Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The climate debate shifts - a little

Rajenda Pachauri, Chair of IPCC
Another fascinating seven days.  I have four items to report.  What they show is how the ground of the debate is shifting.  In short the public debate is no longer quite so one sided.

First, there was a debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival last Tuesday entitled Powering the Planet.  Panelists were Duncan McLaren of Friends of the Earth, Susan Deacon, former politician and Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.  Whilst many of the contributions assumed imminent 'dangerous climate change'  (a presupposition which particularly underpinned Duncan McLaren's arguments), the subtle change was the very presence of Benny Peiser.   I very much doubt that a year or two back a sceptic would have been included at an event of this nature.

Secondly, well known Scottish former politician Jim Sillars weighed into the debate with a charge of 'self-righteous zealotry' against those who elevate doubtful science to the level of a religious belief - see here for details.

Third, the first of a two part series titled Uncertain Climate was aired on Radio 4 last night.  It was in part a personal journey of Roger Harrabin, BBC science correspondent who has been reporting on climate for the last 20 years.  Much was depressingly familiar with partisans such as Sir Crispin Tickell and Dr Robert Watson given considerable prominence.  But it does seem to represent a repositioning of Roger Harrabin (and the BBC?) who emphasises he always had some doubts (they have certainly not been very obvious).  It seems he now accepts there is a debate and the science is not settled and the second programme may develop that theme.  Again we have discussion which is not as one sided as it would have been from an organ like the BBC a year or two back.

Finally, yesterday also brought the publication of the sixth* enquiry into climate science in as many months.  It is the review of the processes and procedures of the IPCC published by the Inter Academy Council (IAC).  The first paragraph of the conclusions reads like a eulogy with a small caveat at the end:

“The Committee concludes that the IPCC assessment process has been successful overall and has served society well. The commitment of many thousands of the world’s leading scientists and other experts to the assessment process and to the communication of the nature of our understanding of the changing climate, its impacts, and possible adaptation and mitigation strategies is a considerable achievement in its own right. Similarly, the sustained commitment of governments to the process and their buy-in to the results is a mark of a successful assessment. Through its unique partnership between scientists and governments, the IPCC has heightened public awareness of climate change, raised the level of scientific debate, and influenced the science agendas of many nations. However, despite these successes, some fundamental changes to the process and the management structure are essential, as discussed in this report and summarized below.”
For one I am not persuaded that the IPCC process has 'served society well'.  For a stimulating analysis of what is wrong with the IPCC you could to worse than read these views from Ross McKitrick.

But admissions of inadequacies - albeit too little and too late - do reflect a mood shift which is welcome.   Only when we get an honest debate on the science, where mistakes are acknowledged and corrected, can we begin to have a sensible debate on what public policy is appropriate.

So the Book Festival, the BBC science correspondent and now the IPCC review are just beginning to move away from 'the science is settled' mantra and untrue claims, (we still heard them on Roger Harrabin's programme last night from Sir Crispin Tickell), that there is an 'overwhelming consensus' amongst scientists.

* A list of, and links to, the earlier enquiries can be found here.

Update 31.8.10  noon:  Trenchant comments of the science writer Matt Ridley on the IPCC are certainly worth a look here.  Here are a couple of excerpts:
 "One of the most shocking things for those who champion science, as I do, has been the sight of the science Establishment reacting to each scandal in climate science with indifference or contempt."
"So I have concluded that global warming will most probably be a fairly minor problem — at least compared with others such as poverty and habitat loss — for nature as well as people. After watching the ecologically and economically destructive policies enacted in its name (biofuels, wind power), I think we run the risk of putting a tourniquet round our collective necks to stop a nosebleed."

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