Cancun: scavenging around for scientific fact
At a time of great doubt about climate change, policymakers must magic up more ‘evidence’ of manmade mayhem.
Conventional climate wisdom has it that once ‘the science’ is put before politics, politicians will respond to the imperative to save us from Gaia’s revenge. So each year, representatives from each country that has signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) assemble to turn it into an agreement to limit CO2 emissions.
But science is a slow process; politics happens much faster. In the rush to get the most recent research under the noses of policymakers, those engaged in the climate debate show that climate politics exists before climate science has even got its thermometer out.
The problem for those seeking a deal at this year’s Cancun COP meeting (Convention of Parties [to the UNFCC]) has been that the climate change debate has changed. The COP15 meeting in Copenhagen was a disaster. It revealed disagreement about how best to respond to the science, and showed that the ostensible desire to save the planet barely conceals the same ruthless agendas which have always dominated global politics. The ‘Climategate’ emails revealed that scientists are as human as the rest of us. And just to prove it, the IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri branded as ‘voodoo science’ any criticism of the mainstream view of climate change and its consequences. But the criticisms turned out to be valid. More troubling still, the rate at which the world was warming seems to have slowed considerably, leading sceptics to ask whether global warming is still happening.
The trouble with evidence-based policymaking is that, when doubt about the evidence emerges, the policymaking grinds to a halt. In order to continue with the creation of environmental bureaucracies and political institutions, fresh certainty has to be supplied. As the talks in Cancun opened, so ‘new’ evidence emerged from two of the UK’s biggest climate-research organisations, the Tyndall Centre and the Met Office, amidst a flurry of headlines.
‘World is warming quicker than thought in past decade, says Met Office’, reported Damian Carrington in the Guardian. This spoke to the sceptics who had argued that there had been no significant warming. According to Carrington, the Met Office had discovered that a change in the way sea surface temperatures were measured introduced a cool bias. This was significant, said Carrington, ‘because the rate of global warming from 2000-2009 is lower than the 0.16C per decade trend seen since the late 1970s [...] the warming rate for the past 10 years is estimated at 0.08-0.16C’. Global warming alarmists could breathe a sigh of relief; the world was doomed after all.
But other newspapers reported the story differently. ‘Global warming has slowed down over the past 10 years, say scientists’, said the Daily Mail. ‘Global warming has slowed because of pollution’, said the Telegraph.
The reality was that the scientists involved didn’t know whether the rate of the world’s temperature rise had increased, decreased or stayed the same. Nor did they know what the causes of its change were. But there was evidence of less warming. The Met Office’s own data suggested that the last decade had seen temperatures rise by 0.05 degrees Celsius. This is significantly less than the 0.16 degrees rise per decade seen since the end of the 1970s. However, the research by NASA GISS suggested a rise of 0.13 degrees. The Met Office held a briefing for the press to explain that the reduction in warming might be natural variation, or could be accounted for by a mixture of a decrease in stratospheric water vapour and the cooling bias introduced by new methodology. It might even be pollution. What they were sure of, however, was that climate change was still happening, but that 0.08 degrees of climate change had gone missing. In the words of Chris Morris, ‘there’s no evidence for it, but it is a scientific fact’; the world was still warming really.
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The Met Office’s new claims were all published in a brochure produced for the Cancun climate talks called Evidence: the state of the climate. The introduction of the report declares that ‘Controversy over this past year has led some to question the evidence for climate change and man’s involvement in that change. In fact, the evidence of a rapid long-term change in climate, driven by mankind’s activities, is becoming even stronger.’
This defensive posture owed much less to the emergence of new science than to doubt about the old. The Met Office used other indicators to demonstrate the continued influence of humanity upon the climate, while explaining that the decreased rate of warming remained ‘entirely consistent with predicted man-made climate change’. But is ‘consistent with’ the same as ‘not inconsistent with’? A decrease in the rate of warming is also ‘entirely consistent with’ the idea that humans aren’t causing climate change. What the Met Office means is that the last decade’s reduced rate of warming doesn’t yet challenge predictions. The science is simply uncertain.
The Met Office has since released yet another analysis - Risks of Dangerous Climate Change. This report compares the predictions made in 2007 to the Met Office work since the 2007 IPCC (AR4) report. On the matter of sea level rise, it turns out that new science gives reasons to be both alarmed and relieved.
The Met Office on the sea level rise
This has led, predictably, to conflicting headlines. ‘Alarmist Doomsday warning of rising seas “was wrong”, says Met Office study’, says the Daily Mail. ‘Met Office halves “worst case” sea level prediction’, says the Telegraph. Ignoring the good news about sea levels, ‘We must take climate change more seriously warn Met Office scientists’, says the Scotsman. Climate change threat to tropical forests ‘greater than suspected’, says John Vidal in the Guardian.
‘The evidence of the dangerous impact of climate change is clearer than ever’, said Vicky Pope, head of Hadley’s climate predictions programme. ‘New understanding of the science suggests the overall impact will be about the same [but] in some cases, like the risk of methane release from wetlands and permafrost melting, [we] now conclude that the risks are greater.’
But the ‘dangerous impact of climate change’ simply isn’t getting clearer. It’s not merely evidence of ‘increased rates of warming’ that is in short supply; there is no visible effect of climate change on human society. There is no marked increase in storm intensity or frequency; there is no climate change signature on insurance claims. Any increase in humanity’s vulnerability to nature could be far more easily explained as first-order effects of poverty than by Nth-order effects of climate change.
That’s not to say that ‘climate change isn’t happening’, nor to suggest that it won’t be a problem. However, the alarmist narrative which created the basis for international climate policy has exhausted itself. By over-stating things in the past, it created the conditions for its later embarrassment. In order to sustain the political momentum, science has had to do PR. And the effects are all too plain. Few of the many claims in either of the Met Office’s reports cite any ‘peer-reviewed’ scientific literature, and therefore stand only as statements of opinion, not of science. I asked the Met Office about the confused messages that they seemed to be delivering. A press officer told me that the papers had got the stories broadly right, and the differences between the headlines reflected different editorial agendas.
Actually it reflects more than editorial agendas.The problem is the broader expectation that science can be instructive; that ‘what to do about climate change’ can be simply read off from clear scientific evidence. The evidence isn’t clear. It is contradictory. It changes. Science is confused by the political demand for certainty, for the true story. Thus any new study or review of the science creates a narrative about the future which is either ‘worse than previously thought’ or lends credibility to the sceptic’s arguments. The entire UNFCCC process is not unlike 24-hour live rolling coverage of a natural disaster. The same scenarios are endlessly repeated while news anchors and pundits speculate wildly about the significance of the latest images drip-fed into lifeless depictions of carnage. There is no story… but there might be one, at any moment… Stay tuned.
Science and policymaking are imitating the news. Rather than waiting for genuine scientific development, scientific organisations engaged in the policymaking process produce summaries of the latest speculation on demand. This speculation is intended to add urgency to the process by defeating the doubt that besets the policymaking. But it does so at the expense of a sober understanding of the climate and our relationship to it. This is acceptable under the rubric of the precautionary principle, which allows policymakers to aim to be safe rather than sorry by accepting approximations of ‘science’ in lieu of certainty. But this reveals that science – as an institution, rather than a process – is much less involved in discovery than in supplying climate politics and its bureaucracies with legitimacy.
Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog.