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Lord Turnbull: A Climate Overhaul Is Needed To Win Back Public Trust

When in November 2009 an archive of some 1,000 e-mails sent and received by scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was leaked to the blogosphere alarm bells started to ring. Was this evidence of serious malpractice by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic? Had scientists sought to prevent views critical of their work from appearing in scientific literature? Had scientists deleted e-mails to avoid disclosure under the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation? In passing information to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had they omitted inconvenient evidence?

These allegations could not simply be brushed aside as the rough and tumble of academic discourse. The UK’s climate policy has been based on the assessment of the IPCC to which the CRU has been a major contributor. The UK has enshrined in legislation a duty to ensure that carbon emissions in 2050 will be reduced by 80 per cent. Allowing for growth assumptions, this means in 40 years we will have to create a unit of gross domestic product producing 5 per cent of the carbon dioxide currently emitted, an objective that is totally unconditional on what other countries do.

This edifice is based on a particular IPCC-CRU narrative: that we entered the 20th century with carbon dioxide levels at around 300 ppm; it already exceeds 430 ppm; that if we do not succeed in stabilising it at around 450 ppm the temperature will rise by more than 2°C; at which point catastrophic events start to occur. To achieve this emissions must be cut globally by 50 per cent by the middle of the century, with industrialised nations cutting by 80 per cent.

But every link in this argument is subject to huge uncertainty, as are the timescales. Given the enormity of the sacrifices expected of families and businesses, and the current economic prospects, it is not surprising people question if this is how it has to be. Worse, people are questioning whether the science is as “settled” as often claimed. The e-mails’ saga has fuelled those doubts.

To restore trust, it was essential that the government, parliament, the University of East Anglia and the Royal Society should respond quickly to get to the truth. They set up three inquiries but did those inquiries resolve the issues? A report by Andrew Montford for the Global Warming Policy Foundation shows serious flaws in the inquiries, which it says were marred by the failure to ensure independence in the panel members; by the refusal to take account of critical views; and by the failure to probe some serious allegations.

The result has been that the three investigations have failed to achieve their objective: conclusive restoration of confidence. In The Atlantic, Clive Crook of the Financial Times referred to “an ethos of suffocating group think”. That is exactly what the GWPF report revealed, with the investigators almost as much part of the group as the scientists.

The UK’s new parliamentary committee on science and technology needs to look again at how the inquiries were conducted to see if the exoneration claimed is merited. The government then needs to look at the serious criticisms of the IPCC made in the recent InterAcademy Council Report. It is a subtle document. It does not criticise the IPCC for A,B,C, but instead recommends in future it should do X,Y,Z. But the proposals add up to a trenchant criticism of IPCC practice, including overuse of “grey” literature which has not been properly reviewed; use of a risk-methodology which allows speculative outcomes to be presented with undue certainty; failure to take account of dissenting views. On governance and leadership the IAC recommends the chair should serve only for one assessment round. As the present incumbent has served one round the implication is clear.

The UK government should demand the changes recommended are implemented immediately for the IPCC’s forthcoming Fifth Assessment. Only if confidence is restored in the science will there be the trust with the public which policymakers need. Climate science needs to be less dogmatic, welcoming rather than suppressing diverse views, and candid about uncertainties. It needs also to recognise the strong natural variations upon which man-made emissions are superimposed.

Lord Turnbull was Cabinet Secretary 2002-05. He is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation

Financial Times, 27 September 2010