The man who has the Prime Minister's ear has quietly but forcefully defended climate scientists and thrown down the guantlet to the skeptics

A few weeks ago an article by the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman appeared on his website. No fanfare accompanied its unveiling and it was little noted, but it was another robust public statement as science seeks to recover its poise on climate change after the expose of the IPCC's errors.

Sir Peter's role is new in this country, and so how he interprets and fulfils it will set an important precedent. Thus far he has been reassuringly assertive, transparent and independent. His take on the IPCC questions matters more than just about anyone else's in the country for the simple reason that his advice goes straight into the ear of the Prime Minister, and a prime minister, at that, who has atmospheric approval ratings and firm grip on his cabinet agenda. John Key, by all accounts, trusts Sir Peter and is willing to act on his advice.

So what does our chief scientist make of the recent IPCC errors, such as glaciergate?

Sir Peter acknowledges that there's "no excuse for sloppiness or inexactitude" at the IPCC. But he gives the obvious reasons for the odd mistake: human frailty, the variable quality of retrospective data (as is common in all science), and the complex range of disciplines involved in climate analysis. His conclusion, nonetheless, remains defiant. He talks of the potential for "catastrophe". The weight of evidence, he continues, still clearly points to the actions of humanity as the main cause of climate change:

"The world’s climate is changing faster and in a different manner to what has happened previously. There is an overwhelming view, notwithstanding the difficulties of the science, that this is related to human activity. Based on what we know, this change appears highly likely to impact on our capacity to live in the way we have come to expect."

Given that there are climate skeptics still in and around the government, his is a crucial voice. New Zealand has taken a timid stance on carbon reduction under this government, but at least it is putting a price on carbon, and six weeks ago quietly signed up to the Copenhagen Accord and its commitment (admittedly non-binding) to limit the average global temperature rising by no more than 2ºC. In case you missed it, India and China have signed up in recent days, as well.

Sir Peter, in his position paper, quotes his British equivalent, Professor John Beddington from an article in The Times:

“Uncertainty about some aspects of climate science should not be used as an excuse for inaction. Some people ask why we should act when scientists say they are only ninety per cent certain about the problem. But would you get on a plane that had a ten per cent chance of landing?”

He also challenges the deniers/skeptics, writing that, "those in society who are sceptical of its [the IPCC's] conclusions should accept that their arguments must be subject to the same level of critical examination."

It's a point I made in debate with some skeptics visiting Pundit recently, when IPCC member Dr Ralph Sims contributed a fascinating piece, explaining the IPCC process, its flaws and conclusions. Skepticism is not enough, especially when the fate of the planet is being debated. If the skeptics have a theory they should do the science – test, replicate, get peer reviewed... Prove it. Convince us. Otherwise they're nothing but clanging cymbals.

I was struck by a line in Sir Peter's final paragraph:

"...the scientific community has had and is having difficulty communicating both its uncertainty and the absolute need for action simultaneously."

I think that gets to the nub of the question and the controversy. Science is about a balance of probabilities; by its very nature it cannot predict the future because until a theory can be tested and replicated, well, it's not science. Yet at the same time the evidence gathered, the tests already done, the models developed, while never utterly certain, all point to the same conclusion (funny Hitler parodies notwithstanding). And the conclusion has terrifying implications when as estimated 60 million people live within a metre of the shoreline.

So how do scientists communicate to the rest of us both their urgent fears whilst retaining their commitment to uncertainty, when the first question any of us will ask is, 'but are you sure?'

In this American Idol world people want a winner and a loser, a clear answer, a straight up and down vote; we have little time for qualifications and balances of probabilities. If our planet, the lives of our grandchildren, may be at risk, we damned well want a yes or no. When science can't give us that, many don't hang around to discuss the subtleties. Here and now we have jobs to do, kids to look after, Coro St to watch.The glaciers can look after themselves.

So I give a wholehearted thumbs up to scientists such as Sir Peter and Sims who keep trying to explain it all, piece by piece. Right now, in this wee corner of history, there are few tasks more important.

Comments (5)

by Claire Browning on March 17, 2010
Claire Browning

I don't find the Hitler parody so funny ... but then, I do rather struggle to locate my sense of humour on climate change ...

This one, however, on the Downfall of "Wellywood", had me sniggering for days. (Hat tips: Kiwiblog and Dim Post).

For non-Wellingtonians, these are the 'pumpkin' terminals, and here is Blanket Man.

by Richard Leckinger on March 17, 2010
Richard Leckinger

I have to sday I'm with Claire here. I loved the Wellywood video but couldn't get into the spirit of the Hitler/Glaciergate video. Ah well. Too damn close to the issue.

However, I found your post here refreshing, Tim. Probablilites will always struggle against white and black propoganda. The scientists are in for a bumpy ride.

It will be interesting to see how the worm turns when peak oil kicks in, which now has an oil industry consensus date of 2014. Our attention will then turn back again to matters economic, and the climate issue will suffer yet another setback as we try to 'balance' our economic crisis against our environmental one.

by Tim Watkin on March 17, 2010
Tim Watkin

With the Hitler video, I guess my juvenile brain just likes putting silly words over foreign language whatever the topic.

Richard, the thing about peak oil is that it will be easier to measure and there seems to be more time to develop alternatives, with many already in production. By definition, we're only about half way through our use of oil (although using any natural resource to its extinction is probably never a good game plan). Where scientists will continue to struggle with climate change is the sheer scale of the problem, the difficulty of measuring and the fact that by the time we can prove anything, it could be too late for many. It's just so frustrating.


by Claire Browning on March 18, 2010
Claire Browning

Richard, the thing about peak oil is that it will be easier to measure and there seems to be more time to develop alternatives, with many already in production. By definition, we're only about half way through our use of oil ...

Yes - to all but one of your propositions in the comment above, Tim (the "could" should be a "will" - will be too late for many, if we wait for such proof). However, logic would equally tend to suggest that we won't get access to the second half of the oil as economically as the first. So yes, there's a luxury of more time, relatively speaking, but the amount of time will be pretty heavily conditioned by our price-pain tolerance at the petrol pump (and so on, down supply chain).

All that only goes to further prove your point: people will know when oil is peaking, because it will hit them intimately, in their wallets, every day. Getting them to appreciate climate trends over timespans of decades is a different matter entirely. Extreme weather events are the most / only visible aspect - and then, try explaining how epic freezes and snows are consistent with the global warming thesis ... Good luck to you.

I would therefore have thought, Richard, that if peak oil date arrives fortuitously early, that would be a bonus, not a setback, for the climate. Two reasons: reduced economic (and related emissions) activity; and economic incentive to move to clean new-generation technology. It won't be early enough, but if anything, it surely must help.

by Ralph Sims on April 23, 2010
Ralph Sims

A bit late for a comment sorry, but a good analysis Tim. As I stated recently on the Science Media Centre's response to the exoneration of Prof Phil Jones from East Anglia University: 

It will now be interesting to see if the world’s media will pay as much attention to these unbiased outcomes as they did when the series of original headline-grabbing controversies were first promoted. This is unlikely. The science undermining campaign has therefore been successful; public concerns at the perceived threat of climate change have diminished as a result; meanwhile global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to accelerate. Science faces a huge challenge to get its messages across when the findings could have a negative impact on people’s lifestyles. The IPCC is currently reviewing how it can better achieve this through its future assessment reports.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.