James Lovelock On Climategate, Scepticism And Green Dictatorship

  • Date: 30/03/10

When I recently interviewed James Lovelock for the G2 section of the Guardian, we spoke for nearly two hours about the various events of the past few months – a period in which he’d remained silent because he’d been over-wintering with his wife Sandy in her native Missouri. There was a lot to talk about: the stolen emails from the University of East Anglia, the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, the intense scrutiny placed on the IPCC, and the rather nippy winter experienced across much of the Northern Hemisphere. As is inevitable with an interview appearing in the newspaper, space was at a premium so the quotes used were tightly edited. But, just as I did with my interview with Al Gore last year, I have decided to publish a transcript of his key points here online for anyone interested in hearing in much more detail what Lovelock had to say on some of these controversial and much-discussed topics.

Lovelock’s reaction to first reading about the stolen CRU emails [he later clarified that he hadn’t read the originals, saying: “Oddly, I felt reluctant to pry”]:

I was utterly disgusted. My second thought was that it was inevitable. It was bound to happen. Science, not so very long ago, pre-1960s, was largely vocational. Back when I was young, I didn’t want to do anything else other than be a scientist. They’re not like that nowadays. They don’t give a damn. They go to these massive, mass-produced universities and churn them out. They say: “Science is a good career. You can get a job for life doing government work.” That’s no way to do science.

I have seen this happen before, of course. We should have been warned by the CFC/ozone affair because the corruption of science in that was so bad that something like 80% of the measurements being made during that time were either faked, or incompetently done.

Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the holy ghost of science. I’m not religious, but I put it that way because I feel so strongly. It’s the one thing you do not ever do. You’ve got to have standards.

You can make mistakes; they’re helpful. In the old days, it was perfectly OK to make a mistake and say so. You often learned from it. Nowadays if you’re dependent on a grant – and 99% of them are – you can’t make mistakes as you won’t get another one if you do. It’s an awful moral climate and it was all set up for the best of reasons. I think it was felt there was far too much inequality in science and there was an enormous redress. Looking around the country [at the wider society] this was good on the whole, but in some special professions you want the best, the elite. Elitism is important in science. It is vital.

On what the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia – and climate scientists in general – should do to help restore public trust in their work:

Careers have been ended by this affair and the reputation of the institution [CRU] will go down for a while. It’s sad because there are some good people there. They have to clean their house if they know people are behaving badly. They have got a rotten job ahead, but it will blow over in a few years. I think if they can produce a coup and produce some really good climate research they will undo all the harm that’s been done. And they’ve now got an incentive to do that.

I would only have been too pleased if someone had asked me for my data. If you really believed in your data, you wouldn’t mind someone looking at it. You should be able to respond that if you don’t believe me go out and do the measurements yourself.

You don’t hide data. But there are some natural limitations to making data public. For example, if you have just received a fresh batch of data you want to make sure that the instruments are properly calibrated and that something else hasn’t happened in that region that might explain why a sudden change might have occurred. You’ve got to be honest about it and explain why you’ve done what you have done. I think to release the raw data as it comes up, you could see silly sceptics misusing it quite badly.

On the over-reliance on computer modelling:

I remember when the Americans sent up a satellite to measure ozone and it started saying that a hole was developing over the South Pole. But the damn fool scientists were so mad on the models that they said the satellite must have a fault. We tend to now get carried away by our giant computer models. But they’re not complete models. They’re based more or less entirely on geophysics. They don’t take into account the climate of the oceans to any great extent, or the responses of the living stuff on the planet. So I don’t see how they can accurately predict the climate. It’s not the computational power that we lack today, but the ability to take what we know and convert it into a form the computers will understand. I think we’ve got too high an opinion of ourselves. We’re not that bright an animal. We stumble along very nicely and it’s amazing what we do do sometimes, but we tend to be too hubristic to notice the limitations. If you make a model, after a while you get suckered into it. You begin to forget that it’s a model and think of it as the real world. You really start to believe it.

On climate sceptics:

We’re very tribal. You’re either a goodie or a baddie. I’ve got quite a few friends among the sceptics, as well as among the “angels” of climate science. I’ve got more angels as friends than sceptics, I have to say, but there are some sceptics that I fully respect. Nigel Lawson is one. He writes sensibly and well. He raises questions. I find him an interesting sceptic. What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: “Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?” If you don’t have that continuously, you really are up the creek. The good sceptics have done a good service, but some of the mad ones I think have not done anyone any favours. Some of them, of course, are corrupted and employed by oil companies and things like that. Some even work for governments. For example, I wouldn’t put it past the Russians to be behind some of the disinformation to help further their energy interests. But you need sceptics especially when the science gets very big and monolithic.

I respect their right to be sceptics. Nigel Lawson is an easy person to talk to. He’s more like a defence counsel for the sceptics than a right-winger banging the drum. His book is not a diatribe or polemic. He tries to reason his case.

There is one sceptic that everyone should read and that is Garth Paltridge. He’s written a book called the Climate Caper. It is a devastating, critical book. It is so good. This impresses me a lot. Like me, he’s convinced that if you put a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which we will have done in 20 years’ time, it’s going to have some nasty effects, but what we don’t know if how nasty and when. If you look back on climate history it sometimes took anything up to 1,000 years before a change in one of the variables kicked in and had an effect. And during those 1,000 years the temperature could have gone in the other direction to what you thought it should have done. What right have the scientists with their models to say that in 2100 the temperature will have risen by 5C? There are plenty of incidences where something turns on the heat, but temperatures actually go down perversely, before eventually going up. A cold winter may mean nothing, as could 10 cold winters in a row.

The great climate science centres around the world are more than well aware how weak their science is. If you talk to them privately they’re scared stiff of the fact that they don’t really know what the clouds and the aerosols are doing. They could be absolutely running the show. We haven’t got the physics worked out yet. One of the chiefs once said to me that he agreed that they should include the biology in their models, but he said they hadn’t got the physics right yet and it would be five years before they do. So why on earth are the politicians spending a fortune of our money when we can least afford it on doing things to prevent events 50 years from now? They’ve employed scientists to tell them what they want to hear. The Germans and the Danes are making a fortune out of renewable energy. I’m puzzled why politicians are not a bit more pragmatic about all this.

We do need scepticism about the predictions about what will happen to the climate in 50 years, or whatever. It’s almost naive, scientifically speaking, to think we can give relatively accurate predictions for future climate. There are so many unknowns that it’s wrong to do it.

On the blogosphere’s reaction to the various revelations over the past few months:

I think the sceptic bloggers should worry. It’s almost certain that you can’t put a trillion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere without something nasty happening. This is going to resolve itself and global heating is going to come back on stream and it’s these bloggers who are going to be made to look weird when it does. When something like this happens again, they’ll say we had all this before with ‘Climategate’. But there’s a danger that you can go off too strong, like they have. They are not sufficiently aware of the longer-term consequences. I think the sceptics have done us a good service because they’ve made us look at all this a lot more closely and hopefully the science will improve as a result. But everything has a price and an unexpected price may hit these bloggers. It’s the cry-wolf phenomenon. When the real one comes along, they’ll be laughed at. […]

On how humans will ever manage to tackle climate change:

We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. And they should be very accountable too, of course.

But it can’t happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What’s the alternative to democracy? There isn’t one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

Full interview


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