Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Scientists must rein in misleading climate change claims

with 2 comments

I missed this in Wednesday’s Guardian. I picked it up because a recent “hawt post” on Word Press from someone who is a climate change denier  has leaped on this story as evidence  that the Met Office – and the Guardian – have changed their minds – which is not all the case either.

There have been recent dramatic weather events which some have used to advance the argument that climate change is progressing much faster than predicted.  Dr Vicky Pope is the head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre – and she is writing in the “Comment is Free” section. That means she is not speaking on behalf of the Met Office – although obviously given her position her opinion has considerable weight. Nor is the opinion necessarily endorsed by the Guardian – they make their opinion area very open indeed.

scientific evidence has been selectively chosen to support a cause. In the 1990s, global temperatures increased more quickly than in earlier decades, leading to claims that global warming had accelerated. In the past 10 years the temperature rise has slowed, leading to opposing claims. Again, neither claim is true, since natural variations always occur on this timescale.

That is not a “blistering attack” – it is a careful analysis of data to disprove both positions – exaggeration and denial.

But also note this final paragraph

When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.

So absolutely no comfort for the deniers there either.

I am not a climate scientist and make no claim to be. I do try to keep up – and one thing I do note is that more extreme weather events of all kinds are part and parcel of global warming. Put simply, there is now more energy in the weather systems – so they are more severe than they used to be. So increased snow in Vancouver and London – more forest fires in Australia – are all consistent with global warming.

Dr Pope is concerned about demagogues on both sides selectively taking data that seem to support their case that either climate change is not happening at all (obviously untrue) or happening much faster than previously thought  (which might well be true but could be a premature alarm).

I think civil servants are selected and promoted on their understanding of what it means not to alarm and confuse the population at large. I think she has a point. I also think that policies to deal with climate change to date everywhere have been far too little and too late and are clearly having no measurable effect. And we still need to change direction.  The sooner we do that and the more effective the action  the better. Once again the precautionary principle kicks in and it seems unlikely that we will risk doing “too much”. There has been far too much caution up to date – and not so much because people thought that the planet was not warming but they were distracted by financial and economic concerns – that in the great scheme of things may well turn out to have been irrelevant.

As a resident of a low lying area I do not think it will be a bad thing if we spend a lot on dyke raising now. It may not be needed for a while, but I will sleep easier in the mean time. It is the same argument I have used to promote the need to earthquake proof our schools. We do not know when the big one is coming – but it will. Nor do we know how big it will be exactly. But we do know that far too many school buildings are not capable of withstanding a significant quake. Putting off the need to upgrade them due to budgetary concerns seems to me to be the height of foolishness.

Equally we need to transform our society from a car dependent sprawl to a compact, efficient and sustainable pattern. We must cut energy use – and switch to sustainable energy sources. This imperative is not affected one whit by esoteric scientific debates about the rate of climate change. We need to do that even if the arctic ice pack does not melt  entirely in the next ten – or fifty – years.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2009 at 12:50 pm

2 Responses

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  1. What I hear is, the way to deal with warming, now and in the future, is to spend $trillions to eliminate CO2 emissions. But even if this is done, mankind will still complain about the weather, as always. Some regions will flood, some will parch, some species will dwindle, some will flourish. Some populations will get fat, others will starve. Only then, mankind will be blamed for some other transgression arising from its existance.

    We are told that the world will run out of oil in the next 40-50 years. Problem solved? We should consider waiting for this to happen, then apply adaptive measures, if and where required to deal with any untoward warming. Of course, by waiting, Al Gore would lose a bundle, as would General Electric, to name a few. After all, who will receive the $trillions we consumers will be required to pay to eliminate CO2 emissions?

    Should it turn out that Mother nature is really the problem, where will the money come from to raise the dykes?


    February 13, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  2. Jeff – what you hear is very misleading.

    If we wait until the oil runs out we will be in very bad shape indeed. It is inevitable that it will become increasingly scarce – it will not just flow at current rates then just dry up. As that process will take time, we must start the process of adaptation. As for cost what you suggest would be unsupportable – as the price of oil as depletion of reserves continues will rise anyway but with your favoured approach exponentially.

    The money will come from the same place that will have to pay out disaster funds in much greater amounts if they are not raised.

    I am treating your comment seriously as this is the first time you have commented – but it does seem remarkably ill thought out.

    Stephen Rees

    February 13, 2009 at 5:14 pm

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