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Finally, the IPCC has toned down its climate change alarm. Can rational discussion now begin?

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

Next week, those who made dire predictions of ruinous climate change face their own inconvenient truth.  The summary of the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be published, showing that global temperatures are refusing to follow the path which was predicted for them by almost all climatic models. Since its first report in 1990, the IPCC has been predicting that global temperatures would be rising at an average of 0.2° Celsius per decade. Now, the IPCC acknowledges that there has been no statistically significant rise at all over the past 16 years.

It is difficult to over-emphasise the significance of this report. The IPCC is not simply a research body making reports and declarations which are merely absorbed into political debate. Its word has been taken as gospel, and its research has been used to justify all manner of schemes to make carbon-based energy more expensive while subsidising renewable energy.

The failure of its predictions undermines the certainties which have been placed upon the science of climate change. Previous IPCC reports — and much of the debate over how to react to them — have appeared to treat the Earth’s climate as if it were a domestic central heating system, with carbon emissions analogous to the dial on the thermostat: a small tweak here will result in a temperature rise of precisely 0.2°C and so on. What is clear from the new IPCC report is that the science is not nearly advanced enough to make useful predictions on the future rise of global temperatures. Perhaps it never will be.

Some climate scientists themselves, to give them credit, have admitted as much. Their papers now incorporate a degree of caution, as you would expect from genuine scientists. The problems arise when the non-scientists leap upon the climate change bandwagon and assume that anything marked ‘science’ must be the final word. As the chemist and novelist C.P. Snow once warned in his lecture about the ‘two cultures’, you end up in a situation where non-scientists use half-understood reports to silence debate — not realising that proper science welcomes refutation and is wary of the notion of absolute truths.

And while we are constantly reminded that ‘most scientists are agreed on climate change’, it is remarkable how many of the most prominent figures warning of climatic Armageddon are not themselves scientists. The chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, is a railway engineer. Al Gore, who shared a Nobel prize with the IPCC for his film of climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, is a failed US presidential candidate. Lord Stern, whose 2006 report provoked the then environment secretary David Miliband to say ‘the science is settled’, is an economist. Few scientists would make such a claim.

As Lord Lawson, former editor of this magazine, once pointed out, the time to be most fearful in politics is when a consensus emerges. It usually means that an argument is not properly probed, and desire to sign up to a fashionable cause supplants the proper rigour which policymaking requires. We certainly saw this with the Climate Change Act, which committed future governments unilaterally to slashing Britain’s carbon emissions to a fifth of what they had been in 1990. The bill was passed in an atmosphere in which sceptics were likened to flat-earthers, with no one stopping to ask what it would achieve for the environment, and at what cost to Britain. Those were the days when Gordon Brown solemnly declared he had 50 days to save the world before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The deadline passed and the world survived — but our understanding of this complex planet has improved. And perhaps we are moving towards a ‘climate glasnost’; a time in which, finally, the science can be debated rationally and we can study the decisions made in those days, and see that the Climate Change Act was, in fact, a deeply irresponsible piece of legislation which will hit poor homeowners with huge energy bills at a time when other countries (especially the US) are following a policy of low energy prices.

Long before his ‘two cultures’ lecture, C.P. Snow explained that science is a work in progress. The scientific mission is to take the best information available, ‘take some pointer readings, make a mental construction from them in order to predict some more’. If the prediction turns out to be right, he said, ‘the mental construction is, for the moment, a good one. If it is wrong, another mental construction has to be tried.’ So it is with climate change science. There is not much doubt that the planet is warming, and man is at least partially responsible. But the failure of the old prediction models make it clear that there is not a simple relationship between carbon emissions and global warming.

As things have worked out, carbon emissions in the rich world have been falling anyway — not due to green taxes but to better technology, like fracking. Global warming is still a monumental challenge, but one that does not necessarily have to be met by taxing the poor off the roads and out of the sky. Sanity is returning to the environmental debate. Let us hope that, before too long, it also returns to British energy policy.

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