BBC Newsnight On The Russell Inquiry: A Welcome Sea Change?

  • Date: 13/07/10

An edition of BBC’s Newsnight programme was aired late on Wednesday 7th July, the same day that we heard the conclusions of the Muir Russell inquiry into the UEA’s “Climategate” affair. Although the programme itself did not offer dramatic new evidence or revelations, it is very interesting for several reasons.Firstly, it was accepted by those taking part, including BBC Newsnight’s Science Editor Susan Watts, and former IPCC head Bob Watson, that despite an insistence that the science itself has not changed, the rules under which climate science is conducted will have to undergo radical change, with a new emphasis on openness and accountability.

Secondly, BBC viewers were treated to the unfamiliar experience of seeing two of the most prominent, senior proponents of Anthropogenic Global  Warming in the political arena – Yvo de Boer and Bob Watson – sitting with an equally prominent and senior sceptic – Nigel Lawson – in a debate where Lord Lawson’s views were given equal credence and weight to those of his opponents.

We also had the positive experience of a BBC reporter asking reasonably searching questions on the subject of policy, and a general sense that the debate over “what to do” about climate change, far from being over at last, has simply entered a new and unpredictable stage.

Here is a transcript of last week’s programme.


BBC Newsnight, broadcast Wed, 07 Jul 2010



Professor Edward Acton, Vice-Chancellor at UEA

Yvo de Boer, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

Gavin Esler, BBC presenter.

David Holland, FOIA requestor

Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change, UEA

Professor Darrel Ince, Open University

Lord Lawson, Global Warming Policy Foundation

Steve McIntyre, blogger, ClimateAudit

Fred Pearce, journalist, author of “The Climate Files”.

Bob Watson, former Chairman of the IPCC

Susan Watts, BBC Newsnight Science Editor

Gavin Esler: The Climategate scientists are cleared. But how much damage has been done to the case for action on global warming? [BBC Newsnight signature music.] Tonight a final enquiry tries to put the lid on the Climategate scandal. The scientists were called rigorous and honest, but in one case unintentionally misleading. So how damaging has this embarrassing episode been? We hear from the man who’s just stepped down as the UN’s climate chief, a sceptic and a leading scientist. [Other news content.] Good evening. The Climategate controversy is, officially at least, over. The third and final enquiry into questionable and embarrassing e-mails on the evidence for global warming has concluded that the scientists involved were rigorous and honest, although they may have used a misleading graph. But have the questions raised in this great hoo-hah fundamentally damaged the case for action on global warming, especially when we have so many other things to worry about? We’ll debate in a moment, with, among others, Yvo de Boer, the man who was until last week the UN’s top climate change official. First, our science editor, Susan Watts.

Susan Watts: There’s a trick that everybody’s been talking about, and the trick was revealed in an e-mail. To “hide the decline”, giving an impression that something underhand had taken place in climate science. Rarely has an area of science and its relationship with the world come under such intense scrutiny. Three enquiries focussed on the team at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, CRU. One by MPs, one on the science and today’s on how the scientists handled data and presented their results. Broadly, all dismissed suggestions that the thousand-odd e-mails released onto the internet showed scientists had manipulated data to exaggerate the evidence on climate change.

Prof. Edward Acton: There’s a body of opinion which no evidence will convince, because they think there’s a world conspiracy involving all countries. But there’s another body of opinion that really, you know, is anxious to be sure there isn’t just some sort of collective thing [think?]. I think for the latter, this review, and its complete exoneration of the honesty and integrity of our scientists, will be highly significant.

Susan Watts: But today’s enquiry did find that the scientists had consistently failed to be sufficiently open. And its potentially most damaging conclusion concerned a graph that has gained iconic status in climate science. That graph was discussed in the much-mentioned e-mail which talked of a “trick” to “hide the decline”. The enquiry found there was nothing wrong in splicing different sets of data to produce the graph, and that there was no intent to mislead. But they said the outcome was misleading, and that the scientists should have been more clear about what they’d done.

Fred Pearce: The graph is the Hockey Stick graph, there’s been a long argument, for ten years, about that. I don’t think it will cause further damage, but it underlines that the scientists’ claims that they were holier than thou on the public presentation of their science doesn’t [sic] really hold water. Sometimes they’ve simply tried to over-simplify things and have lost, I think, our confidence because of that. And the sceptics have been quite right to point out that they’ve rather covered up some of the uncertainties in their research.

Susan Watts: This man [Steve McIntyre] runs a web site which critiques methods used in climate science. He fervently pursued the release of data from CRU and he says today’s enquiry was flawed.

Steve McIntyre: They don’t help themselves by doing enquiries that don’t talk to both sides. So all that does is make things linger. And they did not interview any CRU critics.

Susan Watts: Steve McIntyre wasn’t the only person who requested data. Another critic learnt today the data he asked for should have been released, in a ruling by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

David Holland: I think the most important lesson is, as with all laws, mean [sic] you can run but you can’t hide. This is a new regime, it came in 2004, it’s taken a while for people to get the hang of it, but the Freedom of Information Act, and more importantly the Environmental Information Regulations really are the law, and you have to disclose the information you have to disclose.

Susan Watts: And another key finding in today’s report – if scientists use computer software, they should release their source code as well as their raw data.

Prof. Darrel Ince: Ten years ago, most academics were fairly lax about issuing their data, including myself, but now we’ve got the World Wide Web, we’ve got the internet and we’ve got mass communication networks. It allows us to put the data on a server, a computer, and then, put our software on the server, and anybody anywhere in the world can access, anybody in our community, anybody outside the community, can access all that software and data.

Susan Watts: Once all those e-mails and documents had been put online, the scrutiny went further, out to the IPCC, the international body that advises governments on climate science. And what that scrutiny found was a series of embarrassing errors, some more serious than others. First, errors over when the Himalayan glaciers might

disappear, then talk of risk to the Amazon rainforest, citing only an environmental group. Then, this week, discussions in the Dutch parliament over just how much of the country might be at risk of flooding, and a tendency by the IPCC to emphasise the negative impacts of climate change. And questions over uncertainty in estimates of how many people might be affected by drought in Africa. There’s little doubt that the IPCC will have to change.

Mike Hulme: The climate science community was very deeply unsettled by the public reaction to the e-mails, and I think there’s been a lot of soul-searching over recent months. And I think I can begin to see already reactions from the community to the e-mails, in terms of greater openness with data, new initiatives to make data publicly and more freely available, and also more explicit attention being paid to the uncertainties of climate science, as well as the certainties, when we communicate with the public.

Fred Pearce: I don’t think the IPCC will ever be seen in the same way again by the public. It’s no longer the oracle. We now understand, and I think it’s perfectly healthy for us to understand, that scientists make mistakes, that scientists can mislead people, that scientists are vulnerable to all the sort of personal frailties that we all are. We should stop seeing scientists as just kind of oracles of these things. So the IPCC is undergoing a process of internal review now, to see if it can be more open in its processes. And some of the e-mails revealed, in rather scary ways I think, how scientists got round the existing processes.

Susan Watts: The fallout from this row won’t go away. And damage to the reputation of climate science may yet extend to the global political discussion about what to do about climate change, too.

Gavin Esler: Susan Watts. I’m joined by Yvo de Boer, who led the UN negotiations on climate change till a week ago, by the former Chancellor Lord Lawson, of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group who campaign against what they say is the domination of the climate change debate by those who believe strongly in its existence, and by Bob Watson, chief scientific advisor of the Department of the Environment, who also worked with the UN panel on climate change. Lord Lawson, you heard there in that report the Vice-Chancellor of the university saying that it was a complete exoneration of the scientists involved. Do you accept that?

Lord Lawson: No, of course not. And you’ve already had a number of things on the programme, already that have shown that there are a lot of things that went wrong. And the matter is not over. I’m quite sure that the scientists believed that when they were being secretive, when they were manipulating the key graph, in a way that they shouldn’t have done…

Gavin Esler: … And that’s hugely important, in your view, that graph…

Lord Lawson: Hugely important. I’m quite sure they were motivated by the fact that they thought this was an important cause they were pursuing. But they did not behave in an appropriate manner, they behaved in a reprehensible manner…

Gavin Esler: Sorry to interrupt, but you make it sound like a religion – they believed in the cause…

Lord Lawson: It is for them. And that is one of the things that I’m.. I think we need to look objectively, not merely at the science which has a number of uncertainties, a number of things that are clear but a number of things also that are uncertain. But also what of the impacts, and you heard already about the Dutch finding, the Dutch environmental council finding that the IPCC had produced a very unbalanced account of the impacts. And finally, there’s the question of the policy. You mentioned that I’m chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The “Policy” is in the name because this decarbonisation policy, which the world is officially on – I don’t think it’s going to happen, but the world is officially on that track, simply does not make economic sense.

Gavin Esler [to Bob Watson]: Do you accept that this has been, even though the scientists have been called honest and rigorous, and so on, this has actually been quite disastrous for their campaign, because it casts huge doubts, which people still talk about? They talk about it in the pubs, they talk about it in newspapers, and they talk about it in learned journals too.

Bob Watson: The first thing, which is very important is not only this report but Lord Oxburgh’s report, the House of Commons report – all stated there is no reason to question the science. Not only is the integrity of these scientists completely honest, but also their data is honest and they did not in any way adversely influence IPCC…

Gavin Esler: But they did that very unwisely, did they not…

Bob Watson: They should have had more openness and transparency in their data and in their computer codes, there’s no question whatsoever. And it has indeed had damage in the way it’s been portrayed to the public, and we have to regain the trust, we have to make sure the public understand what do we know, where are the uncertainties and what the implications are of what we know and where the uncertainties are.

Gavin Esler: [to Lord Lawson]: But you presumably would welcome that debate, you would welcome welcome more transparency, and that would allow you then to move forward and to talk about policy in perhaps different ways –

Lord Lawson: Absolutely, absolutely, there needs to be more debate and more openness, and indeed my foundation will be publishing quite shortly an informed evaluation of all three reports, because, which are not completely as Bob Watson said, because there are a number of serious criticisms made of the CRU scientists made in the House of Commons report …

Bob Watson: But also the US National Academy of Sciences has also issued a series of reports. One of them was on the basic science of climate change, and it completely confirms the key findings, the most important findings of the IPCC – that is to say, we humans are changing the composition of the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate is changing, and the only way we can explain the majority of the observed changes is human activity.

Gavin Esler: Let me bring in Yvo de Boer, then. Did this background help torpedo any kind of real deal at Copenhagen?

Yvo de Boer: I don’t think it helped to torpedo a deal in Copenhagen. In fact I would argue that there was a good deal in Copenhagen. But I… you know, addressing the threat of climate change means a fundamental change in the direction of global economic growth. And to convincingly bring about that change, you need to base the policy on strong science. And I think that the scientific message has suffered as a result, perhaps not so much of what has happened in the University of East Anglia but the broader criticism of the IPCC.

Gavin Esler: But I wonder whether – we’ll get onto full policy implications in a moment, as Lord Lawson suggests – but I wonder whether it took the foot off the neck of the politicians. They didn’t feel that somehow all the people of the world were breathing down their neck, or holding them to get a deal. They could relax a bit, because suddenly there was this doubt as to whether the scientific evidence for the huge policy changes was correct.

Yvo de Boer: Well, a hundred and twenty heads of state and government came to Copenhagen. They agreed a long-term goal in terms of maximum temperature increase. They mobilised hundreds of billions of dollars for support to developing countries. Many of them have since then signed up to the Copenhagen Accord, and have said that …

Gavin Esler: So you see this as a success. Because there are many many people who thought it was fairly abject failure.

Yvo de Boer: I saw it as a success in terms of a political commitment on the part of all of the major countries of the world to set goals for 2020 in terms of limiting their emissions.

Gavin Esler: What do you make of the comment by your successor Christiana Figueres, who says: “I do not believe we will ever have a final agreement on climate change, certainly not in my lifetime”?

Yvo de Boer: What she was talking about there was if you look at what the scientific community is telling us, namely that we need an 80% reduction of emissions by industrialised countries by the middle of this century, and a global reduction of 50% by the middle of the century, then it’s going to take many negotiating rounds to get to that final .. She was not giving up on the process as a whole.

Gavin Esler: But, given the economic impact – I’m going to come back to the others on that in just a second – given the economic impact on all our lives, if there is any kind of doubt about the good faith of the scientists, or how they put things together, or whether there were unintentionally misleading – whatever the phrasing you would use – if people’s jobs and the economies of the world are at risk, that puts much less pressure on the politicians to come to a deal, doesn’t it.

Yvo de Boer: Yes, but the risk there, if you look at the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, that basically told us that the risk of failing to act on climate change in economic terms, is much bigger than the cost of acting on climate change. [Bob Watson is nodding.] And the problem we’re in at the moment is that the question marks that have been raised against the scientific findings are making it more difficult for politicians to make some of the fundamental changes possible that need to be made.

Gavin Esler [to Lord Lawson]: Do you accept some of that, that first of all it makes it more difficult for politicians to make the fundamental changes, and secondly, as the Stern Report says, our economic future is dependent upon doing something about climate change, rather than suggest that it’s not man-made, it’s not as serious as…

Lord Lawson: I have yet to discover a reputable environmental economist who accepts the Stern alarmism. Not one. They have… in all the learned journals it has been completely rubbished. There is a more interesting economic analysis actually, in the IPCC’s most recent report. And the IPCC’s – and this helps us to get this in perspective – the IPCC’s, if you take their worst estimate of the warming, the highest end of the warming, their worst economic scenario, they still say that all the consequence will be, is that living standards in the developing world, in a hundred years time, instead of being a little more than nine times as high as they are today, will only be a little more than eight times as high as they are today. That’s hardly a disaster, I hope it won’t be that… And if you look at the costs of decarbonisation, the cost is massive. And as for Copenhagen, I think Mr de Boer is the only person in the whole world who thinks that Copenhagen was a success. In fact it was a complete fiasco. [Yvo de Boer is laughing.]

Bob Watson: First, Copenhagen was a step in the right direction. It was only a step in a long journey. There was progress in a number areas [sic], but clearly less than some would have hoped for. It’s not just Stern who’s argued that the cost of action is actually less than the cost of inaction. The cost of inaction is quite considerable, even by some of the IPCC analysis. The rate of slowdown of economic growth, even by the IPCC analysis, is quite modest, compared to the risks we are putting ourselves at. So we have to look at the issues of how could climate change, almost certainly caused by human activity, how will it affect food security, energy security, er… security as a whole. And clearly we need to make steps to a low carbon economy, and there are opportunities, indeed, for the private sector in green technologies. And so there is a whole area where we can look at the whole issue of environmental technologies.

Gavin Esler [to Yvo de Boer]: Do you think that this report today does draw a line, that people will move on, from whatever Copenhagen was, failure or success – small success – depending on your views?

Yvo de Boer: Well, it draws a line, but it doesn’t draw a line on the whole story. I mean, there were other criticisms of the IPCC, for example on this question of how will rain-fed agriculture in Africa be affected, how will the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers affect water supply. Those are the questions that are still outstanding in the minds of many people…

Gavin Esler: Do you accept…I talked recently to Sir David King, the former chief scientist here, who is certainly no climate change denier. He says that setting what he calls impossible targets is actually counter-productive because it turns people off, and this is a time when most people are concerned about their jobs.

Yvo de Boer: Well, I absolutely agree that this is not the time, it’s never the time to set impossible targets. But Lord Lawson just said –

Gavin Esler: He means the EU targets is virtually that –

Yvo de Boer: Well…

Gavin Esler: … 30% reduction by 2020.

Yvo de Boer: Well, Lord Lawson said that I’m the only one that believes in the success at Copenhagen. A hundred and twenty-seven countries have signed up to the Copenhagen Accord. All the industrialised countries have submitted targets for the year 2020. Thirty five developing countries, all of them big ones, have submitted national action plans. So I think we saw in Copenhagen a sea change in terms of climate change policy.

Gavin Esler: … sea change…

Lord Lawson: Let’s look at the reality, and it is not simply a question of people being concerned about the cost in terms of what it means for jobs, for employment, and so on. If you look at it from the perspective of the developing world, in particular big developing countries like China and India – and China’s been going ahead very very fast, India a great deal – their prior- and they refused the binding deal at Copenhagen, that’s the main reason why it all fell apart, and they were absolutely right to do so, in my judgement, because their priority is economic development. They still have tens of millions of their people without electricity, tens of millions of their people suffering disease, malnutrition, premature death. And therefore they don’t want to move from cheap energy to more expensive energy, which will slow down…

Gavin Esler: Okay, we’ll leave it. Thank you all very much.

Harmless Sky, 13 July 2010

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