WEDNESDAY 20 DECEMBER 2000
THE RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House,
Minister for the Environment, DR DAVID FISK, CBE, Chief Scientist,
and MR DAVID WARRILOW, Head of Science, Global Atmosphere Division,
116. Minister, welcome this afternoon to the Science and Technology Select Committee and welcome too to the colleagues you have with you. In just a moment, perhaps I will invite you to introduce them but can I just give you the setting in which we are going to take evidence this afternoon? We embarked in this Committee some time ago on a major inquiry into the scientific advisory system to government. We decided that we would publish the chapters of each section as and when we had completed them and we had conclusions. Our first one was on genetically modified foods, as you may recall. Our second one was on mobile telephones. Our third one was on diabetes and the driving licence. Our fourth one is scientific advice on climate change. I hope that you have been briefed on the fact that we are not going to debate the whole issue of whether there is or whether there is not climate change. We are assuming there is climate change; we are assuming there is global warming and we are assuming that it has come about by increased CO2 and other climate change gases. Having those givens, we can then look at what advice government is receiving, the quality of it and how it is reacting to it. We do not wish to go into a great, lengthy debate about whether there is or is not because we will never get through it. This is our fourth chapter and our final chapter in this scientific advisory system inquiry that we are very nearly finishing at the moment. That said, Minister, having welcomed you, would you kindly introduce your colleagues to us?
(Mr Meacher) Thank you very much, Chairman. It is a great pleasure, if rather a daunting one, to appear before a Committee all of whose members are prefixed by "doctor". I am not one myself. On my left is David Warrilow, who is head of science policy of the global atmosphere division of the Department. On my right is David Fisk, who is chief scientist and responsible for central strategy.
117. And is a doctor?
(Mr Meacher) Yes. I am daunted by that too.
118. You submitted a memorandum to us last March. I wonder if you would like to update us on developments of climate change since that memorandum was sent to us?
(Mr Meacher) I am sure my colleagues will know
more about this than me but one document which I thought I would
bring with me -- I had not expected it to be so immediately relevant
-- is this which is Climate Change, an Update of Recent Research
from the Hadley Centre, dated November 2000. This had a remarkable
effect. I just returned a few weeks ago from a bruising week in
The Hague discussing this matter and again in the last couple
of days in teleconferencing with the United States and others
on the same subject in Brussels. One of the issues which came
up at The Hague was the evidence presented by the Hadley Centre
there on the predictions of accelerated climate change resulting
from interactions with the carbon cycle, the fact that the gradually
accelerating pace of climate change affects the operation of carbon
sinks, because it accelerates the speed at which forests die back,
and that has an immediate impact on the degree of sequestration
in absorbing carbon and therefore being permitted as one of the
means by which countries can reach their targets. Perhaps I could
read this paragraph, since it had quite an impact at the conference:
"However, the results do clearly show that the beneficial
effect on climate of the additional carbon sinks created by afforestation
and reforestation" -- which many countries have been relying
on quite extensively -- "may be at least partially offset
by changes in the surface reflectivity as dark trees replace land
cover that was lighter in colour. Consequently, in many areas,
the climate benefits of planting extra trees will not be as great
as their carbon sink potential suggests." Since that was
probably the single biggest issue of contention between the European
Union and the umbrella group, particularly the United States,
that is a glowing testimony to the impact of the Hadley Centre
as a prime contractor of research in impacting on the policy process.
It had a major impact at The Hague.
119. This is a new argument that has only appeared in the last few months or so. It is a very challenging argument in the sense that everybody thought that afforestation or cutting down tropical rain forests were intimately linked, part of the problem and part of the solution. This idea of surface reflectivity is a physicist's idea, not a biologist's idea and I think it gets at the root of what may be a problem in the Hadley Centre in that is that it is packed with mathematicians and physicists and does not really have the biologists. I am very sceptical of this. Is there not potentially a big problem in the Hadley Centre in that it is physical science based and does not have the biological input?
(Mr Meacher) My understanding is that it is increasingly taking account of biological processes.
(Mr Warrilow) I would confirm that the Hadley
Centre is taking account more of biological process, but it is
doing this not by working in house so much on it but by working
with others who have expertise in this area. For example, the
work which is quoted in here and was published recently in Nature
on the feedback effects of the carbon cycle in climate change
was work which was carried out in conjunction with scientists
from the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Edinburgh, who are
indeed people with a biological background. We also have links
with biologists who work at the Institute of Oceanographic Scientists
in Southampton, who are looking at the carbon cycle in the ocean.
120. Minister, the United Kingdom government appears to be one of the first to accept that there has been a major contribution to climate change brought about by man's activity. Do you think that was because there was scientific advice on it? Do you think it was a political decision that was thought to be appropriate for political PR reasons, or do you think it was a precautionary principle? For what reason do you think we have been so in the vanguard of climate change action?
(Mr Meacher) The quality of performance of the Meteorological Office and in particular of the Hadley Centre is highly relevant here, but the persuasive impact on opinion worldwide does come from IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which provides the overall assessment of the science and of the impacts and socio-economic responses to climate change. The Hadley Centre is a prime contractor of research. It does research which is relevant to IPCC, but IPCC of course is an international body; it is supported by the work of several thousand scientists; it is peer reviewed both in the journals and in the whole process. I would say that that has been the major driver scientifically for changing opinion, plus of course in the last three to five years actual experience on the ground which has persuaded the general public that something different and more serious is happening. The reason I think why we have been able to take the lead in that process -- and after all Sir John Houghton was the chair of working group one, which is the most important of the three committees of IPCC -- is because of the work done in this country, particularly by the Hadley Centre which I would have said was a world leader, if not the world leader.
121. One would hope that science well done and properly presented could survive the change of government from one political party to another, but bearing in mind that many of the decisions that were taken on climate change were taken by the previous administration have you found any need to have second thoughts about any serious aspects of what was done by the previous administration? This is not a political question; this is a science question.
(Mr Meacher) I would never think that of you
and I think that is a perfectly fair question. I am not aware
of any way in which we have changed our direction of policy. There
have been institutional changes but they might well have occurred
anyway under the last administration, not connected with the ideological
flavour of the government. I entirely agree with you that I think
the science base is very secure; I think it is respected by all
the parties that form government and I do not think that any of
those parties would seriously interfere with the thrust of that
work. Certainly we would not.
122. When you want advice on some climate change issue, do you always go to the Hadley Centre first or are there other centres of excellence in particular areas that you would go to first? How does it actually work in practice when an issue comes up where you have to have a position?
(Mr Meacher) I repeat that the main source of information is IPCC. The work of that body is based on a number of models. They are increasingly being refined. If you say how do I get my advice, I get it from the Department. That is based on the contracted research, particularly at the Hadley Centre, but also on external research and also on international peer assessment, for example through the IPCC process again. In addition, I do have the privilege of meeting scientists, albeit for too short a time. I opened the Tyndall Centre in Norwich on 9 November and I did have some significant discussions with scientists on that occasion. I only met them for an hour or two, which is a very short period of time, but those are the sources of information.
123. What is the Tyndall Centre going to do that the Hadley Centre is not? Why should we have another centre like that?
(Mr Meacher) It is an independent source of data. It brings together climate change scientists, engineers, economists, social scientists from nine higher education research institutions. The aim is to develop radical new responses to climate change and to try and inform the policy process better. In addition to IPCC, in addition to the Hadley Centre, it is a way of brigading research on climate change in an integrated way of relevance to government and industry which is very helpful. However good the Hadley Centre is -- and I think it is extremely good -- to rely exclusively on one body would be unwise in an area which is so multifaceted and where it is so difficult to achieve an absolutely comprehensive picture. There is also the point that we are not just talking about understanding of facts and causes; it is not just about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is also about adaptation and that is a much wider issue. It is not just about science; it is about socio-economic impacts and involving public and local authorities.
124. How is the Tyndall Centre being funded? What degree of permanency does it have?
(Mr Meacher) The Natural Environment Research Council in the last spending review, SR2000, received an extra £39 million which funded investment in e-science applications in the climate change field. It also paid for, I understand, research into rapid climate change in north west Europe, which we are doing alongside Norway. That is about changes in the North Atlantic Ocean, but thirdly it paid for the Tyndall Centre. I am being told it is £10 million over five years, but the source of it is out of this last spending review.
125. How is the Hadley Centre reviewed? I believe there is a ten year cycle. Where are we in that cycle now?
(Mr Meacher) It is being reviewed at the present time because all major public institutions where significant sums of public money are involved over a period of years are subject to a rigorous review. The cycle is five years.
126. How independent is the Hadley Centre of government? It sounds as if you are in love with each other.
(Mr Meacher) Only because of the quality of its advice and because of its generally superior performance over other models and its improved performance with further versions of the Hadley model. All of that is for factual comparison with other models. It is certainly not a private or personal view. To that extent, I think we are dependent on it but I repeat it is all peer reviewed. More and more material is written into the models on solar variability, volcanic aerosols, the forcings due to major changes in land use, carbonaceous aerosols. All of these are increasingly being incorporated into the model and indeed I believe increasing comparisons with palaeoclimate. In preparation for this, I was pleased to understand that there is quite a lot of data about the climate in the mid-holocene, 9,000 years ago, and at the last major glacial maximum about 21,000 years ago. All of that is being incorporated increasingly to refine the quality of the model and I think it is being done better here than anywhere in the world. It is not perfect. Until we get an absolute, total match between looking at what the theory predicts on the basis of data should have been the pattern of global temperatures over the last hundred years and it totally matches what we actually experience, we will not have a completely perfect model, but it is getting close to it. The addition of sulphate aerosols has increased its effectiveness considerably.
127. There are some people who question peer review now and it is maybe time for a good old look at it again, at how effective it is, because science has changed very much from the earlier days when peer review was first evolved. I want to ask you about dissidents in this field. It is a field where there is a lot of argument. Where do you pick up the dissidents and the people who do not agree with the Hadley Centre or the Tyndall Centre?
(Mr Meacher) I repeat again that we rely primarily
on the IPCC which uses a number of models, not one. To that extent,
you can say that we use a number of different models. The United
Kingdom climate impact change scenarios were largely modelled
on the Hadley change model, although with some adjustments, and
we have commissioned our own independent valuation of the Hadley
Centre through the climate research unit at the University of
East Anglia. Again, we have been careful not to put all our eggs
in one basket but to look for independent valuations, where appropriate.
I have to say I think the Hadley Centre comes out of all of this
128. Our main inquiry, of which this is part four, is on scientific advice to government. Generally, these advisory committees are independent of government, staffed with academic experts and so on. In this area of climate change, the role of the Hadley Centre and its closeness to government -- it is a very different model compared to some of the other committees we have been looking at. Do you accept that the government depends very strongly, even overwhelmingly, on the Hadley Centre and that there will be dangers if other advisory committees work so much hand in hand with government?
(Mr Meacher) I do not feel that we are unduly dependent on the Hadley Centre or that there is some close nexus which you seem to be suggesting into government policy. There are many other relevant bodies which are involved here.
(Dr Fisk) My enthusiasm is really to speak on behalf of the IPCC. The IPCC is pretty well our formal equivalent of the advisory committees that you are referring to. It provides summary advice across the whole field, using probably what is a gold plated process compared with the normal way of assembling scientific advice in the United Kingdom. The Hadley Centre is a contractor that helps us on interim positions, but there is no position that the government has taken in any major White Paper which is not actually to be found in the IPCC process, which is, as colleagues have said, one of the most exclusive international peer review systems in an open, transparent process that you can find anywhere. That would be our model. If the Committee is looking for models of advisory process, it would be the IPCC. The Hadley Centre is part of that process. If the IPCC were to conclude that the Hadley Centre model was worthy but not excellent, then we would be taking the IPCC advice.
129. The danger of what I say is an incestuous relationship with government in this area of advice would be compensated for by the fact that it draws from the international advice.
(Mr Meacher) Can I ask why you feel that there is an incestuous relationship? The very fact that it is all peer reviewed in the journals and indeed through the peer review process of IPCC means it is not as though they have an inside track into government policy. I am not sure why you do not regard them as independent in a proper, scientific manner.
Mr Williams: If there were other advisory committees
on, let us say, GM foods, BSE, nuclear power or in more controversial
areas, fortunately here there is a wide consensus that goes with
the advice from the IPCC, but if this was the model for other
advisory committees being too close to government that would have
dangers of excluding dissidents as my colleague from Norwich pointed
out earlier, or just drawing the advice from something that is
government funded and government responsive, you may miss out.
130. Are the peer reviewers also government funded?
(Mr Meacher) Not as far as I know. All of this
material is published and all of it can be reworked, examined
and checked by any others. That material will itself be published.
This is the normal scientific process. To that extent, it does
seem that the Hadley Centre is free from the claim of an over-cosy
relationship with government. I do not think it could develop,
given the openness and transparency of the whole process.
131. If the Hadley Centre is well set up and well thought out in its staffing and the emphasis that it gives to different fields, that would be fine, but the accusation has been made that it is too much concerned with climate modelling; very good mathematicians and physicists, very good models of world class standard. Maybe it is missing out on biological inputs. Could you give some idea as to the staffing of the Hadley Centre in terms of these scientific disciplines? What proportion of its employees, of its scientists, are from the biological, ecological or environmental sciences as opposed to maths, physics and chemistry?
(Mr Meacher) I will ask my colleagues to answer
that because I cannot, but it is the case that there is a growing
body of work which has looked at the carbon cycle on oceans and
land and, in particular, the Hadley Centre has recently published
a paper about the interaction of the land biosphere and climate.
They have published material which shows -- and I was partly quoting
it -- the large feedback that exists between climate change and
CO2 emissions from the biosphere. I do not think it
is over-dominated by physicists and mathematicians. David, what
proportion are there in the biological disciplines?
132. Mr Warrilow, you have touched on it earlier. If you have difficulty giving a precise answer, we would be very pleased to receive a letter from you but if you could give us a ball park answer that would be very helpful.
(Mr Warrilow) I cannot give you a precise answer at the moment. The aim is where it is not admittedly the traditional discipline of the Meteorological Office, of which the Hadley Centre is a part. Then there is inevitably a preponderance of mathematicians and physicists. That is correct, but the aim is to compensate for that by working with other bodies who have the right expertise outside. We have in the programme joint work with for instance the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, which is part of the NERC and other organisations as well. That is the way we compensate for that. There have been some people brought into the Hadley Centre who have a background in the biological sciences and in chemistry as well, because that is another important aspect of climate change, but it is certainly not an attempt to make the Hadley Centre do everything that can be possibly done in the scientific disciplines because they are so wide and it is strategically better to work with other bodies.
133. You will write to us?
(Mr Warrilow) We will.
134. If you could when you write not only tell us what the situation is but tell us what your target would be to change the situation in, say, two years' time, that would be helpful.
(Dr Fisk) The Department's view is that one of
the strengths of the Department's programme on climate change
is that we have not focused all our funding on the Hadley Centre.
The Hadley Centre is probably a world class resource of the underlying
climate change predictions which are used by the climate impact
research community, but we have tried to avoid the Hadley Centre
being too closely involved in climate impact because it is not
a core skill inside the Hadley Centre. The programme over the
years developed by David Warrilow and his colleagues has been
to have a fast track process by which the Hadley Centre predictions
are put out into a very wide network in the United Kingdom and
elsewhere. You will notice that when the new Hadley Centre model
predictions come out, they are associated with an assessment of
what their impacts are not by Hadley Centre staff but by key operational
people within the wider NERC research community. That has never
been done anywhere else before and it is one of the reasons why
the Hadley Centre predictions are widely referred to in American
research literature. They are much more useful to a much wider
community. I think our own feeling is probably that of the Committee's,
that if we had simply made the Hadley Centre the centre of everything
it would become unstable and not open to the broader challenge
of the scientific community.
135. My line of questioning is in order to draw out this criticism made of the British position in The Hague summit that the role of carbon sinks is insufficiently recognised. Is there a danger here that we are underestimating or misunderstanding or government is not being sufficiently informed of the role of carbon sinks?
(Mr Meacher) There was a great deal of discussion
about carbon sinks at The Hague and again this last weekend in
Brussels. The problem is that while sequestration undoubtedly
does occur through afforestation the degree to which you can attribute
percentages against targets for countries due to human management
of forests over and above natural phenomena is very uncertain.
There are also the key problems of scale, uncertainty and risks
involved with carbon sinks. It was our calculation that, whilst
Kyoto at a five per cent reduction would imply something like
a reduction of 250 million tonnes of carbon in a year, if we were
to allow sinks both in northern countries, in annex one countries,
and in the CDM and developing countries, that could increase the
permitted generation of CO2 by something like 1.8 billion
tonnes. To that extent, the whole question of scale is extremely
worrying. That is why we wanted a very, very cautious attitude
to this until the science can reliably show the relationship between
afforestation or reforestation and genuine absorption of carbon.
There is of course the whole question of mass high level burning
of biomass which we saw in Indonesia and Brazil a year or two
ago, where again more CO2 was discharged into the atmosphere
than probably the total savings of CO2 by action taken
by all the European countries. That is our concern, not to deny
it as a scientific process, but to say that it is very uncertain
as to what those relationships are. Secondly, the fact that accelerating
climate change may reduce the effectiveness of carbon sinks quicker
than we would like. Thirdly, destruction of rain forests by fire
is a double whammy in the opposite direction. You lose sequestration
of carbons and it is all generated into the atmosphere.
136. Was the deal brokered by the Deputy Prime Minister acceptable?
(Mr Meacher) Since I was heavily involved, I would say yes.
137. Could you explain to us the workings of the IPCC and its relationship to government policy forming in the United Kingdom and tell us why you evidently think it to be an effective body?
(Mr Meacher) These reports which are authored reports by scientists from around the world -- I think 3,000 to 5,000 scientists are involved; it is on a very substantial scale and they represent some of the most distinguished scientists in terms of track record that you can find anywhere -- are the best evidence available worldwide. We therefore take them extremely seriously. Our own Hadley Centre and other bodies flow into that but it is the sheer range and quality of the work. If you are concerned with international acceptance, which is absolutely integral here, if one is looking for openness, if one is looking for comprehensiveness, I think IPCC is a very good process. It is very cumbersome and time consuming, but where there is a degree of controversy, where it is a very complicated, multifaceted subject, as it is here, and where there is a need for nations to work together, I think IPCC is just the right process.
138. Do you think there is a risk associated with the consensus approach in that it may dilute the advice and underestimate problems or results from global warming in the interests of suppressing opinions to arrive at consensus?
(Mr Meacher) I think this is an area where dissidence, as far as I know, is certainly not suppressed, where it has plenty of opportunity for expression, where the media, somewhat perversely, are probably giving far more inflation to the views of the dissidents because it creates a story, because it is cocking a snook at the general convention of wisdom than those who are refining what is I think an extremely well founded and increasingly reinforced core theory. I do not believe that dissidents' different views are concealed. In fact, any serious, new evidence would not be suppressed; it would become a major issue for scientific examination and investigation across the world until it either could be explained or, if it withstood the test, the theory needed to be changed in some way.
139. How are nuclear scientists selected to participate in IPCC? Is it by the IPCC itself or does government nominate them?
(Mr Warrilow) We are invited to nominate scientists. We went to a large number of people, asking them if they would like to be part of the process. There were something like 150 scientists who we approached in the United Kingdom. The roles which they actually play once they have been nominated are up to the IPCC to choose. It is possible for people to nominate themselves as well, so they do not have to go through government, although it is important, usually because the IPCC is an intergovernmental process. That is the first point of contact the IPCC has with countries. Also, international organisations are invited to nominate experts, so there is quite a wide range of input from across the world.
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 intergovernmental 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 Mr 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 good authors to attend meetings. We pay their travel 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 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 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 32 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 mindblowing in terms of the real
politic 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 omissions by 60 per cent and yet we are nowhere near that. When you were referring to the precautionary principle, are 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 interdepartmental 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 topdown 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 policymaking to be possible and, whilst being challengeable, nevertheless to be accepted.
156. Your memorandum refers to the InterAgency Committee on Global Environmental Change having a role in coordinating 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 InterAgency 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 preRealising 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 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 IAGEC produced
a number of reports. Among the most important was 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 IAGEC under the Chairmanship of Professor
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 uncoordinated 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
IAGEC 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 coopted 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
also 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 effect by helping the scientific community to focus
on those processes. When we have got through that piece of work
we will be ready for looking at the next spending review and seeing
how those programmes come together. The view we took when we were
polling views 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 coordinating together
than produce a man-on-the-moon-by-Christmas type of programme,
which is very likely not to meet 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 omissions 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 omissions
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
159. The Geological Society did suggest the Government has not adequately addressed the implications of rapid shortterm 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 volcano, 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.
160 What efforts are being put in to manage the regional impacts of climate change and are local government bodies and regional agencies getting the right advice? What is the relationship between your own Department and other government agencies in local government?
(Mr Meacher) We did set up the United Kingdom Climate Impacts Programme and that has produced a number of regional scenarios of climate change in the case of the North West, the South East and the East Midlands and in terms of the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales, and the other regions are, I understand, either being planned now or are underway. I have launched a couple of these along with the authors and I think they are very good. They are detailed, they are specific, and I think they do have clear recommendations of the changes that are necessary as well as the unexpected and unpredicted changes which up to now I think most people have not contemplated. The United Kingdom Climate Impact Programme 1998 climate change scenarios were sent by DETR to all local authorities. We have said that we will be helping local authorities develop strategies to adapt to climate change as well as, of course, to assist them in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The emphasis is now on this balance between trying to prevent further greenhouse gas omissions, to try and restrict this up to now inexorable growth, although we can only do that internationally. We are already sufficiently far down the track that we have to put a lot of emphasis and policymaking into trying to adapt. The floods are the best example and the action in terms of the flood plains. The Government over the current year is putting £400 million into planning to prevent disasters resulting from floods. Many people think that that is not enough. Adaptation is increasingly the central item immediately on the Government's agenda but we must not lose sight, of course, of the long-term aim internationally together with other countries, of reducing greenhouse gases globally.
161 Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for a most interesting 75 minutes. We have enjoyed putting the questions to you and receiving your answers and we hope it has not been too unpleasant an experience for you. You seem to have survived it extremely well. We are very grateful, too, to Dr Fisk and Mr Warrilow for coming along and supporting you. We look forward to a letter from Mr Warrilow in due course. We hope, Minister, that you will find our report interesting, not just the summary of it but the whole report in due course (if it is allowed to get to you!) because it will be our view on how the whole of the scientific advisory system is operating in government. You have helped us with one chapter of it, albeit a significant chapter, and we hope the Report will be of some help. Once again, we thank all three of you for being with us this afternoon.
(Mr Meacher) May I say on my side that we take the reports of all the select committees very seriously and I know that from the effort that goes into it and the care with which I look at the main recommendations, but I think this particular Committee has already established a very significant reputation certainly with what you said in regard to GMOs and I am expecting the same high standards and also an earnest and urgent response from the Government.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.