Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. That is very helpful, Sir John. Can you help us further by just elucidating which you think are the important areas on which there is genuine debate and variation within the broader consensus, because those are areas which might well affect government policy?
  (Sir John Houghton) I mentioned one, that is the role of clouds, which is probably our biggest single uncertainty in the whole business. There is the role of particles in the atmosphere, which are also anthropogenic, many of them, they come from burning forests, they come from sulphates emissions from power stations, creating sulphate particles, and so on; there is a lot of uncertainty about our knowledge of those. There is quite a lot of uncertainty here about the influence of the ocean and possible changes in the ocean which may occur. Rather less uncertainty about—it depends on the timescale you are talking about, on a hundred-year timescale there is rather less uncertainty about—the ice-sheets, on a longer timescale there is much more uncertainty about the ice-sheets. So there are many areas of uncertainty which we argue about and which we try to present.

  21. Do you think there is any serious risk, then, that such a level of consensus that the IPCC has arrived at could lead to complacency on the part of governments around the world, so that they do not react, as possibly they need to, to guard against possible alternative explanations of climate change; do you do anything to guard against that happening?
  (Sir John Houghton) We do try, in the IPCC, to look very hard at alternative explanations, and spend, actually, probably more time than we should on some of them, because they get so much publicity. We actually spend more time, for instance, on the solar variations, about which we have very little real scientific evidence but which some people have exploited in the media a great deal, and we spend more time on that than probably we should, considering how important it is scientifically. In fact, we give more time to those things than we do to some of the more important elements of the science I have talked about.

Mr Jackson

  22. Just on this very interesting question—in a sense, this is typical of a historical process in the development of all branches of science, that you have a period when you have a new subject, a new topic, and new techniques being brought to bear, when there is debate, and so forth, and then, hopefully, you move on to what becomes a consensus, which becomes established science and then you can take the thing forward. How far off, do you think, is the prospect of a sort of scientific consensus which establishes basic knowledge in this area; or actually are we going to have to look to a situation where the world is going to take political decisions in conditions of continuing, as it were, uncertainty and debate amongst scientists?
  (Sir John Houghton) There always will be uncertainty in an area as complex as climate change, partially because our scientific knowledge is inadequate and partially because the nature of the climate system is not entirely predictable, there is a certain chaotic element, as it is called, chaotic being a technical term for something that is not perfectly predictable, in the climate system, as such, and that will always be there. So the amount of certain information that we can give will always be limited, and that would always be the case. But climate change is not unique amongst science; many scientific fields, including some of those you have already looked at, very much have the same flavour. I think what is almost unique, perhaps, about the way in which the climate change community has got together is that we have actually carried out a serious, wide-ranging, completely wide-ranging, debate in the scientific community, and attempted to put that science forward in a coherent, understandable, accurate and balanced form. And a great deal of effort has gone into that, the review process, I have talked about, in the IPCC; it actually takes months of the scientists' time, going through the review comments, which are many times greater in volume, very often, than the document on which they are commenting, so a great deal of effort goes into looking at all those comments. And this is the way in which the contrary views, of course, are properly taken into account and properly considered.

Dr Turner

  23. Obviously, there are political differences between the member countries that make up the IPCC, in particular the States. What do you do, as IPCC, to try to resolve those differences?
  (Sir John Houghton) The IPCC tries to ignore those political differences and tries to make sure that, in IPCC meetings, those political differences do not influence the debate. Now that, of course, is quite difficult, because, not so much with the USA but with the oil countries, in particular Saudi Arabia and some of the oil-producing countries, who are strongly fed with information by the American lobby, actually, the American coal and oil lobbyists, they can be very difficult, in some of these meetings, because they try very hard to weaken, or to change, or to alter, scientific conclusions. But, so far, we have been able to, I think, successfully resist those influences, because we stick very firmly to a presentation of the science, not the political interpretation of that science.

  24. So I guess you would say that the main political differences, rather than being rooted in science and based on scientific evidence, are the other way round, that there is a very real danger of scientific evidence, in your context, being distorted by political and commercial influence?
  (Sir John Houghton) Yes, that is true, and after each of our meetings we have had, when we have agreed policy-maker summaries, but to agree them, by consensus, with 100 countries, including those oil countries, is, I think, quite remarkable, and that, actually, under a discipline of science, when you say: "We are presenting the science, we are not presenting politics," it is possible to do that. There have always been some debates after those meetings, unhappiness, perhaps, on the part of some of the scientists, that we have bent too much in their direction because we have had big, big debates about it. I do not think we have bent very much at all, actually; but, nevertheless, it has appeared to some scientists that we have appeared to do so, that we have done so.

Dr Williams

  25. Can I come in on this? That must be very frustrating for you, to have the US and the oil lobby, and so on. Do you take it as part of your responsibility, not only to collate the evidence and prepare these reports, but actually to go to the United States, to their conferences, and perhaps even lobby their politicians, congressmen, and so on, to do a kind of missionary job of educating the US public, their politicians and opinion-formers, that really they are out of line, they are out of step?
  (Sir John Houghton) Yes; many of us do try to take opportunities in the United States to do that sort of thing. The IPCC, of course, as an organisation, is not a lobbying organisation, we do not take part in any political activity, we do not make policy statements, as the IPCC; though many of us, of course, involved in the IPCC, do go and try to explain the science, in the best way we can, as people, as scientists.

  26. Is there a part of your budget to do with public understanding of science?
  (Sir John Houghton) Yes; sure.

  27. And where that public understanding is least, for political and energy and self-interest reasons, that is where the budget needs to be greatest, to try to persuade the politicians there that they need to come on board?
  (Sir John Houghton) Our remit, of course, is really to do with assessment, is to publish an assessment and make that widely available, and, by doing that, we believe we are doing the sort of job you are describing. As an organisation, we do not have funds for campaigning, of any kind, though some of us, of course, do give lectures, and if we had an opportunity to go and talk to a group of US congressmen we would take that, in order to try to explain the science in a way that is understandable to them.

Dr Kumar

  28. Have you been able to persuade any congressmen, senators, given your presentations to them, have they actually changed their minds?
  (Sir John Houghton) I have no evidence that any have changed their minds. I think I have strengthened the minds of some of those who were ready to listen, I do not think I have succeeded in changing the minds of those who were not prepared to listen.

Dr Turner

  29. We have all met one who spectacularly refused to listen. I am sure you know who I mean. It has been argued that, the political differences that occur, that we have just referred to, make it more likely that scientific opinions that challenge the mainstream consensus have a value during the deliberations of the IPCC. Would you agree with that?
  (Sir John Houghton) Yes. Although bodies like the Global Climate Coalition are an awful pain to us, in the way they lobby round, and so on, and sometimes it is almost unacceptable. Our meetings are open to observers from all non-governmental organisations, including the industrial lobby groups, and they are very active, of course, in our meetings, particularly the plenary meetings, when we are trying to agree policy-maker summaries; and although their activity is sometimes, we think, quite deplorable, but we still have them there because it is better to have them there than not to have them there. And, if I were asked, have they been a good thing, in helping us produce better reports, I would say, yes, we have produced better reports as a result of that.

  30. They make you test your arguments that much more thoroughly?
  (Sir John Houghton) Because they make sure we are absolutely honest and absolutely straight down the line, yes.

Mr Jackson

  31. Just a question, or an informal observation, on this point about your lobbying role. Really, your motto is the motto of my old university—great is the truth and it will prevail?
  (Sir John Houghton) Yes.

Dr Gibson

  32. There are strong connections between the IPCC and the Hadley Centre, and they are both major contributors to government advice. Do you not think that is a kind of weakness, in a way, and perhaps the Government should extend its network out and get more independent advice from separate university researchers, or others?
  (Sir John Houghton) The Government does, actually. The link between the IPCC and the Hadley Centre, I suppose, is quite strong, because the IPCC unit is housed in the same building; but the work of that IPCC unit is not primarily scientific, the work of the IPCC unit is organisational, it is getting the scientists worldwide involved in this process.

  33. But your advice to government often looks very much the same, the language is different but the advice is similar, is it not? You have not had a real argument with them about anything yet, have you?
  (Sir John Houghton) There are arguments with the Hadley Centre about various—

  34. But in public?
  (Sir John Houghton) Not public arguments, no. I think a lot of members of the Hadley Centre do play a part in the IPCC assessment, because they are one of the leading places in the world where you find scientists of this kind; it probably involves a wide range of university people, too.

  35. Does the Government go independently to these other organisations besides you and the Hadley Centre?
  (Sir John Houghton) Yes, it does, actually. For instance, the University of East Anglia is well represented in government advice.

  36. Do they ever have contradictory advice to government, that you know of?
  (Sir John Houghton) Their emphasis sometimes is quite different, and we have argued about certain things. I will not go into those details now, but there have been arguments between us, as you can imagine.

  37. So you do not think there is a cosiness that makes you vulnerable to outside attack from green groups, as, for example, English Nature felt with the GMO debate?
  (Sir John Houghton) That danger is always there, of course, if there are people who are working too closely together, and that danger must be watched; and government must go to a wide range of people to get its advice, to make sure that that cosiness is not a problem, I would agree with that.

Mr Beard

  38. Sir John, your memorandum states that "the variety of factors influencing climate change is well understood by government". What evidence do you have that the reports and assessments produced by the IPCC have been understood and have been absorbed by the key policy-makers that you are addressing?
  (Sir John Houghton) I think, if you take meetings, for instance, of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, those international meetings of politicians which are addressing the climate change issue, they are making a lot of use of IPCC material, in fact, they use it a great deal, and I think it has educated them very much in the science of climate change, and, indeed, in the possible impacts and the policy responses from the other IPCC working groups. So it has been a very influential body, in that respect.

  39. Is not there a risk that people are uncomfortable with the uncertainties that you have been speaking of, and the brackets and tolerances, and come down on a particular number and a particular interpretation without taking into account some of what are probably your reservations?
  (Sir John Houghton) Our assessments do not give you one given number, they give you a range of numbers, in all cases, actually; they do not come down on particular answers to the problem, they give you a range of answers to the problem.

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