Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Biology

  1.  The Institute of Biology is the independent charitable body charged by Royal Charter to represent UK biologists and biology. With some 16,500 members and over 70 specialist Affiliated Societies, it is well placed to respond to the Select Committee's consultations on "Scientific Advice".


  2.  The principal points of this response are:

    (i)  that climate change is a complex issue fraught with uncertainty (paragraph 5); there is also uncertainty over climate change impacts (paragraph 6); and uncertainties in the form of ecological surprises cannot be modelled (paragraphs 14 and 17);

    (ii)  that Governments and its Departments are unlikely to welcome such uncertainty in advice, even though being transparent over matters of certainty and accuracy is the best way to provide advice (paragraph 6);

    (iii)  that scientific advice can change as more questions are asked and detailed information is provided, by researchers (paragraph 8). More research is still required (paragraphs 7 and 9) as there are many unanswered questions;

    (iv)  that models are only approximations (paragraph 11) but these can be tested (paragraph 12). However, understanding how this is done for each model requires an understanding of mathematics (paragraphs 15 and 16);

    (v)  that some local government administrations appear less aware of scientific advice relating to climate change and this is likely to result in costs on society (paragraph 21).


As the results of scientific research have become available advice has changed from that of possible global cooling to a certainty of global warming

3.  Notwithstanding that the Select Committee (rightly) takes it as given that the global temperature and carbon dioxide levels have both been increasing, it is of note that this subject is one where the views presented to Governments by the scientific community have changed considerably over the past three decades. In the 1970s, following the discovery that (warm) interglacials (such as the one we are in) last only a few thousand years, it was thought that the World may well be on the brink of another (cold) glacial. Indeed, there was concern that a glacial might be precipitated by the cooling effects of air pollution (sulphate aerosols and dust). In the 1980s, it became apparent that there were several competing (both warming and cooling) factors forcing the climate. The 1990 IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) report concluded that it was "certain" that "emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases . . . [and that] these increases will enhance the [natural] greenhouse effect". Finally, the late 1990s have seen a greater confidence in the accuracy of global warming models, though regional climate projections may be invalidated due to "surprises" such as abrupt changes in sea circulation. In short, as the results of scientific research have become available advice has changed from that of possible global cooling to a certainty of global warming. (The uncertainties that remain currently centre on the exact nature of future global warming, its expression regionally over time, and its impact on living systems (see paragraphs 6 and 17)).

Global warming does not prevent the prospect of regional cooling

  4.  Part of the confusion between global warming and global cooling arises from the past failure to emphasise that the problem is one of "climate change". While overall warming is taking place, this does not prevent regional cooling. Certainly, rises in global temperature and carbon dioxide levels will result in higher average temperatures at ground level in some areas. In others, the switching off of the Gulf Stream (paragraph 20), for instance, or El Niño effects may result in marked regional cooling. Given that a number of species are at the edge of their range in the UK, it is fairly certain that these species will extend or contract their range with climate change. Therefore the supposition that any response experienced in the UK will necessarily be to warming alone is unfounded.

Climate change is complex, erratic on the small scale and has inherent uncertainties which impede comprehension

  5.  Temperature is not the only factor related to climate change. Rises in sea level pose other problems that will vary markedly from region to region. The difficulty of predicting storm and flood events will further emphasise the uncertainties and consequences of these changes. It has therefore been difficult for scientists to influence the thinking of the general public, and decision-makers, away from simple trends towards an understanding of this globally complex and, in terms of the smaller scale, erratic phenomena.

There is additional uncertainty with regards to the impacts arising from climate change—policy makers are unlikely to welcome this in advice

  6.  Not only is there uncertainty as to the way climate change will manifest itself, but also uncertainty as to climate change impacts. For instance, uncertainty in terms of climate change effects on ecosystems. Not only do species react differently to warming, but also the different relationships between species are also prone to change with the climate. Consequently, the likely species composition (of even comparatively stable climax communities) following a period of climate change is not certain. Governments and its Departments are unlikely to welcome such uncertainty in advice, even though the scientific community is being transparent over matters of certainty and accuracy. This is the best way to provide advice.

Current research does not sufficiently focus on areas that could assist with climate change advice

  7.  It is also important to stress that research on changes in ecosystems in response to changes in their environment, and even on ecosystem function and composition in "normal" conditions, has been comparatively neglected by emphasis on research which is "market-led". Few Government Departments and their Agencies, and even fewer commercial companies have been prepared to invest in the long-term ecological research that is needed to understand ecosystem function. For instance, one example is that more research is needed on the way carbon is sequestered. Here, an even more specialist example is illustrative of the gaps in our knowledge. Lichens are common to systems covering some 8 per cent of the terrestrial surface, yet little detail is known as to their sequestration impacts even though it is known that they convert rock silicates into oxalates and that this in turn has an impact on the carbon cycle. Yet again, fungi (and other detritovores) play a key role in the carbon cycle, but the effects of climate change on fungal activity are still largely uncharted territory.

Scientific advice can change as more questions are asked and detailed information provided by researchers

  8.  In terms of advice to Governments, this will mean that historically the nature of much scientific advice on climate change has changed with time. This does not mean that earlier scientific advice is wrong, rather that the earlier advice was less complete and in want of more research. Indeed, the early (1970s) picture portrayed was correct in that interglacials are comparatively short compared to glacials, so that in "geological terms" it is likely that our mild interglacial climate will be replaced by that of a cooler glacial. It was also correct to say that there are factors that "force" the climate in a cooling way. However, the research had not then been undertaken to ascertain the strength of both the cooling and warming factors. Nor had the detailed research then been conducted (from which we benefit from today) using palaeobiotic and abiotic indicators of past climates. As questions are asked, and appropriate research undertaken, so a more detailed picture is assembled.

For meaningful scientific advice to be given to politicians, sufficient research needs to be done to address the numerous frames of reference politicians use

  9.  The history of climate change research illustrates that not only does additional research provide a more complete picture in terms of detail, it (a) uncovers exceptions to the rule, and (b) places information in context. If the exceptions to the rule are striking, or if the context is markedly different, then scientific advice may well "appear" to change. In the instance of climate change the 1970s picture of possible cooling was initially set against a context of palaeontological data that (correctly) showed that mild interglacials were comparatively short compared to cold glacials. However, when in the 1980s this was placed against the context of short-term (geologically speaking) of a few centuries of human-generated greenhouse gas warming factors, the picture changed. Neither picture is inaccurate. Both are accurate within their respective frames of reference. For meaningful scientific advice to be given to politicians, sufficient research needs to be done to address the various—often numerous—frames of reference that politicians use.


  The specific questions asked by the Select Committee are in bold italic below.

  (A)  The way to which the Government has been advised of potential alternative explanations, how these alternatives have been assessed and what conclusions have been drawn.

We are unable to answer

  10.  We are unable to answer as we have no record of all the advice been given Government, nor privy to the way Government assessed the advice.

  (B)  What critical appraisal there has been of models predicting climate change, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other potential drivers.

Models can only portray approximate elements of reality

  11.  Those models that are published in primary research journals are subject to peer review. It is recognised that models can only portray approximate elements of reality. They cannot in any way duplicate reality.

Models can and are tested

  12.  Models can be and are tested to see how closely they match reality. One fair (but not "good" or "perfect") test of a climate model's predictive ability is, instead of running the model forward into the future from the present, to run it backwards into the past. It can then be compared with reality's known past as opposed to an unknown future.

Models differ and have different utility and predictive ability

  13.  Some of the Hadley Centre's models for global climate compare well with reality. Models that attempt to show regional change are known to be far less reliable. Models differ and have different utility and predictive ability.

Models cannot account for all surprises but this does not make them completely useless

  14.  Models cannot account for all surprises. The future is likely to hold a number of surprises. These surprises are of varying likelihood. It would be a surprise if one in 10 Chinese had a car in 10 years time, but not impossible. This would have a climate impact. It would be far less likely, and hence a far greater surprise if a near Earth-asteroid impacted disrupting the global climate in the next 10 years. Neither of these would necessarily be included in a climatic model (unless deliberately programmed), but this does not make climate models completely useless.

The maths underpinning complex climate models is a simplification of reality

  15.  Much of the discussion of "models" is hopelessly unrealistic. The many factors and relationships involved in global climatic change are so complex that the only way of comprehending them is through the use of mathematics. Various mathematical formulations are employed to seek to understand and explain changes in natural systems by means of approximations to the underlying reality. While capable of incorporating much greater complexity than any verbal argument, mathematical formulations are also necessarily simplifications of reality.

Models have improved but communicating how they are constructed to the public remains difficult

  16.  Scientists today have greatly improved access to the statistical thinking that underlies the building, testing and use of mathematical models. There is, therefore, much greater confidence in the models that have been developed during the last decade or so. In particular, it is now possible to test the utility and predictive ability of models. What is more difficult is the communication to decision-makers and others the complexity that underlies these models and makes their use so essential. We still live in a society which arguably has not the general level of mathematical ability to appreciate properly mathematical models.

Beware of surprises, models have their limitations

  17.  However, we again emphasise the possibility of "ecological surprise" that will be beyond the scope of models (paragraph 6). This might occur as natural and man-made systems become increasingly subjected to changes in environmental influences that are outside our range of experience, at least in historically recorded time. Again, such "ecological surprise" is less likely to be damaging to the economics and welfare of human society if they can be quickly recognised and understood or, better still, anticipated. This will necessitate groups of scientists supported by Government and truly independent of all the commercial and political pressures now dominating the funding of scientific research. Such scientists need to be able to "think the unthinkable" and assess both the probability and the consequences of the "unthinkable" occurring. Models do have their limitations, and this is one way that such limitations can begin to be overcome.

Models differ, many are still coarse

  18.  It should be noted that models differ in their resolution and predictive capacity. It would appear that there can be increasing confidence in global temperature models; yet those that present regional effects are still fairly coarse. Models usually only reflect the key elements of a process and so the results are always subject to a margin of error or uncertainty.

  (C)  The degree of Government agreement with scientists in relevant specialisations regarding accepted explanations of climate change.

We are not privy to Government thought but perceive it to accept the IPCC view

  19.  Not being privy to Government thought we cannot answer this with great confidence. However our perception is that UK Governments subsequent to the first IPCC report (in 1990) have accepted the IPCC view. We believe that the IPCC view, with its various caveats, is sound within the frames of reference allowed by research to date.

Conversely Government Departments may not be fully accepting IPCC caveats

  20.  However, we wonder whether Departments possibly view the regional consequences of global warming solely as one of a warmer climate for the UK. It may well be that global warming in disrupting the North Atlantic Broecker salt conveyer could shift the North Atlantic Drift (the Gulf Stream) (see paragraph 4). Without the warm currents around the European peninsular, UK winters could become as cold as those in Newfoundland, Canada. The IPCC has, as one of its caveats, warned of such "surprises", as we have done in referring to "ecological surprises" in the paragraphs above. There appears to be little discussion of IPCC caveats, though this might be because of the vagaries of the implications for policy[1].

Some local government administrations seem unaware of the scientific advice on climate change. These could result in costs

  21.  Locally, some Councils and local government administrations seem unaware of the scientific advice relating to climate change. This is likely to incur a cost on society. For instance, some home construction has taken place since the 1990 IPCC report on land whose defences from the sea have yet to be made secure in the long term.

POST forms a useful adjunct to scientific advice from the scientific community

  22.  We believe that Parliamentarians find that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) provides a useful service in providing straightforward profiles of scientific issues. We welcome the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee's work in establishing this office in 1989, and believe that POST forms a valuable adjunct to scientific advice from the scientific community.

16 February 2000

1   The original memorandum was received on 16 February 2000. The following additional information was received on 11 October 2000: While this point remains valid, the specific example we give (of the Broecker Salt Conveyor shutting down so preventing the North Atlantic Drift (Gulf Stream) from warming us in winter) no longer applies. Three months after the Institute submitted its evidence to the Committee, NERC announced it was to formulate a research programme on this very topic. The Institute sent a representative to the NERC programme's planning meeting. Back

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