Page last updated at 08:35 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Harrabin's Notes: Climate 'Armistice'

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin asks whether bloggers sceptical of man made global warming can be reconciled with the UN's climate body.

Woman using umbrella in Hungary (AP)
Did cold weather sway recent converts to scepticism?

The newly announced inquiries into the University of East Anglia (UEA) will shine a light deep into the core of science in the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the university.

But critics are calling for a broader review of climate science as a whole? Do they have a case?

Let's examine the question of UEA science first.

The independent Russell review will extend to examining the methodology behind part of the controversial Hockey Stick graph which has become the emblem of global warming theory.

A separate inquiry by external experts will measure scientific competence over the past few decades at the CRU.

Already we may have a clue about one possible finding, thanks to an interview for the BBC News website with Phil Jones, the UEA professor who blocked requests for the weather data used in the construction of the modern temperature record.

His colleagues at UEA feel desperately sympathetic with Professor Jones, whose life has been in turmoil since his private conversations were spattered on the web.

They tell me they admire his integrity and accuracy, but they say tidiness is not his strong point. And when I put that suggestion to Professor Jones, he admitted there were shortcomings in his audit trail of weather station data.

The Russell review will consider whether the data procedures at CRU were acceptable by current standards and, crucially, acceptable by the standards of 1990.

And if his account of a hazy paper trail were to be accepted, Professor Jones might be rapped for scientific littering rather than a life sentence for scientific GBH.

Official view

But now to the even more contentious issue about whether the UEA reviews go far enough.

Because, irrespective of their findings, some critics demand a full inquiry into the entire field of climate science.

They point to a recent BBC survey suggesting that just 26% of people in the UK now share the official view of governments worldwide that the climate is changing and humans are implicated.

Phil Jones (BBC)
Phil Jones said some data were not well organised

Some recent converts to climate scepticism may have been swayed by their shivering knees as cold grips a band of the northern hemisphere. They might not have realised that the global temperature in January hit a record high, according to the satellite record at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, US.

The headlines over "Climategate" and "Glaciergate" must have also eroded public confidence too.

Politicians striving for a low carbon economy hope the current storm of climate scepticism is just a cloud in the political weather which might clear if we get a rash of exceptionally warm years globally, as the Met Office suggests.

But what if the Met Office is wrong about climate change, or if the world is in a phase of temporary natural cooling which is masking serious underlying manmade warming?

Politicians will hope that the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) provides a trusted review of the latest science.

But the bloggers who have persuaded so many people to question manmade warming do not trust the IPCC, which they consider a politically motivated body - as my colleague Richard Black reports.

Showing credentials

But could the bloggers and the IPCC be reconciled?

Some bloggers spin facts to make a political point. But some well-informed bloggers claim an impressively broad knowledge of climate science despite their lack of formal credentials.

The establishment, though, would convulse at the prospect of dealing with amateurs and this "credentialism" will be an important component of the future climate debate.

And debate there will continue to be, because discussion over climate change has been over-simplified to a dangerous degree. Although it is near impossible to find UK academic scientists professing to be "climate sceptic" (more on this in a future column) plenty of them agree there is much uncertainty about climates past and future.

The climate issue has always been a matter of risk and uncertainty - not cast iron fact. The former US presidential candidate John McCain had no difficulty expressing it this way: "We're not sure of all the facts but the risks at the moment look too great to take," he used to say.

Professor Jones himself is candid about the uncertainties. He stands by the view that humans are most likely to be warming the planet but admits there have been two similar periods of recent warming and confirms that we don't yet know enough to be sure if the Medieval Warm Period was global and if it was warmer than today.

So what about the assertion from some politicians and science bureaucrats "the debate is over"? Well most (though not all) sceptics agree that increased atmospheric CO2 is heating the Earth.

Peace movement?

But the debate over how much the planet will warm is open, with some suggesting the Earth's systems will temper the warming and others warning that the volume of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere will overwhelm natural systems and may bring catastrophic warming and ocean acidification. We are back to the question of risk.

There is a spectrum of opinion on climate change but aggression from both extremes has reached such a pitch that experts have been tugged into camps, to the detriment of science. This is accentuated by the media's tendency to weave a compelling narrative of drama and conflict.

Amid the clamour on the blogosphere, though, there are the seeds of a growing climate peace movement. What a relief it would be if the extremists in the warring factions would lay down the Weapons of Mass Vilification like "denier", "flat-earther", "climate scam" and "climate con".

We are certainly in the right moment for a great Climate Armistice. It was always predictable that after the traumatic climax of Copenhagen, the world might lapse into spell of self-examination. Well, the soul-searching has begun in the UK. And politicians may afford to be a little less tense about it.

The Copenhagen Accord is in place - not nearly strong enough to satisfy those who fear the risks, but certainly an international political acknowledgement that those risks exist. In my view the international politics of climate change were unlikely to shift substantially this year anyway.

So there is space for a debate on the science. If politicians can frame their arguments in terms of uncertainty and risk, they may be better prepared to engage their critics. Shielding their heads behind an IPCC summary report won't make the debate go away.

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