Monday, 8 February 2010

Sir David King: IPCC runs against the spirit of science

The science of climate change appears to be under siege.

By Professor David King, former Government chief scientist
Published: 7:30AM GMT 06 Feb 2010
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Following leaked emails from the University of East Anglia and evidence for sloppy referencing in the IPCC’s 2007 report, the work of thousands of remarkable scientists is now being questioned, not just by the public but also by other members of the scientific community. To understand the implications, it helps to consider how this parlous situation has arisen.

First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produced the landmark reports in 2007 showing that climate change is real, and has been at the heart of this storm. Faced with the social need to tell the world what the science says, the IPCC was set up as a means of seeking consensus. My concern has always been that it runs against the normal spirit of science.

In science, people are supposed to rock the boat. If someone challenges your findings, you make measurements, check the arguments, and see if they might be right. Well-established theories such as evolution and relativity have survived this process. The ideas you don’t hear about are the ones that didn’t make it through this ordeal by fire.

If you depart too far from this in your desire for consensus, the consequences can be disturbing. The emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia suggest that certain members of the IPCC felt that the consensus was so precious that some external challenges had to be kept outside the discussion. That is clearly not acceptable.

Moreover, this leads to the danger that people will go beyond the science that is truly reliable, and pick up almost anything that seems to support the argument. The dodgy dossier saying that all ice would vanish from the Himalayas within the next 30 years is an example of that. When I heard Dr Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, declare this at Copenhagen last December I could hardly believe my ears. This issue is far too important for scientists to risk crossing the line into advocacy.

However, it’s not all the IPCC’s fault. Climate scientists have been forced into this corner by a disastrous combination of cynical lobbying and a misguided desire for certainty. 

The American lobby system, driven by political and economic vested interests in fossil fuels, seeks to use any challenge to undermine the entire body of science. The drive for consensus has come to some extent because the scientific community (me included) has become frustrated with this willful misuse of the scientific process.
This is exacerbated because—as the lobbyists know only too well—

people and governments hunger for certainty. The problem is that science doesn’t work that way. Nothing can ever be 100% sure; we use science to draw conclusions about how probable it is.

When cigarette manufacturers paid lobbyists to try to discredit the scientific theory that smoking causes lung cancer, they used the argument that it wasn’t a proven fact. Well it wasn’t then, and nor will it ever be, but would you now bet against it? We have built many successful enterprises by going with the balance of probabilities that science deals us. And in the case of climate change, the scientific probability that the world is warming, and that humans are the chief cause, is overwhelming.

That’s why I believe that this set of so-called scandals will be little more than a temporary setback to the state of climate science. For one thing, there are more than 3000 pages to the IPCC’s 2007 report. Lobbyists have thrown an enormous amount of effort at discrediting this and have so far come up with very little—and nothing that touches the foundations of the problem. Of course the Himalayan glaciers will not vanish overnight, and the report should never have suggested that they would. But if they continue at their present rate of melting, they will be around for a mere 300 years. That’s still a pretty short span on humanity’s timescale, and the run-up to that loss will make life very uncomfortable for the many hundreds of millions of people who depend on the water they provide.

What’s more, this is only one manifestation of a very broad and robust set of evidence. We know from thermometers and satellites that temperatures have risen at least 0.8C. There is now massive monitoring of the loss of land ice around the planet, including the ground-breaking double satellite gravitational measurements. We have robust data on rising sea levels, the acidification of our oceans, and the spectacular multidimensional details of how climate has changed in the past.

Given all this evidence, it’s ridiculous to say this that human-induced climate change isn’t happening, absurd to say we don’t understand why, and any suggestion that we have nothing to worry about is like making a very bad bet.

Enough already. Instead of vainly trying to pretend that the waters are not rising, let’s get on with the opportunities for innovation and wealth creation that this climate challenge brings. We in the UK have a fantastically strong science base, but in the past few decades manufacturing has fled our shores and we have been steadily losing our ability to capitalize on science. Now is the time to turn that around.

We know that we need to decarbonise our economy, so let’s do it. Let’s work to create a new, smart manufacturing sector in this county that is fit to tackle the carbon challenge while stimulating our economy back into growth.

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