Will you act on climate change, Prime Minister Cameron?

Margaret Thatcher was no tree hugger but her respect for science heralded a genuine quest to tackle global warming, in 1988 the same year that the IPCC was founded. Can you face down your antediluvian friends to show similar foresight in the face of the procrastination and delays?

Maggie cared about the environment

In a speech to the Royal Society in September 1988 Margaret Thatcher said:

“For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. …”

These words were spoken by a Prime Minister famous for being a champion of free markets, limited regulation and liberal economics. So was she going green and abandoning her principles? Not at all. But she understood the science and the policy implications, and in the same speech talked about the discovery by the British Antarctic Survey of the hole in the ozone layer, and said it was “common sense to support a worldwide agreement in Montreal last year” (1987).

There is no contradiction between regulation on issues that impact on the environment, across international boundaries, and support for free trade and open markets. It it obvious that global companies, working as they are to the beat of quarterly results, and national governments with election cycles of a few years, are ill-equipped to address climate changes over many decades or to deliver changes that require a global consensus. The market is also demonstrably incapable of doing this. It may be a bitter pill for believers in the ultimate wisdom of the markets, but they have fundamental limitations.

If everyone is competing to make fridges that contain CFCs, they can equally well compete fairly on a different level playing field where a benign alternative is used, so long as this is backed up by international agreements such as the Montreal Protocol (and it goes without saying that the transition must be managed well, with verifiable targets along the way).

Today, too often, there is an assumption that there is an unbridgeable divide between environmentalists and free marketeers, between Conservatives and Greens. The debate has become tribal, and at times poisonous. Even those that try to, in US terms, ‘reach across the aisle’, are likely to have their hand bitten off (if not by the ‘other’ side, then by their own!).

Polarisation and tribalism may seem to be a truism in the context of the election we have just had in the UK. But voters are multi-dimensional, so while they are forced to tick one box in our ‘first past the post’ system, it does not mean they do not share values with others who vote differently. Far from it.

Few environmentally minded people fit the stereotype of a tree-hugging, anti-capitalist that some in the media like to conjure up; and few in the business world believe we can trash the environment without serious repercussions.

In the large middle ground there are many shared values that pertain to a wide range of issues we must all confront when we think about global warming. There are so many questions that anyone, from left, right or centre might ask themselves …

  • Would you support greater investment in flood defences in Somerset or along the Thames, in the face of increasingly frequent extreme weather events (which were predicted and have now manifest themselves)?
  • What about the billions needed for a new Thames Barrier that will probably be needed, sooner or later … would you support such a project?
  • If the exodus of migrants from north Africa today is seen as a crisis, then how should we respond practically and morally, in the face of a 2oC warmer world that will decimate agriculture in Africa, and could turn the current trickle of immigrants into a flood?
  • If we care about our personal carbon footprint, will we stop criticising China, when we find that, for example, our iPhone and M&S jacket are manufactured in China (it is our carbon footprint, not theirs!)? Will we favour manufacturers who radically reduce their reliance on fossil-fuel generated electricity, thereby reducing our footprint?

Isn’t it time Prime Minister Cameron, after promising to deliver the greenest government ever at the previous election, to demonstrate unequivocally that you respect the science, as Thatcher did?

Given that the world has procrastinated for so long, action is now an imperative, and every year we fail to act substantively means that the pain of transition will increase exponentially. So will this government demonstrate real commitment to COP21 (the UNFCCC 2015 Paris Climate Conference), and back this up with meaningful action and support for an internationally binding carbon price? Such an agreement is now essential to our ability to mitigate global warming.

Prime Minister, you should be wary about hiding behind those right wing media attack dogs who would prefer that you ridicule, marginalise or ignore the issue of global warming, so that you can simply go through the motions with that furrowed brow and those soothing words of concern.

You should be wary because there are universal values held by many of the people in this country – Conservative, Liberal, Labour and Green – and the electorate do not fit neatly within the narrow tribal stereotypes when it comes to the environment. These values will increasingly be challenged and tested by the impacts and responses – both home and abroad – of global warming.

When the ‘Tory Party at Prayer’ (the Church of England) starts to divest itself of at least some fossil fuel investments and the Governor of The Bank of England is warning of a potential for “stranded assets” (due to the fact that the majority of reserves of coal, oil and gas are “unburnable carbon”, if we are to avoid dangerous global warming), you should think strategically about the threat to those shared values. Or even, to make this personal, how would you prepare to answer the question “Grandad, what did you do to address global warming?” (“sit on my hands” is not going to cut it).

Even within the relatively narrow parameters of protecting pensions, a major Tory theme that resonates with our ageing population, the Conservatives would live to bitterly regret not taking these questions seriously if they succeed in trashing those voters futures on the altar of vested interests in the fossil fuel industry.

Margaret Thatcher respected the Royal Society

I remember talking with a Professor from London University in the 1980s about how to approach difficult technical topics (e.g. the effects of nuclear weapons) in talks to lay people, concerned at that time about the medium range nuclear missile stand-off between ‘the West’ and Russia. “Should I avoid the basic science altogether?” I asked, and he said “No. Assume you have an intelligent audience, but make it accessible. I find that people feel empowered if they understand enough of the basics to be able to navigate complex subjects”

In the ‘debate’ about global warming this is very challenging because there is a lot of science to grapple with across many disciplines in understanding climate change and how we came to know that humans are causing the planet to warm dangerously (one could do worse than read Weart’s “The Discovery of Global Warming” that is available in book form but also free on the web, which unravels the 200 year old detective story that has been the scientific journey towards today’s clear consensus).

It is often only by understanding a little about the science, that one can then engage in a discussion regarding values and then in turn, try to translate the conclusions into effective policies and action.

Take for example the recent case that was reported dramatically as “Three parent babies”. This created an image of some Frankenstein creation, and of course made great headlines. Despite the hyperbole, the reality was more prosaic. The third person would be a woman providing only a tiny amount of mitochondrial DNA (for the part of a cell that is analogous to it’s battery pack), to address malfunctioning mitochondria, and consequent fatal diseases. It was reported well in some cases:

“The third-party DNA contained in the donated mitochondria comprises much less than 1% of the total genetic contribution and does not transmit any of the traits that confer the usual family resemblances and distinctive personal features in which both parents and children are interested.”

With knowledge like this it makes it possible to engage in a constructive debate on the values we have and how to move to policy. We can discuss the benefits, risks, implications for future generations and ethical dimensions on a shared understanding of the science.

While a scientist will have values that may determine what kind of science they study – such as with genetic diseases for example – the methods & approach they use to do their science must be robust and independent of those values.

In science, scientists publish peer reviewed papers, and even then the results are checked by others who aim to reproduce the results, and do this on an international basis, which helps to ensure that cultural bias is not somehow distorting the objectivity of the science.

Once we know the results of the science (peer reviewed and published), we can then overlay our values to determine what we think are the implications of the science. Only then is there a basis on which to advocate for specific policies and actions.

People will argue that scientists should never advocate in favour of policies and should stick to the science. But what if a scientist discovers a cure for a disease, publishes their work in a reputable scientific Journal, what do they do next? Wait for a politician to read the paper and act? They might wait forever! And what if a scientist has worked on the atomic bomb, to stop Hitler and maybe Japan, but then finds that after the war the military are keen to build a vast arsenal. They may feel we have been duped and may wish to stand up and be counted.

Surely, so long as the scientist is clear that they have changed hats by moving from the lab to the arena of public debate, and they are also clear about the values they hold that might influence their advocacy, then why can’t they be involved in the debate?

Scientists have frequently done this, whether over the threat of nuclear proliferation and accidental war, or the need for vaccination to prevent diseases, when science has policy implications (which is surprisingly frequent), it is often the scientists that are needed to at least ensure that the science is not lost in translation when it enters the public domain of the media and politics.

After all, we have seen in the whole MMR debacle how badly the media (journalists and commentators) often mis-translates science into stories, with serious impacts on vaccination rates, herd immunity and consequent increasing rates of measles. The consequences are still being felt as far afield as California. Misreporting of science can be a life and death issue.

Whilst many have put the blame solely at the door of the now discredited Andrew Wakefield, and he has already taken his punishment, Ben Goldacre takes a different view:

“It is madness to imagine that one single man can create a 10-year scare story. It is also dangerous to imply – even in passing – that academics should be policed not to speak their minds, no matter how poorly evidenced their claims. Individuals like Wakefield must be free to have bad ideas. The media created the MMR hoax, and they maintained it diligently for 10 years. Their failure to recognise that fact demonstrates that they have learned nothing, and until they do, journalists and editors will continue to perpetrate the very same crimes, repeatedly, with increasingly grave consequences.”

So, where are your trusted sources? It surely helps in any field to have an interpreter, who can help you navigate the science, and the disagreements, but how do you choose your interpreter? Do you ‘trust’ Ben Goldacre because he appears to have knowledge and a flair for communicating it? Do you also like the fact he is combative and regularly beats up the Daily Mail on their often bizarre medical reporting? That is not a good enough reason.

It certainly helps that an interpreter like Goldacre is also very good at referencing his sources, so you can check the interpreter. But no one individual is infallible. That is why we have bodies who specialize in areas of research, whether fundamental or applied, that provide checks and balances, and often with a duty to inform the public. That is why President Abraham Lincoln set up the National Academy of Sciences to provide the advice that he recognised was needed in an increasingly complex, technological world. We attack or set aside these bodies at our peril.

If we want to get information surrounding the new genetic treatment of mitochondrial diseases it is therefore obvious where to start; with the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority (HFEA), set up to license and monitor UK fertility clinics and all research involving human embryos, and to provide impartial and authoritative information to the public.

In a world where opinions are aplenty and advertising revenue is dependent on ‘hits’, is it any wonder that ‘being controversial’, like a shock jock in print or on the web, is a valued commodity in the modern world of media. For such people, scientific consensus is an opportunity to target people. An opportunity for hits.

James Delingpole is an example of someone who spends a lot of time writing angry attacks against individuals and groups who he disagrees with, and is rewarded with many hits.

That may be a great business model for The Telegraph and other media outlets, but it is hardly edifying and certainly not a new model for scientific enlightenment.

He says he is an “interpreter of interpretations”. This is effectively claiming some kind of absolute privilege to select the right interpreters and their interpretations. He says he won’t read the original papers (an oddly extreme condition for getting informed), but fails even to respect those bodies covering oceanography, climatology, etc. that can help him gain an education on something he claims to be interested in. Instead, he issues blanket dismals of individuals and organisations; essentially dissing thousands of scientists who have devoted their lives to training and research on their specialised subjects.

In so doing, he rejects a scientific process that has done us pretty well for over 350 years. Would we have made the advances in medicine, technology and our understanding of the universe by his method? Of course not. When we make ourselves the ultimate authority, without any knowledge or skills in the topics considered, we end up with quack science, pub science.

If you need authoritative information on climate change / global warming, you do not need to rely on journalists or commentators, whether they come from The Guardian, The Telegraph or Daily Mail, because there is an obvious way forward. After sating yourselves with the tribal rhetoric on offer, the real education can begin.

Why not use informed and conservative bodies such as the Met Office in the UK, where balanced, well written and well referenced analyses are available (such as one from the Met Office issued on the much talked of ‘pause’ ). There are many bodies to consider, including a number in the USA like the NOAA (which, as one example, provides key source data on the rise in COin the atmosphere, the “Keeling Curve”). There is no shortage of accessible and authoritative data and interpretation. The much attacked IPCC provides a consolidation of thousands of strands of scientific research, which is transparently and freely available.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial times to  400 ppm today (and rising). Since the world would be an icy ball without CO2 in the atmosphere, we rather like the 280 ppm and in fact life has been rather used to this level for a long while, being remarkably stable for the last 1000 years, until we started injecting CO2 into the atmosphere. But systems in equilibrium can be easily knocked off it by even small perturbations. We see extreme draught and extreme precipitation in different regions – all as expected.

When you add more energy into a system than is getting out, the energy in the system increases, and this is manifest in the form a rising temperature of the oceans and atmosphere. Of course it is complex, this unfolding of the energy increase as it interacts with the moving parts of the planetary system and internal cycles. But the basic science is clear and simple. There are thousands of telltale signs of warming and we have warmed just 0.7°C so far. We are on course for a dangerously warming world.

The current level of CO2 the atmosphere is unprecedented in 800,000 years, and is due to man-made burning of fossil fuels. This increase in CO2 is not a small perturbation. It is a great shove, and the system is already in search of a new equilibrium.

The IPCC provides the current best estimate of how much the earth will warm (once it has reached a new equilibrium) as a result of a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere:

“Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range 2° to 4.5°C with a most likely value of about 3°C, based upon multiple observational and modelling constraints. It is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C”.

Note that while there is a range of possible outcomes, it is really wishful thinking to hope that the earth will respond according to least of the bad outcomes on offer.

Hope is not a strategy.

In other words, you do not need to read original scientific papers; or use that as an excuse to instead rely on your favourite newspaper; or alternatively, to set yourself up as yet another ultimate authority.

Your taxes (and those in other countries) are paying for highly skilled, conscientious and well informed people, following well established scientific processes, to provide access to source data and accessible interpretations of the state of things.

Next Steps

So, Prime Minister, how will you proceed?

Will you use the power you now have to face down those in your party who claim that the case is not clear yet?

Will you demonstrate a real commitment to address the now well established human-induced global warming?

Who will be your Minister in charge of the climate change portfolio?

Would Margaret Thatcher have been proud of your decisions?

Will your grandchildren in years to come be proud of your vision and courage?

It is your choice. 


Filed under Climate Science, Essay

2 responses to “Will you act on climate change, Prime Minister Cameron?

  1. dave s

    I do like this draft letter, but may I suggest checking the wording before sending it out?
    Minor matters, but when you write “Do you ‘trust’ Ben Goldacre because he appears to have knowledge and a flare for communicating it?” are you indicating that Ben communicates using pyrotechnic distress signals? As the Glasgwegian laying linoleum said, “ye’ve got tae have a flair fur it”.

    Other examples which caught my eye: Delingpole “spends a lot of timing” rather than time, “There are thousands of tell tales signs” rather than telltale.


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