over” from politicians and even from some scientists.

Science never settled—always improving the theories

Therefore, I was very heartened to hear Professor Brian Cox, the pin-up boy of British science, and his colleague Professor Jeff Forshaw on the “Today” programme recently. Professor Cox said:

“Science is an improvement in our understanding of nature … There are no absolute truths in science. It’s the only human endeavour where that level of modesty applies”.

Professor Forshaw said:

“We are always trying to improve on the theories we have got … And we always expect that they are going to be just temporary structures and that they are going to be replaced at some point”.

So let us have no more “the science is settled/the debate is over” nonsense, particularly in the field of climate science, which is so complex and so young.

My view on the Durban conference is that while many of the participants came away disappointed, it was a sensible conclusion—in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, to “stop the clock” on the emissions issue for a decade—while the science improves and the evidence accumulates, an approach I have heard suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. However, there is good news to report. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has drawn the UK back from its extreme unilateralism, for which he should be congratulated rather than criticised.

Finally, I have a few personal observations. In my pamphlet I wrote that,

“if a technology exists only by virtue of subsidy we only impoverish ourselves by trying to build jobs on such shaky foundations”.

Intellectual certainty is crumbling

The debacle in the solar sector was, therefore, entirely predictable. My second observation is that if a debate with the same title as today’s had taken place 15 years ago when I became Permanent Secretary at the old Department of the Environment—where I had a very happy year working for the noble Lord, Lord Prescott—it would not have been so dominated by decarbonisation but would have been much more about those aspects of the environment people care deeply about: air and water quality, habitats, birds, forests and the countryside. How sad that the issues have been pushed so far down the agenda, accelerated by the misconceived transfer of climate change from Defra to DECC.

In 40 years engaged on public policy, I have come across a number of cases where there was a strong international consensus among political elites, but for which the intellectual underpinning proved to be weak, as those elites were slow to acknowledge. The first was the so-called Washington Consensus which came to be seen as promoting globalisation with the maximum liberalisation of trade and finance and the minimum of regulation, but it turned out to overestimate the efficiency of markets. I confess that I swallowed that one pretty much whole. The second is the euro, where the European political elite pressed on despite warnings about the internal contradictions of the project and even now, it has yet to acknowledge the full extent of the problem. I never bought into the euro from the start.

Climate change—or more accurately, the current decarbonisation project—is in my view the third. Originally I bought in to the IPCC narrative on the science and its impacts while remaining critical of the policy responses. However, the intellectual certainty is beginning to crumble. In the next 10 years I believe we will see the current narrative replaced by something more sophisticated—perhaps drawing extensively on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who will speak shortly—more eclectic, less alarmist and, in Professor Cox’s words, more “modest” in its claims.

9 Thoughts on “Credible source, credible argument, credible doubt

  1. Australis on January 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm said:

    I like the description “Summary by Policymakers”.

    As it is widely accepted that nobody reads the WG reports, this document comprises the IPCC’s influential output. And it is drafted by a gaggle of career-centered activists from the world’s Environment Ministries.

    If draft statements in WGs don’t agree with the policymakers, the views of the scientists have to be changed to align with those of the policy wonks. Reviewed scientific work is kept secret for several months while being edited and spun to match the SPM.

    How can the press and politicians continue to accept the IPCC as the monopoly supplier of “the science” of climate?

  2. Richard C (NZ) on January 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm said:

    Email 4074, January 2001: Bob Watson of the World Bank talks about how he’s going to write the IPCC Summary for Policymakers

    Email 4074

    Subject: Synthesis Report (SYR): Summary for Policymakers

    The key to success for the Synthesis Report and the SPM will be punchy take home messages, and thoughtful tables and figures.

    Would you please send me comments by Friday, February 2. I think that the key to success will be a few well-crafted tables and figures. As soon as I receive your comments, I will write a 5-7 page SPM.

    http://tomnelson.blogspot.com/2012/01/email-4074-january-2001-bob-watson-of.html

  3. Where is today’s cathedral door to which we might nail a dozen of these inconvenient truths?

  4. Appalling. It’s a free world, so even the “leaders” in climatology are entitled to express the opinion they like. But I draw attention to those who willingly follow these atrocious examples. Such people sabotage science, ransack reason and in the end destroy democracy. Though they imagine they do these things entirely for our own good, they must feel the heat of public opprobrium before they destroy us.

  5. Pingback: Prat Watch #3: through the looking glass

  6. In fairness, Gareth, Watson’s quoted comments could be taken either way. But, in speaking for a body dedicated to an assay of the scientific literature, he sounds more advocate than scientist, don’t you think? Which is a dereliction of the founding principles of the IPCC. Which is of serious concern to the more thoughtful among us.

  7. Here’s a couple of links to the Lords debate:

    Andrew Orlowski in the Register
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/01/13/lords_green_debate/

    Bishop Hill (with video link to the debate)
    http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2012/1/12/house-of-lords-on-the-green-agenda.html

  8. Richard C (NZ) on January 15, 2012 at 11:28 am said:

    Sounds more banker than scientist too.

  9. I see in the previous post his mate Bryan Walker discusses climate migration as earnestly as if the book he reviews has significance. But arranging one’s itinerary at journey’s end is useless without first reaching the destination, and without dramatic global warming there’ll surely be no dramatic migration.

    I see similar merit in discussions of pin-dancing angels.

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