Memorandum submitted by the Institute
1. The Institute of Biology is the independent
charitable body charged by Royal Charter to represent UK biologists
and biology. With some 16,500 members and over 70 specialist Affiliated
Societies, it is well placed to respond to the Select Committee's
consultations on "Scientific Advice".
2. The principal points of this response
(i) that climate change is a complex issue
fraught with uncertainty (paragraph 5); there is also uncertainty
over climate change impacts (paragraph 6); and uncertainties in
the form of ecological surprises cannot be modelled (paragraphs
14 and 17);
(ii) that Governments and its Departments
are unlikely to welcome such uncertainty in advice, even though
being transparent over matters of certainty and accuracy is the
best way to provide advice (paragraph 6);
(iii) that scientific advice can change as
more questions are asked and detailed information is provided,
by researchers (paragraph 8). More research is still required
(paragraphs 7 and 9) as there are many unanswered questions;
(iv) that models are only approximations
(paragraph 11) but these can be tested (paragraph 12). However,
understanding how this is done for each model requires an understanding
of mathematics (paragraphs 15 and 16);
(v) that some local government administrations
appear less aware of scientific advice relating to climate change
and this is likely to result in costs on society (paragraph 21).
As the results of scientific research have become
available advice has changed from that of possible global cooling
to a certainty of global warming
3. Notwithstanding that the Select Committee
(rightly) takes it as given that the global temperature and carbon
dioxide levels have both been increasing, it is of note that this
subject is one where the views presented to Governments by the
scientific community have changed considerably over the past three
decades. In the 1970s, following the discovery that (warm) interglacials
(such as the one we are in) last only a few thousand years, it
was thought that the World may well be on the brink of another
(cold) glacial. Indeed, there was concern that a glacial might
be precipitated by the cooling effects of air pollution (sulphate
aerosols and dust). In the 1980s, it became apparent that there
were several competing (both warming and cooling) factors forcing
the climate. The 1990 IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate
Change) report concluded that it was "certain" that
"emissions resulting from human activities are substantially
increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases .
. . [and that] these increases will enhance the [natural] greenhouse
effect". Finally, the late 1990s have seen a greater confidence
in the accuracy of global warming models, though regional climate
projections may be invalidated due to "surprises" such
as abrupt changes in sea circulation. In short, as the results
of scientific research have become available advice has changed
from that of possible global cooling to a certainty of global
warming. (The uncertainties that remain currently centre on the
exact nature of future global warming, its expression regionally
over time, and its impact on living systems (see paragraphs 6
Global warming does not prevent the prospect of
4. Part of the confusion between global
warming and global cooling arises from the past failure to emphasise
that the problem is one of "climate change". While overall
warming is taking place, this does not prevent regional cooling.
Certainly, rises in global temperature and carbon dioxide levels
will result in higher average temperatures at ground level in
some areas. In others, the switching off of the Gulf Stream (paragraph
20), for instance, or El Niño effects may result in marked
regional cooling. Given that a number of species are at the edge
of their range in the UK, it is fairly certain that these species
will extend or contract their range with climate change. Therefore
the supposition that any response experienced in the UK will necessarily
be to warming alone is unfounded.
Climate change is complex, erratic on the small
scale and has inherent uncertainties which impede comprehension
5. Temperature is not the only factor related
to climate change. Rises in sea level pose other problems that
will vary markedly from region to region. The difficulty of predicting
storm and flood events will further emphasise the uncertainties
and consequences of these changes. It has therefore been difficult
for scientists to influence the thinking of the general public,
and decision-makers, away from simple trends towards an understanding
of this globally complex and, in terms of the smaller scale, erratic
There is additional uncertainty with regards to
the impacts arising from climate changepolicy makers are
unlikely to welcome this in advice
6. Not only is there uncertainty as to the
way climate change will manifest itself, but also uncertainty
as to climate change impacts. For instance, uncertainty in terms
of climate change effects on ecosystems. Not only do species react
differently to warming, but also the different relationships between
species are also prone to change with the climate. Consequently,
the likely species composition (of even comparatively stable climax
communities) following a period of climate change is not certain.
Governments and its Departments are unlikely to welcome such uncertainty
in advice, even though the scientific community is being transparent
over matters of certainty and accuracy. This is the best way to
Current research does not sufficiently focus on
areas that could assist with climate change advice
7. It is also important to stress that research
on changes in ecosystems in response to changes in their environment,
and even on ecosystem function and composition in "normal"
conditions, has been comparatively neglected by emphasis on research
which is "market-led". Few Government Departments and
their Agencies, and even fewer commercial companies have been
prepared to invest in the long-term ecological research that is
needed to understand ecosystem function. For instance, one example
is that more research is needed on the way carbon is sequestered.
Here, an even more specialist example is illustrative of the gaps
in our knowledge. Lichens are common to systems covering some
8 per cent of the terrestrial surface, yet little detail is known
as to their sequestration impacts even though it is known that
they convert rock silicates into oxalates and that this in turn
has an impact on the carbon cycle. Yet again, fungi (and other
detritovores) play a key role in the carbon cycle, but the effects
of climate change on fungal activity are still largely uncharted
Scientific advice can change as more questions
are asked and detailed information provided by researchers
8. In terms of advice to Governments, this
will mean that historically the nature of much scientific advice
on climate change has changed with time. This does not mean that
earlier scientific advice is wrong, rather that the earlier advice
was less complete and in want of more research. Indeed, the early
(1970s) picture portrayed was correct in that interglacials are
comparatively short compared to glacials, so that in "geological
terms" it is likely that our mild interglacial climate will
be replaced by that of a cooler glacial. It was also correct to
say that there are factors that "force" the climate
in a cooling way. However, the research had not then been undertaken
to ascertain the strength of both the cooling and warming factors.
Nor had the detailed research then been conducted (from which
we benefit from today) using palaeobiotic and abiotic indicators
of past climates. As questions are asked, and appropriate research
undertaken, so a more detailed picture is assembled.
For meaningful scientific advice to be given to
politicians, sufficient research needs to be done to address the
numerous frames of reference politicians use
9. The history of climate change research
illustrates that not only does additional research provide a more
complete picture in terms of detail, it (a) uncovers exceptions
to the rule, and (b) places information in context. If the exceptions
to the rule are striking, or if the context is markedly different,
then scientific advice may well "appear" to change.
In the instance of climate change the 1970s picture of possible
cooling was initially set against a context of palaeontological
data that (correctly) showed that mild interglacials were comparatively
short compared to cold glacials. However, when in the 1980s this
was placed against the context of short-term (geologically speaking)
of a few centuries of human-generated greenhouse gas warming factors,
the picture changed. Neither picture is inaccurate. Both are accurate
within their respective frames of reference. For meaningful scientific
advice to be given to politicians, sufficient research needs to
be done to address the variousoften numerousframes
of reference that politicians use.
The specific questions asked by the Select Committee
are in bold italic below.
(A) The way to which the Government
has been advised of potential alternative explanations, how these
alternatives have been assessed and what conclusions have been
We are unable to answer
10. We are unable to answer as we have no
record of all the advice been given Government, nor privy to the
way Government assessed the advice.
(B) What critical appraisal there
has been of models predicting climate change, increasing concentrations
of carbon dioxide and other potential drivers.
Models can only portray approximate elements of
11. Those models that are published in primary
research journals are subject to peer review. It is recognised
that models can only portray approximate elements of reality.
They cannot in any way duplicate reality.
Models can and are tested
12. Models can be and are tested to see
how closely they match reality. One fair (but not "good"
or "perfect") test of a climate model's predictive ability
is, instead of running the model forward into the future from
the present, to run it backwards into the past. It can then be
compared with reality's known past as opposed to an unknown future.
Models differ and have different utility and predictive
13. Some of the Hadley Centre's models for
global climate compare well with reality. Models that attempt
to show regional change are known to be far less reliable. Models
differ and have different utility and predictive ability.
Models cannot account for all surprises but this
does not make them completely useless
14. Models cannot account for all surprises.
The future is likely to hold a number of surprises. These surprises
are of varying likelihood. It would be a surprise if one in 10
Chinese had a car in 10 years time, but not impossible. This would
have a climate impact. It would be far less likely, and hence
a far greater surprise if a near Earth-asteroid impacted disrupting
the global climate in the next 10 years. Neither of these would
necessarily be included in a climatic model (unless deliberately
programmed), but this does not make climate models completely
The maths underpinning complex climate models
is a simplification of reality
15. Much of the discussion of "models"
is hopelessly unrealistic. The many factors and relationships
involved in global climatic change are so complex that the only
way of comprehending them is through the use of mathematics. Various
mathematical formulations are employed to seek to understand and
explain changes in natural systems by means of approximations
to the underlying reality. While capable of incorporating much
greater complexity than any verbal argument, mathematical formulations
are also necessarily simplifications of reality.
Models have improved but communicating how they
are constructed to the public remains difficult
16. Scientists today have greatly improved
access to the statistical thinking that underlies the building,
testing and use of mathematical models. There is, therefore, much
greater confidence in the models that have been developed during
the last decade or so. In particular, it is now possible to test
the utility and predictive ability of models. What is more difficult
is the communication to decision-makers and others the complexity
that underlies these models and makes their use so essential.
We still live in a society which arguably has not the general
level of mathematical ability to appreciate properly mathematical
Beware of surprises, models have their limitations
17. However, we again emphasise the possibility
of "ecological surprise" that will be beyond the scope
of models (paragraph 6). This might occur as natural and man-made
systems become increasingly subjected to changes in environmental
influences that are outside our range of experience, at least
in historically recorded time. Again, such "ecological surprise"
is less likely to be damaging to the economics and welfare of
human society if they can be quickly recognised and understood
or, better still, anticipated. This will necessitate groups of
scientists supported by Government and truly independent of all
the commercial and political pressures now dominating the funding
of scientific research. Such scientists need to be able to "think
the unthinkable" and assess both the probability and the
consequences of the "unthinkable" occurring. Models
do have their limitations, and this is one way that such limitations
can begin to be overcome.
Models differ, many are still coarse
18. It should be noted that models differ
in their resolution and predictive capacity. It would appear that
there can be increasing confidence in global temperature models;
yet those that present regional effects are still fairly coarse.
Models usually only reflect the key elements of a process and
so the results are always subject to a margin of error or uncertainty.
(C) The degree of Government agreement
with scientists in relevant specialisations regarding accepted
explanations of climate change.
We are not privy to Government thought but perceive
it to accept the IPCC view
19. Not being privy to Government thought
we cannot answer this with great confidence. However our perception
is that UK Governments subsequent to the first IPCC report (in
1990) have accepted the IPCC view. We believe that the IPCC view,
with its various caveats, is sound within the frames of reference
allowed by research to date.
Conversely Government Departments may not be fully
accepting IPCC caveats
20. However, we wonder whether Departments
possibly view the regional consequences of global warming solely
as one of a warmer climate for the UK. It may well be that global
warming in disrupting the North Atlantic Broecker salt conveyer
could shift the North Atlantic Drift (the Gulf Stream) (see paragraph
4). Without the warm currents around the European peninsular,
UK winters could become as cold as those in Newfoundland, Canada.
The IPCC has, as one of its caveats, warned of such "surprises",
as we have done in referring to "ecological surprises"
in the paragraphs above. There appears to be little discussion
of IPCC caveats, though this might be because of the vagaries
of the implications for policy.
Some local government administrations seem unaware
of the scientific advice on climate change. These could result
21. Locally, some Councils and local government
administrations seem unaware of the scientific advice relating
to climate change. This is likely to incur a cost on society.
For instance, some home construction has taken place since the
1990 IPCC report on land whose defences from the sea have yet
to be made secure in the long term.
POST forms a useful adjunct to scientific advice
from the scientific community
22. We believe that Parliamentarians find
that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
provides a useful service in providing straightforward profiles
of scientific issues. We welcome the Parliamentary and Scientific
Committee's work in establishing this office in 1989, and believe
that POST forms a valuable adjunct to scientific advice from the
16 February 2000
1 The original memorandum was received on 16 February
2000. The following additional information was received on 11
October 2000: While this point remains valid, the specific example
we give (of the Broecker Salt Conveyor shutting down so preventing
the North Atlantic Drift (Gulf Stream) from warming us in winter)
no longer applies. Three months after the Institute submitted
its evidence to the Committee, NERC announced it was to formulate
a research programme on this very topic. The Institute sent a
representative to the NERC programme's planning meeting. Back