Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
WEDNESDAY 20 DECEMBER 2000
MEACHER, MP, DR
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 readwhich
I must say is largely confined to summaries, simply because of
the problem of timeis 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
(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
(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.
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.
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 truethat 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 reportand it has
been said in other countries as wellthat 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 sayand as a
mere politician I have to accept that they are rightthat
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.
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
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
(Mr Meacher) Yes it has. The Inter-Agency Committee
on Global Environmental Change was set upand I will ask
David Fisk to respond because he is much more involved than Ibecause
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 decidedand I am quite happy to believe
this was the right decisionthat 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.
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
(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 energywind-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 decadeand
it is very difficult to respond to events that cannot yet be accurately
predictedthat we shall discover that the existing mechanisms
are not really geared to what for this country is a completely