Page last updated at 18:53 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

What message, and whose, from Copenhagen?

Mike Hulme
Mike Hulme

Last week's climate science conference in Copenhagen concluded with a declaration saying that the most serious warnings on climate change were coming true, and calling for immediate "action". But, argues Mike Hulme in the Green Room, it is not clear what action was being called for, nor precisely who was calling for it.

What exactly is the 'action' the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions?

The Copenhagen conference brought between 2,000 and 2,500 researchers from around the world.

The three days saw 600 oral presentations (together with several hundred posters on display) on topics ranging from the ethics of energy sufficiency to the role of icons in communicating climate change to the dynamics of continental ice sheets.

I attended the conference, chaired a session, listened to several presentations, read a number of posters and talked with dozens of colleagues from around the world.

The breadth of research on climate change being presented was impressive, as was the vigour and thoughtfulness of the informal discussions during coffee breaks, evening receptions and side-meetings.

What intrigued me most, however, was the final conference statement issued on the closing day, a statement drafted by the conference's scientific writing team.

It contained six key messages and was handed to the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen (l) and Lord Stern (r)
Climate luminaries such as Lord Stern put their case to Mr Rasmussen

A fuller version will be prepared and circulated to key negotiators and politicians ahead of the annual UN climate summit, to be held this year in December, also in Copenhagen.

Last week's conference has been widely reported as one at which the world's scientists delivered a "final warning" to negotiators about the necessity for a powerful political deal on climate.

Some commentators branded it "The Emergency Science Conference".

The six key messages include statements that:

  • "the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised"
  • "there is no excuse for inaction"
  • "the influence of vested interests that increase emissions" must be reduced
  • "regardless of how dangerous climate change is defined", rapid, sustained and effective mitigation is required to avoid reaching it
There is a fair amount of "motherhood and apple pie" involved in the 600-word statement - who could disagree, for example, that climate risks are felt unevenly across the world, or that we need sustainable jobs?

But there are two aspects of the statement which are noteworthy and on which I would like to reflect: whose views does it represent, and what are the "actions" being called for?

Copenhagen consensus?

The Copenhagen conference was no Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) event.

It was not a process initiated and conducted by the world's governments; there was no systematic synthesis, assessment and review of research findings as in the IPCC, and there was certainly no collective mechanism enabling the 2,000-plus researchers to consider drafts of the six key messages or to offer their own suggestions for what politicians may need to hear.

Volcanic eruption
Debates included whether mimicking volcanoes could cool Earth

The conference was in fact convened by no established academic or professional body.

Unlike the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) or the UK's Royal Society - which also hold large conferences and from time to time issue carefully worded statements representing the views of professional bodies - this conference was organised by the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU).

This little-heard-of coalition, launched in January 2006, consists of 10 of the world's self-proclaimed elite universities, including of course the University of Copenhagen.

IARU is not accountable to anyone and has no professional membership.

The statement therefore simply carries the weight of the secretariat of this ad-hoc conference, directed and steered by 10 self-elected universities.

The six key messages are not the collective voice of 2,000 researchers, nor are they the voice of established bodies such as the WMO. Neither do they arise from a collective endeavour of experts, for example through a considered process of screening, synthesising and reviewing.

Instead they were drafted largely before the conference started by the organising committee, sifting through research that they saw emerging around the world - some of it peer-reviewed, some of it not - and interpreting it for a political audience.

Taxing times

Which leads me to the second curiosity about this conference statement: what exactly is the "action" the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions?

We should let politics decide, without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity

I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognised as such; and the conference chair herself, Professor Katherine Richardson, has described the messages as politically motivated. All well and good.

But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry - that of the people who drafted them, and no more.

Which brings us back to the calls for action and the "inexcusability of inaction". What action, exactly?

During the conference there were debates amongst the experts about whether a carbon tax or carbon trading is the way to go. There were debates about whether or not we should abandon the "two degrees" target as unachievable, and whether there's a need to start researching and promoting a portfolio of geo-engineering strategies.

There were debates about the epistemological limits to model-based predictions of the future, and many other subjects besides - even the role of religion in curbing climate change.

These are all valid debates to have, and many of them mixed science, values, ethics and politics.

Kingsnorth power station, UK, and protestor
Has the conference addressed the hard political choices?

It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates get reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority - "there is no excuse for inaction" - and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to dictate or resolve nothing in political terms.

In fact, we are politically no further forward after last week's conference. All options for attending to climate change - all political options - are, rightly, still on the table.

Is it to be a carbon tax or carbon trading? Do we stick with 'two degrees' or abandon it?

Do we promote geo-engineering or do we not? Do we coerce lifestyle change or not?

Do we invest in direct poverty alleviation in poorer countries, or in the New Green Deal in richer ones?

Mere urgency, especially precipitous urgency - the mantra of the new "Not Stupid" campaign launched in the UK last weekend - is not enough.

A gathering of international scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change.

But then why should it? All that can be told - and certainly should be told - is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there is a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.

The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide, without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.

Mike Hulme is a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

The Green Room is a series of opinion article on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Mike Hulme? Do you think last week's "call to action" would have the backing of a wide scientific consensus? Were you clear what "action" was being demanded? Do scientists tread on risky ground when they mix politics and science, or is it entirely legitimate?

good stuff. so basically, some people are convinced we pretty much have to do something that looks right. same time next year !
Phillip, Basingstoke

Not one conference delegate had any input to the Final Conference Statement. The six key messages in the statement were DRAFTED and AGREED upon BEFORE the conference STARTED, and it was DONE by the organising committee itself. So the outcome of this conference was already a done deal. The exercise in climate scaremongering had already been scripted. The scientists themselves were simply actors in a climate soap opera.
Mac, Scotland

The summary to all this talk on climate change and the "who dunnit debate",is that no one can tell exactly what will happen, it's just far too complicated. What is important is that if we are to spend vast amounts of tax payer's money on renewable sources of energy then those wind turbines do as the proponents of wind say they will do. Currently wind turbines are neither a green nor an alternative source of energy, as they require conventional fossil fuel power plants to operate as back up. We need energy storage to harness the energy so that when the wind blows at 3am we can use it when we need it. Supply to match demand. Ideally electrolysers should be deployed that convert renewable electricty with water to produce an alternativre clean fuel that is compatible with today's engines and infrastructure. Electrolysers are able to cope with the variability and surges of the wind, a failure of batteries. We need to move towards deveolping electrolyser technology urgently to enable renewable energy; and produce a clean chemcial fuel to reduce dependency on hydrocarbons, for transport, power in the home and business, and manufacturing fabrics. Decarbonising and providing energy security for the UK.
Charles Purkess, Malmesbury

With so much attention on global warming I set out a few months ago with an open mind to look into the whole thing myself. I've seen numerous examples over the years of how governments have pulled the wool over the public's eyes to meet their own agendas and I was concerned about the amount of 'airtime' that the UK government was giving to the whole subject. I've studied the science, the politics, and the language of climate change, and I have to say that at this point in time I have never been more convinced that climate change is a real phenomenon, and that human beings ARE NOT the cause. The bottom is eventually going to drop out of AGW theory; it's not a matter of 'if' it's just a matter of 'when'.
Dave, Doncaster

And yet no coverage whatsoever of the other global warming conference from last week in New York, organised by the Heartland Institute under the title Global Warming: Was It Ever Really A Crisis?. "Led off with stirring speeches from the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the acting head of the European Union, and Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT, perhaps the most distinguished climatologist in the world, the message of this gathering was that the scare over global warming has been deliberately stoked up for political reasons and has long since parted company with proper scientific evidence. " When I start to see proper unbiased reporting of the issue I may start to take notice of the propoganda machine in effect here, quick to report the fallicy that Antartica is warming and failing to report that it recoreded the lowest observed temperature since records began last year.
Jason, hamilton

I understand that the IPCC uses as a source of information only papers already published in peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewing ensures that papers do not wander too far from prevailing opinion without a very good reason. This maintains scientific quality, but also ensures that authors express themselves temperately and conservatively, regardless of how alarmed they may personally be by their findings. The process also adds to publication delays which may amount to some years in some journals. The result is that IPCC reports are both conservative and a year or two out of date on publication. The Copenhagen conference, on the other hand, seems to have been a discussion among working scientists, talking in real-time about their recent findings and current concerns. The thousands of peer-reviewed papers they will later publish will influence future IPCC reports, but there is a case for greater urgency in filling or at least highlighting knowledge gaps, and in identifying dangerous new trends. The precautionary principle does not require scientific certainty, and we should be very precautionary about climate change since the stakes are so high. I welcome the enhanced public awareness and understanding of climate issues allowed by media coverage of Copenhagen. For it is ultimately public opinion that will drive real political inventiveness.
Julian Caldecott, Bath, England

Mike Thornhill is absolutely right - how can there be talk of worst-case scenarios being realised when global temperatures have stalled and show every sign of adopting downward trends ? The Met Office has long championed the idea of man-made climate change, it gathers revenue from seminars aimed at helping employers dispel scepticism over the idea within their organisations, and yet its own graphs now show the trend clearly. Let's be honest - most people contributing to this column don't have the expertise or knowledge to make judgments over whether particular events or trends are man-made or not, particularly in a system as complex as the climate ; we can only look at the evidence available, listen to 'experts' debate and try to reach conclusions. But when such a major plank supporting the idea of man-made climate change appears to be slipping away (given that global greenhouse emissions have continued to rise steeply) why are we not seeing at the very least some proper debate over these developments ? For all I know, very good reasons may exist to explain why temperatures have not continued to climb over the last ten years, reasons which don't simultaneously undermine the theory of man-made climate change, but without proper debate, how will increasing numbers of sceptics ever be convinced ? Doubt over man's role in climate change will simply grow, particularly when many of those who are pushing on with ever more doom-laden predictions (in the face of contrary recent observations) have obvious interests of their own for doing so.
Chris Grimson, Douglas, Isle of Man

I have been involved in the fields of science and engineering for 20 years. I have been both amazed and intrigued by the mass acceptance of AGW as not only fact, but incontrovertible. A recent discussion on the topic lead me to research "worldviews" and it was like switching on a light in a dark room. If one has a worldview that massive & wasteful consumption must be wrong and damaging to the planet, there is no way that you could doubt AGW is real and dangerous -- no evidence to the contrary would ever sway you. It would not be difficult to get several thousand highly trained and honest people together to agree AGW is 100% fact WITHOUT ANY DATA WHATSOEVER. The outcome of such a forum would be certainty that their POV was the correct one, anyone different would be delusional, and there would be no way possible to disprove or even counter the conclusions. If you find what I've written difficult to read or "rantings of a denier@, please take a moment to ask yourself what your worldview is. Would "act now to stop AGW" fit into your worldview as it was before this issue was known to you? Are you in charge of how you think and reason, or is it simply the way your brain must work, to fit in with your wporldview?
Craig, Scotland

The Copenhagen Conference concentrated almost entirely on CO2 forcing and positive feedbacks. A parallel meeting held in New York of some 75 scientists presented much broader perspective with a focus on natural forcings and negative feedbacks. Here the prognosis is for slight cooling of a degree or so rather than a rise of 6C by the end of the century. The proceedings in PowerPoint form are now available at the Heartland Institute website suggesting a much more stable future for all of us.
Roger Coe, Bromsgrove,Worcs,UK

Good on you Mike, for pointing out the message from the conference is just a political statement from the conference organisers. Strange then that the BBC reports it as: "The worst-case scenarios on climate change envisaged by the UN two years ago are already being realised, say scientists at an international meeting. In a statement in Copenhagen on their six key messages to political leaders, they say there is a increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climate shifts." So the statement is spun by the BBC to read as if it was from all 2000 there. Why can't the BBC be objective and report the facts without trying to spin things? Is it any wonder people are disregarding these messages when the reporting is so shoddy!
JGScotland, Scotland UK

Possibly the issue here is that there is no coherent way to represent the collective views of the scientists without what appears to the general public as a lot of fudging statements. These are obviously essential in the scientific world (which is why IPCC reports are full of them) but in real life, if there is a 95%+ chance that what you are doing is dangerous, in general you would stop. Politicians need to hear the message very clearly because they will have to make some difficult decisions. But before they'll take those decisions they need to know their voters also understand the message otherwise they'll be out of office pretty quickly. Unfortunately the climate change denial campaign is well-funded, well-targeted, well-connected and certainly does not worry about accurate science with the normal checks, balances and provisos.
R Gross, London

I read the call to action as a statement that inaction would no longer suffice. In my opinion, eminent scientists endlessly calling for more research and washing their hands of policy options are deeply disingenuous and cowardly responses when the scientific evidence of a massive threat to our way of life is already so clear cut. Just because ten self-selected, yet world-class, universities have clubbed together, doesn't mean they have nothing valid to say and cannot draw useful conclusions, which all of us could usefully hear. Perosnally, I am grateful that the organisers of the Copenhagen Conference had the guts to speak clearly and firmly about the need for actions, beyond warm words, and did so without the tortured introspection. Action is generally considered to be the opposite of inaction or paralysis by analysis.
Dr Matt Prescott, Oxford

What an interesting article. I Hope Roger Harrabin has read this, it does somewhat conflict with his alarmist and exhibitionist rants recently.
Trefor Jones , Resolfen

Odd. If it had been afilliated with a government organisation, it would be considered part of the Great AGW Conspiracy by the corrupt politicians of the world. Since it isn't, it doesn't have any right to its statements. Lose/lose anyone?
Mark, Exeter, UK

I have posted a complaint on Sunday against BBC's misleading coverage of the Copenhagen conference ("Climate scenarios 'being realised'") That article should be edited, and especially now following what Mike Hulme has said, to make it clear "whose message it was, from Copenhagen". Either that, or journalist Matt McGrath will be back telling us why, in his mind, Prof Hulme doesn't know what he is talking about.
Maurizio Morabito, London, UK

Mike is raising a key point. The ecophobics constantly attempt to create a climate of fear, but offer no realistic alternatives. We need to marginalise the tree hugger/anti-capitalist movement and just get on with real action. Oil is coming to the end of it's era anyway. Lets start seeing some serious money being put into fossil fuel replacements - 2g biofuel, nuclear, hydrogen etc etc. Alternatives already exist in the labs, make the effort to bring them to industrial scale right now. car is not causing 'global warming' - petrol is. Give me an alternative fuel and I will happily use it, without any need for more oppression and coercion.
John, England

I think is on time to hide behind our finger and discuss if the scientists had the right to urge the goverments to take measures about climate and if this was politics. The earth is in danger and we are to blame. The scientists revealed the extention of the problem, and I think referred measures which can help (probably not in the conclussion but in the presentations. It's the politicals turn to act and save our planet, no matter how much this may change our lifes. Thank you.
Thomas Thomas, Grevena, Greece

Science and Politics are two different departments. Science discovers the solutions for the welfare of the society whereas politicians claim that they too work for the welfare of the human beings. Here it's a wonderful challenge. Although, we have got different views and perceptions about the causes and proposed actions, but every body likes to reverse the harmful climate changes. If political classes are against to radical changes, they must be motivated for adopting the effective and small interventions at least. Concerns highlighted by Mike Hulme are worth noticing as "knowing the path" and "walking and acting on the path" are two different things. And, in the past few years most of the occasion's actions are being discussed but nothing substantial has been moved forward so far. The biggest challenge in my opinion is the human population, and lot more to be done on that issue.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Is the human world really so dozy for the sake of all life on earth 'IT' can't see this is the way forward to cut carbon emissions? Yes carbon is a problem but there is a far worse evil to over come and this is greed. If everybody just planted as many trees as they can all over the whole world to eventually sink the carbon instead of trying to make money out of it all in deforestation. Obviously at the same time in an orderly manor reduce the carbon emissions. Why is it so difficult or are you trying to tell us we are all already dead? If that's the case and it's just too late then sure- do the bioengineering experiment and make it end all the more quickly!!
M. Weeks, worcestershire uk

Thank you, Professor Hulme, for pointing out the lack of serious legitimacy of this Copenhagen Conference. I didn't know that.
Thomas Goodey, Cuxton-upon-Medway

Clear article from Prof.Hulme. Note. There were not 2000 researchers there. Most were journalists and NGO's. As for the Universities, they see global warming as a fat 'cash cow'. With this conference it was predominantly a political show, shouting about doom and the end of the world, with the end caveat - 'Give us money'.
Mark, Coventry

at last acknowledgement from the BBC that the IPCC pronouncements are coming, not from detailed analysis from scientific data but from political groups, politicians and Universities, who are more concerned with the levels of funding recieved than the inconvenient truths These are the reasons why "action" on CO2 is so weak. The political groups have a loud voice but no backing outwith the IPCC and lobbys, The politicians use it as an excuse to raise tax but wont take the actions demanded by the political groups as the political cost of destroying their economy to cut CO2, when they know there is no real science involved is too great, and the Universities whom would suppress an instant cure for climate change if one was found as the CC cow needs to be milked as long as possible
john davis, motherwell uk

The whole jamboree was a political scam, pre-designed to scare the world about a problem for which there is no scientific evidence. Man-made global warming does not exist. The BBC should report it as such in its headlines, and not just go along with this scam.
Dr Phillip Bratby, Tiverton England

Very well done Mike Hulme for exposing this charade. I have family closely involved with the University of Copenhagen, and from what I hear, I think the insidious grasp of commercial interest has already taken over. Still, the arrival of 2000 visitors for a few days fun must have its commercial benefits in a place like Denmark, not least in these trying financial times. Oh, and let's not forget that Denmark has a considerable windmill industry that only evolved with political intervention.
Alan Robinson, Bjerreby, Denmark

There is a parallel and separate pattern emerging in the absence of a unified effort to defeat global warming while revving up economies at the same time. The G20 hold a meeting prior to the real meeting and come up with a vague 'we're going to work together to regulate and defeat this thing' statement talking about the economic situation the world faces. Separately and not far away scientists meet in Copenhagen and hold a meeting prior to the real meeting and come up with a vague 'no excuses now' statement on stopping global warming. Now if the 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' logic holds and chickens could talk they would say the reason they crossed the street was because the answer to one group's problems is the solution to the others'.. Those chickens sure are smart and the common sense of tapping the writing skills just begging to be used in university technical journalism departments across the globe not to mention others interested in the application of their field of study as well to get things going in the right direction for a change shouldn't be underestimated. Homework assignment for people with a brain due first thing.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

It strikes me as odd that Mike Hulme one of the founders of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, would object to a organization like the IARU. The IARU was formed by a group of world renowned universities, while the Tyndall Centre was formed by a group of UK universities. Perhaps he's just bitter because his group doesn't have the same prestige.
Peter W, Newmarket, Canada

Why should I believe that scientists and government know more about how to regulate climate than economists and government know about how to regulate finance?
Scott W, Port Orchard, USA

It was obviously all a bun fight of scoundrels ! Any self respecting impartial scientist would live on another planet, and therefore not be emotionally distracted by the possibly grizzly fate awaiting their own children ! Speaking of planetary orbits; there was a chap called Sir Isaac Newton - I dunno how scientific he was, he was around long before Television was invented; but he said something like; "A body will continue in a state of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force" Which basically means; "keep on doing what you've always done, and you will keep on getting what you've always got" The Earth is being degraded by excessive Human Activity; you can publish a 700 page report over exactly how much it degraded last Wednesday, or whether the degradation should be measured in Kilo's or Metres per second; But the fact is that 6 billion people have degraded the planet more than when there were 3billion people on it. And - well, actually it will degrade the planet so much that we never would reach 9Bn people, but the point is, that would degrade the planet even more than the 6bn people we have now. Indeed, the 6bn people here now are only degrading the planet at a fraction of the damage we could do if we really had the money to do it. We could manage a whole lot more damage if we really all rushed out on a mad shopping spree. The point is; unless we stop - as Sir Isaac Newton points out - we will continue on the process of further degrading the Earth. And at some point, the other thing that Sir Isaac Newton said will occur; - we will eventually run into an equal and very opposite reaction ! But like I said; Sir Isaac Newton hasn't been on a celebrity game show, or published a 700 page pdf in years. So maybe he's not being very scientific any more, and we should "move on" from the basic laws of physics ? Cheers Steven
Steven Walker, Penzance

I agree with Mike Hulme's final sentence, particularly the 'false' reference. But what interests me is how do serious scientists come up with the key message "the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised", when all the IPCC predictions have seriously over estimated global mean temperatures for this century so far?
Mike Thornhill, Hurstpierpoint UK

Yes this is all well and good; except your assumption of scientific unanimity on this topic in the first place... You're attacking this conference for the very thing that it is based on. There is not scientific unanimity on the theory of global climate change.
Doug, Atlanta, GA ,USA

I teach High School in the United States. My hometown newspaper did not report a single line about the Copenhagen conference so people have no idea what was suggested there. Most of my students accept the climate sceptic argument that no action should be taken about climate change because it is too expensive. They have little or no idea of what the consequences of climate change will be or the time frame when those effects will begin (they think no changes have been observed yet). If scientists do not raise their voices louder than they currently do, the United States will take no action before the consequences are dire indeed. I think that scientists need to take a much stronger position if they hope to influence any change in business as usual. Michael Sweet
Michael Sweet, Tmapa, Florida

"A gathering of international scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change." Oh really? If you think that urgency is not part of the politics as well as the science you are sadly mistaken. The key message document from the conference has the authority of the scientists and economists who drew it up: no less and no more. At the Review Procedures page, it says: "The Scientific Committees of the 4 global climate change programmes (WCRP, IGBP, Diversitas, and IHDP) will take on part of the responsibility for the review of the synthesis of the Conference that will be passed on to the COP. In addition, each IARU University has been asked to find 3 - 4 reviewers." Those institutions include: Australian National University ETH Zurich National University of Singapore Peking University University of California, Berkeley University of Cambridge University of Copenhagen University of Oxford University of Tokyo Yale University Not a shoddy bunch, eh? It's a shame the University of East Anglia was not included but there you go. As you say "I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognised as such; and the conference chair herself, Professor Katherine Richardson, has described the messages as politically motivated. All well and good."
Mark Chopping, Montclalir, NJ

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