Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)




  120. Minister, the United Kingdom Government appears to be one of the first to accept that there has been a major contribution to climate change brought about by man's activity. Do you think that was because there was scientific advice on it? Do you think it was a political decision that was thought to be appropriate for political PR reasons, or do you think it was a precautionary principle? For what reason do you think we have been so in the vanguard of climate change action?
  (Mr Meacher) The quality of performance of the Meteorological Office and in particular of the Hadley Centre is highly relevant here, but the persuasive impact on opinion worldwide does come from IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which provides the overall assessment of the science and of the impacts and socio-economic responses to climate change. The Hadley Centre is a prime contractor of research. It does research which is relevant to IPCC, but IPCC of course is an international body; it is supported by the work of several thousand scientists; it is peer reviewed both in the journals and in the whole process. I would say that that has been the major driver scientifically for changing opinion, plus of course in the last three to five years actual experience on the ground which has persuaded the general public that something different and more serious is happening. The reason I think why we have been able to take the lead in that process—and after all Sir John Houghton was the chair of working group one, which is the most important of the three committees of IPCC—is because of the work done in this country, particularly by the Hadley Centre which I would have said was a world leader, if not the world leader.

  121. One would hope that science well done and properly presented could survive the change of government from one political party to another, but bearing in mind that many of the decisions that were taken on climate change were taken by the previous administration, have you found any need to have second thoughts about any serious aspects of what was done by the previous administration? This is not a political question; this is a science question.
  (Mr Meacher) I would never think that of you and I think that is a perfectly fair question. I am not aware of any way in which we have changed our direction of policy. There have been institutional changes but they might well have occurred anyway under the last administration, not connected with the ideological flavour of the Government. I entirely agree with you that I think the science base is very secure; I think it is respected by all the parties that form government and I do not think that any of those parties would seriously interfere with the thrust of that work. Certainly we would not.

Dr Gibson

  122. When you want advice on some climate change issue, do you always go to the Hadley Centre first or are there other centres of excellence in particular areas that you would go to first? How does it actually work in practice when an issue comes up where you have to have a position?
  (Mr Meacher) I repeat that the main source of information is IPCC. The work of that body is based on a number of models. They are increasingly being refined. If you say how do I get my advice, I get it from the Department. That is based on the contracted research, particularly at the Hadley Centre, but also on external research and also on international peer assessment, for example through the IPCC process again. In addition, I do have the privilege of meeting scientists, albeit for too short a time. I opened the Tyndall Centre in Norwich on 9 November and I did have some significant discussions with scientists on that occasion. I only met them for an hour or two, which is a very short period of time, but those are the sources of information.

  123. What is the Tyndall Centre going to do that the Hadley Centre is not? Why should we have another centre like that?
  (Mr Meacher) It is an independent source of data. It brings together climate change scientists, engineers, economists, social scientists from nine higher education research institutions. The aim is to develop radical new responses to climate change and to try and inform the policy process better. In addition to IPCC, in addition to the Hadley Centre, it is a way of brigading research on climate change in an integrated way of relevance to government and industry which is very helpful. However good the Hadley Centre is—and I think it is extremely good—to rely exclusively on one body would be unwise in an area which is so multifaceted and where it is so difficult to achieve an absolutely comprehensive picture. There is also the point that we are not just talking about understanding of facts and causes; it is not just about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is also about adaptation and that is a much wider issue. It is not just about science; it is about socio-economic impacts and involving public and local authorities.

  124. How is the Tyndall Centre being funded? What degree of permanency does it have?
  (Mr Meacher) The Natural Environment Research Council in the last spending review, SR2000, received an extra £39 million which funded investment in e-science applications in the climate change field. It also paid for, I understand, research into rapid climate change in north west Europe, which we are doing alongside Norway. That is about changes in the North Atlantic Ocean, but thirdly it paid for the Tyndall Centre. I am being told it is £10 million over five years, but the source of it is out of this last spending review.

  125. How is the Hadley Centre reviewed? I believe there is a ten year cycle. Where are we in that cycle now?
  (Mr Meacher) It is being reviewed at the present time because all major public institutions where significant sums of public money are involved over a period of years are subject to a rigorous review. The cycle is five years.

  126. How independent is the Hadley Centre of government? It sounds as if you are in love with each other.
  (Mr Meacher) Only because of the quality of its advice and because of its generally superior performance over other models and its improved performance with further versions of the Hadley model. All of that is for factual comparison with other models. It is certainly not a private or personal view. To that extent, I think we are dependent on it but I repeat it is all peer reviewed. More and more material is written into the models on solar variability, volcanic aerosols, the forcings due to major changes in land use, carbonaceous aerosols. All of these are increasingly being incorporated into the model and indeed I believe increasing comparisons with palaeoclimate. In preparation for this, I was pleased to understand that there is quite a lot of data about the climate in the mid-holocene, 9,000 years ago, and at the last major glacial maximum about 21,000 years ago. All of that is being incorporated increasingly to refine the quality of the model and I think it is being done better here than anywhere in the world. It is not perfect. Until we get an absolute, total match between looking at what the theory predicts on the basis of data should have been the pattern of global temperatures over the last hundred years and it totally matches what we actually experience, we will not have a completely perfect model, but it is getting close to it. The addition of sulphate aerosols has increased its effectiveness considerably.

  127. There are some people who question peer review now and it is maybe time for a good old look at it again, at how effective it is, because science has changed very much from the earlier days when peer review was first evolved. I want to ask you about dissidents in this field. It is a field where there is a lot of argument. Where do you pick up the dissidents and the people who do not agree with the Hadley Centre or the Tyndall Centre?
  (Mr Meacher) I repeat again that we rely primarily on the IPCC which uses a number of models, not one. To that extent, you can say that we use a number of different models. The United Kingdom climate impact change scenarios were largely modelled on the Hadley change model, although with some adjustments, and we have commissioned our own independent valuation of the Hadley Centre through the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Again, we have been careful not to put all our eggs in one basket but to look for independent valuations, where appropriate. I have to say I think the Hadley Centre comes out of all of this extremely well.

Dr Williams

  128. Our main inquiry, of which this is part four, is on scientific advice to government. Generally, these advisory committees are independent of government, staffed with academic experts and so on. In this area of climate change, the role of the Hadley Centre and its closeness to government is a very different model compared to some of the other committees we have been looking at. Do you accept that the Government depends very strongly, even overwhelmingly, on the Hadley Centre and that there will be dangers if other advisory committees work so much hand in hand with government?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not feel that we are unduly dependent on the Hadley Centre or that there is some close nexus which you seem to be suggesting into government policy. There are many other relevant bodies which are involved here.
  (Dr Fisk) My enthusiasm is really to speak on behalf of the IPCC. The IPCC is pretty well the formal equivalent of the advisory committees that you are referring to. It provides summary advice across the whole field, using probably what is a gold plated process compared with the normal way of assembling scientific advice in the United Kingdom. The Hadley Centre is a research contractor that helps us on interim positions. But there is no position that the Government has taken in any major White Paper which is not actually to be found in the IPCC process, which is, as colleagues have said, one of the most inclusive international peer review systems in an open, transparent process that you can find anywhere. That would be our model. If the Committee is looking for models of advisory process, it would be the IPCC. The Hadley Centre is part of that process. If the IPCC were to conclude that the Hadley Centre model was worthy but not excellent, then we would be taking the IPCC advice.

  129. The danger of what I say is an incestuous relationship with government in this area of advice would be compensated for by the fact that it draws from the international advice?
  (Mr Meacher) Can I ask why you feel that there is an incestuous relationship? The very fact that it is all peer reviewed in the journals and indeed through the peer review process of IPCC means it is not as though they have an inside track into government policy. I am not sure why you do not regard them as independent in a proper, scientific manner.

  Dr Williams: If there were other advisory committees on, let us say, GM foods, BSE, nuclear power or in more controversial areas—fortunately here there is a wide consensus that goes with the advice from the IPCC—but if this was the model for other advisory committees being too close to government that would have dangers of excluding dissidents as my colleague from Norwich pointed out earlier, or just drawing the advice from something that is government-funded and government-responsive, you may miss out.


  130. Are the peer reviewers also government-funded?
  (Mr Meacher) Not as far as I know. All of this material is published and all of it can be reworked, examined and checked by any others. That material will itself be published. This is the normal scientific process. To that extent, it does seem that the Hadley Centre is free from the claim of an over-cosy relationship with government. I do not think it could develop, given the openness and transparency of the whole process.

Dr Williams

  131. If the Hadley Centre is well set up and well thought out in its staffing and the emphasis that it gives to different fields, that would be fine, but the accusation has been made that it is too much concerned with climate modelling. There are very good mathematicians and physicists, very good models of world class standard, but maybe it is missing out on biological inputs. Could you give some idea as to the staffing of the Hadley Centre in terms of these scientific disciplines? What proportion of its employees, of its scientists, are from the biological, ecological or environmental sciences as opposed to maths, physics and chemistry?
  (Mr Meacher) I will ask my colleagues to answer that because I cannot, but it is the case that there is a growing body of work which has looked at the carbon cycle on oceans and land and, in particular, the Hadley Centre has recently published a paper about the interaction of the land biosphere and climate. They have published material which shows—and I was partly quoting it—the large feedback that exists between climate change and CO2 emissions from the biosphere. I do not think it is over-dominated by physicists and mathematicians. David, what proportion are there in the biological disciplines?


  132. Mr Warrilow, you have touched on it earlier. If you have difficulty giving a precise answer, we would be very pleased to receive a letter from you but if you could give us a ball park answer that would be very helpful.
  (Mr Warrilow) I cannot give you a precise answer at the moment. It is not admittedly the traditional discipline of the Meteorological Office, of which the Hadley Centre is a part. There is inevitably a preponderance of mathematicians and physicists. That is correct, but the aim is to compensate for that by working with other bodies who have the right expertise outside. We have in the programme joint work with for instance the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, which is part of the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and other organisations as well. That is the way we compensate for that. There have been some people brought into the Hadley Centre who have a background in the biological sciences and in chemistry as well, because that is another important aspect of climate change, but it is certainly not an attempt to make the Hadley Centre do everything that can be possibly done in the scientific disciplines because they are so wide and it is strategically better to work with other bodies.

  133. You will write to us?
  (Mr Warrilow) We will[1].

  134. If you could, when you write, not only tell us what the situation is but tell us what your target would be to change the situation in, say, two years' time, that would be helpful.
  (Dr Fisk) The Department's view is that one of the strengths of the Department's programme on climate change is that we have not focused all our funding on the Hadley Centre. The Hadley Centre is probably a world class resource of the underlying climate change predictions which are used by the climate impact research community, but we have tried to avoid the Hadley Centre being too closely involved in climate impact because it is not a core skill inside the Hadley Centre. The programme over the years developed by David Warrilow and his colleagues has been to have a fast track process by which the Hadley Centre predictions are put out into a very wide network in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. You will notice that when the new Hadley Centre model predictions come out, they are associated with an assessment of what their impacts are, not by Hadley Centre staff, but by key operational people within the wider NERC research community. That has never been done anywhere else before and it is one of the reasons why the Hadley Centre predictions are widely referred to in American research literature. They are much more useful to a much wider community. I think our own feeling is probably that of the Committee's, that if we had simply made the Hadley Centre the centre of everything it would become unstable and not open to the broader challenge of the scientific community.

Dr Williams

  135. My line of questioning is in order to draw out this criticism made of the British position in The Hague summit that the role of carbon sinks is insufficiently recognised. Is there a danger here that we are underestimating or misunderstanding or government is not being sufficiently informed of the role of carbon sinks?
  (Mr Meacher) There was a great deal of discussion about carbon sinks at The Hague and again this last weekend in Brussels. The problem is that while sequestration undoubtedly does occur through afforestation the degree to which you can attribute percentages against targets for countries due to human management of forests over and above natural phenomena is very uncertain. There are also the key problems of scale, uncertainty and risks involved with carbon sinks. It was our calculation that, whilst Kyoto at a five per cent reduction would imply something like a reduction of 250 million tonnes of carbon in a year, if we were to allow sinks both in northern countries, in annex one countries, and in the CDM and developing countries, that could increase the permitted generation of CO2 by something like 1.8 billion tonnes. To that extent, the whole question of scale is extremely worrying. That is why we wanted a very, very cautious attitude to this until the science can reliably show the relationship between afforestation or reforestation and genuine absorption of carbon. There is of course the whole question of high level burning of biomass which we saw in Indonesia and Brazil a year or two ago, where again more CO2 was discharged into the atmosphere than probably the total savings of CO2 by action taken by all the European countries. That is our concern, not to deny it as a scientific process, but to say that it is very uncertain as to what those relationships are. Secondly, the fact that accelerating climate change may reduce the effectiveness of carbon sinks quicker than we would like. Thirdly, destruction of rain forests by fire is a double whammy in the opposite direction. You lose sequestration of carbons and it is all generated into the atmosphere.

Dr Jones

  136. Was the deal brokered by the Deputy Prime Minister acceptable?
  (Mr Meacher) Since I was heavily involved, I would say yes.

Dr Turner

  137. Could you explain to us the workings of the IPCC and its relationship to government policy forming in the United Kingdom and tell us why you evidently think it to be an effective body?
  (Mr Meacher) These reports which are authored reports by scientists from around the world—I think 3,000 to 5,000 scientists are involved; it is on a very substantial scale and they represent some of the most distinguished scientists in terms of track record that you can find anywhere—are the best evidence available worldwide. We therefore take them extremely seriously. Our own Hadley Centre and other bodies flow into that but it is the sheer range and quality of the work. If you are concerned with international acceptance, which is absolutely integral here, if one is looking for openness, if one is looking for comprehensiveness, I think IPCC is a very good process. It is very cumbersome and time consuming, but where there is a degree of controversy, where it is a very complicated, multifaceted subject, as it is here, and where there is a need for nations to work together, I think IPCC is just the right process.

  138. Do you think there is a risk associated with the consensus approach in that it may dilute the advice and underestimate problems or results from global warming in the interests of suppressing opinions to arrive at consensus?
  (Mr Meacher) I think this is an area where dissidence, as far as I know, is certainly not suppressed, where it has plenty of opportunity for expression, where the media, somewhat perversely, are probably giving far more inflation to the views of the dissidents because it creates a story, because it is cocking a snook at the general conventional wisdom than those who are refining what is I think an extremely well founded and increasingly reinforced core theory. I do not believe that dissidents' different views are concealed. In fact, any serious, new evidence would not be suppressed; it would become a major issue for scientific examination and investigation across the world until it either could be explained or, if it withstood the test, the theory needed to be changed in some way.

  139. How are national scientists selected to participate in IPCC? Is it by the IPCC itself or does government nominate them?
  (Mr Warrilow) We are invited to nominate scientists. We went to a large number of people, asking them if they would like to be part of the process. There were something like 120 scientists who we nominated in the United Kingdom. The roles which they actually play once they have been nominated are up to the IPCC to choose. It is possible for people to nominate themselves as well, so they do not have to go through government, although it is important, usually because the IPCC is an inter-governmental process. That is the first point of contact the IPCC has with countries. Also, international organisations are invited to nominate experts, so there is quite a wide range of input from across the world.

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