Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 116 - 119)




  116. Minister, welcome this afternoon to the Science and Technology Select Committee and welcome too to the colleagues you have with you. In just a moment, perhaps, I will invite you to introduce them but can I just give you the setting in which we are going to take evidence this afternoon? We embarked, in this Committee, some time ago on a major inquiry into the scientific advisory system to government. We decided that we would publish the chapters of each section as and when we had completed them and we had conclusions. Our first one was on genetically modified foods, as you may recall. Our second one was on mobile telephones. Our third one was on diabetes and the driving licence. Our fourth one is scientific advice on climate change. I hope that you have been briefed on the fact that we are not going to debate the whole issue of whether there is or whether there is not climate change. We are assuming there is climate change; we are assuming there is global warming; and we are assuming that it has come about by increased CO2 and other climate change gases. Having those givens, we can then look at what advice government is receiving, the quality of it and how it is reacting to it. We do not wish to go into a great, lengthy debate about whether there is or is not, because we will never get through it. This is our fourth chapter and our final chapter in this scientific advisory system inquiry that we are very nearly finishing at the moment. That said, Minister, having welcomed you, would you kindly introduce your colleagues to us?

  (Mr Meacher) Thank you very much, Chairman. It is a great pleasure, if rather a daunting one, to appear before a Committee all of whose members are prefixed by "doctor". I am not one myself. On my left is David Warrilow, who is head of science policy of the Global Atmosphere Division of the Department. On my right is David Fisk, who is chief scientist and responsible for central strategy.

  117. And is a doctor?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. I am daunted by that too.

  118. You submitted a memorandum to us last March. I wonder if you would like to update us on developments of climate change since that memorandum was sent to us?
  (Mr Meacher) I am sure my colleagues will know more about this than me but one document which I thought I would bring with me—I had not expected it to be so immediately relevant—is this which is Climate Change, an Update of Recent Research from the Hadley Centre, dated November 2000. This had a remarkable effect. I just returned a few weeks ago from a bruising week in The Hague discussing this matter and again in the last couple of days in teleconferencing with the United States and others on the same subject in Brussels. One of the issues which came up at The Hague was the evidence presented by the Hadley Centre there on the predictions of accelerated climate change resulting from interactions with the carbon cycle, the fact that the gradually accelerating pace of climate change affects the operation of carbon sinks, because it accelerates the speed at which forests die back, and that has an immediate impact on the degree of sequestration in absorbing carbon and therefore being permitted as one of the means by which countries can reach their targets. Perhaps I could read this paragraph, since it had quite an impact at the conference: "However, the results do clearly show that the beneficial effect on climate of the additional carbon sinks created by afforestation and reforestation"—which many countries have been relying on quite extensively—"may be at least partially offset by changes in the surface reflectivity as dark trees replace land cover that was lighter in colour. Consequently, in many areas, the climate benefits of planting extra trees will not be as great as their carbon sink potential suggests." Since that was probably the single biggest issue of contention between the European Union and the umbrella group, particularly the United States, that is a glowing testimony to the impact of the Hadley Centre as a prime contractor of research in impacting on the policy process. It had a major impact at The Hague.

Dr Williams

  119. This is a new argument that has only appeared in the last few months or so. It is a very challenging argument in the sense that everybody thought that afforestation or cutting down tropical rain forests were intimately linked, part of the problem and part of the solution. This idea of surface reflectivity is a physicist's idea, not a biologist's idea and I think it gets at the root of what may be a problem in the Hadley Centre in that is that it is packed with mathematicians and physicists and does not really have the biologists. I am very sceptical of this. Is there not potentially a big problem in the Hadley Centre in that it is physical science based and does not have the biological input?
  (Mr Meacher) My understanding is that it is increasingly taking account of biological processes.
  (Mr Warrilow) I would confirm that the Hadley Centre is taking account more of biological process, but it is doing this not by working in house so much on it but by working with others who have expertise in this area. For example, the work which is quoted in here and was published recently in Nature on the feedback effects of the carbon cycle in climate change was work which was carried out in conjunction with scientists from the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh and Wallingford, which indeed include people with a biological background. We also have links with biologists who work at the Institute of Oceanographic Scientists in Southampton, who are looking at the carbon cycle in the ocean.

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