Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. We have been told that there is quite a difference between the full IPCC reports which give the full range of scientific views that have been taken into account and policy makers' summaries which contain the agreed consensus. In your own policy making, do you draw on the full report or depend primarily on the summaries?
  (Mr Meacher) The full reports, which are authored reports, are written by a range of independent scientists from across the world. The summaries, which are written for policy makers, are agreed as part of the inter-governmental process, although of course they are drawn exclusively from the underlying report. I have a copy of the second report of the IPCC at home. If you are asking about my personal understanding of this report, I have dipped into it. It is a daunting volume, clearly a very high quality of work, extremely detailed and what I have read—which I must say is largely confined to summaries, simply because of the problem of time—is extremely persuasive. I would always prefer to go for the actual report rather than a summary which had been prepared for me, not necessarily because I think it has been tampered with or filtered, but just that it is best to use the basic material, even if on the summary form at the end of chapters one then relies on summaries.

  141. Do you think IPCC is a particularly good model for scientific advice to government? Do you think it is a sufficiently good model to promote it for use in other controversial areas like GM organisms or ocean pollution?
  (Mr Meacher) It may be. Indeed, we are coming to see, over genetically modified organisms, that there is quite a lot of pressure for building a world process for the assessment of the data, partly because that is the best way of ensuring that all relevant data is absorbed into, so far as possible, a single, composite theory; but also of course to encourage confidence amongst the public, because the frenzied attack which has been made on genetic modification causes many members of the public to regard it with something close to panic. Without saying whether genetic modification is a good or a bad thing, it could certainly be looked at in a considerably more balanced, thoughtful, comprehensive and detailed way than we have at the present time. It may be IPCC is one way of approaching that.

  142. Would you be prepared to promote the model internationally?
  (Mr Meacher) I would certainly be very happy to. We keep saying in the United Kingdom that we have a tough regulatory framework. I believe that is true although incidents like the Advanta incident show always that there are problems even when you try to have a comprehensive framework and there are still incidents which cause problems. I think there is a need for the public to have confidence that it is not just the United Kingdom but internationally and that all the relevant data is being assembled and that a very large number of reputable scientists are looking at this. As has been said by Dr Williams, there is much more controversy about the issue of GM than there is about climate change. Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of the fact that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. There is a real division between scientists on genetic modification, let alone the policy makers. It is the openness of it; it is the fact that it is an appropriate model when you are dealing with issues of great controversy and where there is a need to try and get agreement across countries, because it is not only what we believe in the EU; it is what they believe in the north American continent, and to try and reconcile that data and not pave the way for a trade war.


  143. The IPCC is presumably quite an expensive organisation. Do you think it gives value for money? I suppose you are going to say, "Yes, it does", but does it give enough value for money for it to be considered to be a model for GM foods or oceanography, as Dr Turner is asking?
  (Mr Meacher) I will ask my colleagues to give you the figures, which I cannot, as to the United Kingdom's cost but since I take the view that accelerating climate change is arguably the greatest threat to the human race that we have ever faced, if one thinks about whether we have a future at all for the next 300 to 500 years, almost any cost would be justified, but I would much prefer to give the actual figures if we have them.
  (Mr Warrilow) I do not think we have ever formally tried to assess the total cost of the IPCC process in the global sense. The United Kingdom contributes some £140,000 a year to the overall running, which is to help developing countries participate. We also fund the technical support unit, working group one, of the IPCC, which runs at around £450,000 a year. That is the technical support unit that meets the production of the working group one report which is chaired by Sir John Houghton. We also support a number of the lead authors to attend meetings. We pay their travel and subsistence.

  144. You are not talking about £1 million in total?
  (Mr Warrilow) No.

  145. When you started off with 140, I thought you had made a mistake when thousands came out; I thought you were going to say millions. It is very little.
  (Mr Warrilow) What we have to realise is that a lot of scientists provide their own time or at least their institutes provide their time. They are not paid for. If we factor that in, the cost will rise considerably.

  146. Without the IPCC, those scientists would probably still be doing that work anyway so if you abolish it that will not stop. I think you have answered the point in the spirit in which I meant it. It is funded by international bodies, presumably. Do the UN fund it?
  (Mr Warrilow) The majority of the money comes from developed countries. The overall annual budget is something like ten million Swiss francs.
  (Mr Meacher) It is absolutely minuscule. Compared to public accounts in this country of about £330 billion, a million is chicken feed.

Dr Iddon

  147. Climate change is clearly a very uncertain science or it certainly has been in the past. You mentioned today the various models that are being explored and constantly changing to take in new factors. How do you cope with scientific uncertainty of that kind when formulating your policies?
  (Mr Meacher) This is a very difficult issue. It is better coped with by the scientific community. They are able to communicate levels of certainty, but I think it is much more difficult for the public. They want to be told the facts. They want to be told what the situation is and therefore what they have to do. They want government to get on with doing it. They find it extremely difficult to cope with the fact that this is a multifaceted theory. There is the coronal cycle of sunspots and vulcanism. The Mount Pinotubo explosion in 1991, if I remember, had a major impact on the climate. Indeed, some people think the long term ice age cycles are still reflected and having some impact on current cycles. The public find it very difficult to cope with. The IPCC has drawn up some guidelines which try to communicate degrees of uncertainty and perhaps that is the best starting point for trying to have some common standard of uncertainty. It is one that people are very resistant to, but it is one which is necessary and we have to try and communicate it better.

  148. It has been suggested that policy makers do not like uncertainty and wherever the information is coming from they put back pressure on to get black and white answers. Do you feel that is true?
  (Mr Meacher) I was trying to pass the blame onto the public but you are quite right that policy makers equally like certainty. Particularly when you have to deal with the Treasury, as we do every day of our lives, it is much better to speak in terms of certainties than in terms of weighted probabilities which is not the way by which the Treasury tends to allocate money for particular purposes. It is difficult. I cannot deny it, but we have to try and be mature and realise that a lot of this evidence has a margin of uncertainty which is unavoidable, although I think that is steadily reducing and this is almost universally accepted.

  149. You have hinted at the answer to the next question but I will pose it anyhow. You must be inundated with independent scientific advice on climate change as well as other things. You are obviously a busy minister. Do you rely greatly on summaries of that information or do you try to get as much of the direct evidence as possible? In other words, how much of the scientific advice that you are seeing as a minister has been strongly filtered by your civil servants?
  (Mr Meacher) We need to ask them that, because all I see is the filtered result. I do get letters from "mad scientists" or people who have a bee in their bonnet or have a particular view that they are extremely keen, preferably to see the minister or, if need be, write. Officials always very generously suggest that the draft reply should say that officials will see this person and that will be the end of it. I try to make an assessment. I read these as best I can and there have been odd examples where I have been keen to meet people and I have done so. David, how much do you filter what reaches me?
  (Mr Warrilow) We have to be concise, clearly. We try and provide you with frequent advice. Particularly as new results come to the fore, we inform you of them. Quite often, we would attach the scientific paper that our summary would draw on. I do not know whether we always do that but we try and do it if necessary, particularly if it is work which is published as a result of departmental expenditure.


  150. I think it is very much a "when did you stop filtering your minister" type question.
  (Mr Meacher) I do believe that this is an area where the quality and range of advice which I am getting is extremely high. I do not have suspicions about what I am not being told as I do occasionally in other areas.

Dr Williams

  151. How does the precautionary principle apply in this area of policy?
  (Mr Meacher) The precautionary principle which says that where the evidence is less than certain but of a sufficient degree of persuasiveness as to justify and indeed strongly pressure the need for some action to be taken, just in case it turns out that the suspected consequences are true—that is not a very good expression of the precautionary principle but I think the thrust of it is right. The precautionary principle I would say here is very powerful. The Kyoto conference of the world nations, and in particular the annex one 35 countries who are mainly responsible in the developed world, was accepting targets under the Kyoto protocol based on the precautionary principle. In 1997 or even now, the degree of absolute certainty or the degree of other factors which may be influencing the long term variability of the climate is still not totally known, but we are taking action, or trying to take action. Most of us accept the view of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its recent report—and it has been said in other countries as well—that we should be aiming not at a five per cent reduction but a 60 or 70 per cent reduction because the object of the exercise is to stabilise the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which were about 280 parts per million in the pre-industrial age and are now about 370, and are probably irrevocably fixed to reach 450/500, almost whatever we do, and could certainly go higher if we do not take the action. There are very powerful grounds for taking action now and I would have said the precautionary principle operates more in this area than almost any other I can think of.

  152. I am pleased that you quoted that Royal Commission figure. Do you feel a sense of horror when you see 50, 60 and 70 per cent reductions will be necessary in a few decades?
  (Mr Meacher) If the scientists say—and as a mere politician I have to accept that they are right—that if we are going to stabilise, let alone begin to reverse the levels of concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere we have to achieve those sorts of levels and indeed, if you are tempting me to go further, I will. We have a global, single atmosphere for the whole world and if the developing countries are going to achieve their levels of industrialisation and better living standards that they want to imitate ours, consistent with not going beyond what most people regard as broadly safe levels which might be 550 parts per million, we are going to have to accept even bigger reductions in the developed world and I have seen figures suggesting 90 per cent reductions. 60, 70 or 90 per cent reductions are absolutely mind-blowing in terms of the real politik today. I have asked my Department to produce simply an outline of what might be involved with a reduction of 60 per cent in CO2 in this or any other industrialised country. I have not seen that yet, but I suspect that it will be sufficiently worrisome that the Department will be extremely unwilling to publish it, but we shall see.

Dr Jones

  153. Have you not just argued that the precautionary principle does not apply? You are saying that the Royal Commission was predicting that we needed to reduce emissions by 60 per cent and yet we are nowhere near that. When you were referring to the precautionary principle, were you talking about unilateral actions by this Government or international actions?
  (Mr Meacher) I am certainly talking about international action. It is next to pointless for a country the size of the United Kingdom, with one and a half per cent of the world population, to seek to—

  154. Exactly. So where is the evidence that the precautionary principle applies?
  (Mr Meacher) The fact that, mirabile dictu, the nations of the world did agree in December 1997 on a set of targets. I agree on the difficulties we have had at the Hague at COP6 in trying to ensure that they signed up to specific targets and detailed implementation. I like to think they are probably the kind of problems that you would expect in anybody who finally has to face the truth and to confront the dramatic changes in behaviour which are going to be required across society and across the economy. I still believe that the level of impact of the frequency and increasing severity of those climate change impacts which we have seen in the last three to five years will persuade all countries, including the United States, that it does have in the next few years to sign up, to ratify and carry through a programme of changes on a scale which even today can scarcely be contemplated. I think it is absolutely necessary, and no country in the world can escape.

  155. You are hoping the precautionary principle might apply soon. Can I move on to the questions I am supposed to be asking? It has been suggested that we do not have a coherent national research programme on climate change. How would you respond to this view and are there areas in which you would like to see more research, and what are they?
  (Mr Meacher) I would have said that we have had one of the most effective, if not the most effective research programme on climate change anywhere in the world, which we have already talked about. If you are looking at how far it is coherent within the United Kingdom context I would have said, again, more than in any other areas I can think of, there is inter-departmental liaison. There are working level contacts with the research community which I think are very close. If you look at comparisons with other countries they do have a top-down programme which is imposed and perhaps is more centralised and perhaps you might say more coherent, but I would argue that the strength of the United Kingdom programme is the relative independence of thought between the different funders of research, as I have already indicated, in what we have talked about in the various models of the different institutions. It is also true that there is a division between the majority of the strategic science which is undertaken by the Natural Environment Research Council and all the policy-driven policy-relevant questions which are dealt with by DETR. In my view, we get quite a good mix of different bodies with different responsibilities but, at the same time, a coherence in the process which causes a central body of policy-making to be possible and, whilst being challengeable, nevertheless to be accepted.

  156. Your memorandum refers to the Inter-Agency Committee on Global Environmental Change having a role in co-ordinating United Kingdom research. We understand this body has recently been wound up. Why has it been wound up and has it been replaced by anything?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes it has. The Inter-Agency Committee on Global Environmental Change was set up—and I will ask David Fisk to respond because he is much more involved than I—because of the fragmentation in the bodies which were providing the research. For reasons that I have already indicated, I think that has been significantly improved. It did have the key role of producing a UK strategy for global environmental research. I think it has fulfilled that role. It was examined by the Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee and it was decided—and I am quite happy to believe this was the right decision—that it should be brought to a conclusion, but it has been replaced by the Global Environmental Change Committee which is chaired by David Fisk, and I am sure he will be delighted to tell you more.

  157. What is the difference?
  (Dr Fisk) The original committee, you will recall, was created in the time of the Advisory Board of the Research Councils which was a very different pre-Realising Our Potential country, and at that time the global environmental change research programmes were dissipated over eight or nine institutions, at least, and had never been brought together in any single form before. There was clearly an urgent need, which was recognised by the Chief Scientific Adviser of the time, that some process should be put in place that made sure that the ABRC took the appropriate decisions cognisant of what was going on in other areas and also making sure that the various elements of research did not fall down the proverbial cracks between research councils. What happened, of course, in Realising Our Potential is that a number of issues were reconsolidated in the NERC, probably the most important being that the earth observation programme was moved away from what was then the Science and Engineering Research Programme into the NERC programme, so the NERC now has a really quite coherent single focus on the whole of the earth's systems process which was not there before. It still has relations with the MRC and BBSRC but it has a much more coherent programme. Chairman, you could say that I am bound to say that as I am a member of the NERC Council, but certainly our perspective is that we have a much more coherent picture in that process. The IACGEC produced a number of reports. Among the most important was the work of a task force chaired by the Professor Brian Hoskins, which is usually called the Hoskins Report, which was a review by the task force across the whole area of global environmental change looking at some of the key areas. The IACGEC under the Chairmanship of Professor Sir Richard Southwood allocated the responsibilities for carrying forward each one of those elements. That has not been done in some countries. Some countries are still running almost unco-ordinated programmes, so we do already have this process. When it was reviewed by the Office of Science and Technology it was recognised that with the more centralised NERC programme it was more appropriate for the IACGEC to be replaced by something which was slightly less bureaucratic and more directed towards, shall we say, organising coherence with some of the policy outcomes, which I will mention, if I may, in a moment. One of the changes is that we now have the Royal Society co-opted on to the Committee, so we have another dimension which is the Royal Society's representation of United Kingdom programmes in the wider International Council of Scientific Unions which was not represented before. That is an improvement in that respect. Having said that, we have met once because we were only formed about a month or so ago, but what we have already done is reaffirmed that the attributions and responsibilities in the Hoskins Report will serve through the current spending review. What we are now constructing is a decade calendar of the major international events which will address global environmental change issues of one form or another, which is trying to improve the impact of UK science in those events. We are very conscious that this works extremely well in the climate change process, but there is a whole set of other issues, biodiversity we have mentioned, the "Rio Plus Ten" Summit, and so on, which could have a very similar result by helping the scientific community to focus on those processes. When we have got through that piece of work we will be ready to look at the next spending review and see how those programmes come together. The view we took when we were polling opinions was very much the one the Minister has just spoken to, which is a recognition that you could "over-cohere" here in this area. It is perfectly plausible for the NERC to be helping out in the development of some views of ocean models which would be more helpful to, let us say, American climate modellers than it might be for ourselves, but this is an international scientific effort and it is more important to make sure that we are understanding what we are doing and communicating and co-ordinating together than produce a man-on-the-moon-by-Christmas type of programme, which is very likely not to address the sort of dissident issues you were addressing earlier which are really rather important in this area.

Dr Turner

  158. Michael, can I bring you back to the possible very large reductions of CO2 emissions which we are agreed quite soon will be needed. Would you agree that, if those are going to be achievable, it would require a tremendous shift in energy production from carbon fossil fuels to renewable sources and that, if we are going to do that in the foreseeable future, we need to be making a prodigious effort now and not in a few years' time?
  (Mr Meacher) I completely agree with that. The requirements are basically a fundamental change of mobility in modern societies towards vehicles with ultimately zero emissions towards more efficient fuel standards, enormous improvements in energy efficiency and, as you have said, a fundamental and accelerating shift away from fossil fuels, oil and coal, towards renewable sources of energy—wind-powered, biomass and ultimately solar power.


  159. The Geological Society did suggest the Government has not adequately addressed the implications of rapid short-term changes in weather and climate caused by large volcanic eruptions and pointed out these could, even in this country, lead to a significant cooling with severe adverse effects on agriculture and political and economic results which would be unacceptable and difficult to manage. Does the United Kingdom have any disaster or emergency planning contingencies for such an event, something which might be called a "volcanic winter". Even though we do not have volcanoes, you yourself, Minister, have alluded to things that have happened in Indonesia and Krakatoa and elsewhere. Is this something that we do plan for?
  (Mr Meacher) The current position is that natural disasters are dealt with through the central/local partnership (that is between central government and local authorities), but in the light of severe weather impacts, most recently of course the mass flooding and the expectation that it will recur and possibly get worse, we are reviewing those processes and it may well be the very fact of such dramatic impacts being visited upon us more frequently and in perhaps unpredictable ways over the next decade—and it is very difficult to respond to events that cannot yet be accurately predicted—that we shall discover that the existing mechanisms are not really geared to what for this country is a completely novel experience.

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