Science and Technology Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 254

Back to Report

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 6 November 2013

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Jim Dowd

Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Mosley

Pamela Nash

Graham Stringer

David Tredinnick

Roger Williams


Examination of Witness

Witness: Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government and Head of the Government Office for Science, gave evidence.

Q405 Chair: Good morning, Sir Mark, and welcome in your not so new capacity; I think you have been in post seven months. We previously met you when you were director of Wellcome. It is a pleasure to have you back in your new capacity.

We are fascinated to understand how you are dealing with this very complex issue of climate change and advising Government. As you know, we are particularly looking at how climate change messages need to be communicated. A couple of us were at John Howard’s lecture last night. My notes of last night said, to paraphrase slightly, that "All of us know that all of the science is never in on any subject. Policy makers are being bullied by zealots." Are you a zealot?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: No, I am not. My job is to advise the Government on the best state of the science as it is. Of course there is always uncertainty in science, but the almost unique feature of the world of climate change is the depth of meta-analysis that is going on through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In many ways that makes all of our jobs easier when it is about communicating the science.

I come, as you know, from the world of medicine, and medicine was transformed when people started doing the meta-analysis-in other words, looking very rigorously at the evidence that had been collected from a whole variety of sources. The Cochrane reviews in medicine are an example of meta-analysis, which takes disparate evidence, distils it and provides the best advice on the current state of the evidence. In the case of climate, we have the IPCC, and to some extent, the current discussion has been triggered by the fifth report, which is on the physical science basis of climate change. It is a meta-analysis where there have been 259 lead scientific authors and 39 countries, and they have reviewed literally thousands of papers, each of which has been peer-reviewed in its own right. The distillation of the IPCC report, which is an extremely good piece of communication, is one and a half sides of paper-the headline statements from the summary. This is an area where it is possible to communicate extremely clearly. While of course there are questions about the future, the present state of knowledge about climate change is very, very clear indeed. The headline statement from the IPCC is: "Human influence on the climate system is clear."

Q406 Chair: It is often the case that newspapers and some of the people who are sceptical about the anthropomorphic aspect of climate change pick on narrow headlines. How do you convince the public about that meta-data, which is a very difficult word for nonscientists to comprehend? How do you get that across to people? You cannot just simplify it in a note.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I have characterised this previously, and I have spoken about it very actively over the last couple of months: the challenge of communication is one of big numbers and small numbers. The big number problem is that humans are emitting into the atmosphere approximately 10 gigatonnes of carbon each year. The term "gigatonne" does not mean anything to most people; 10 billion tonnes starts to mean something, or 10 thousand million tonnes. There is a real challenge in getting our minds around the very large numbers. The small number problem is that the average surface warming of the planet since about 1900 has been about 0.9°C, and that seems like rather a small number. But of course the issue is not that it has warmed evenly but that the warming is occurring very unevenly, and what we are really talking about, rather than global warming, is climate disruption. That is what we are starting to see. There is a challenge of communication around both that big number problem and the small number problem.

Q407 Chair: Is that what you mean on your website, where you talk about the focus on science being especially important given the misunderstandings about climate change?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes. One of the other issues is the confusion between causation and correlation. It is very difficult, I think, for almost everyone to distinguish weather from climate, and that is a very important issue. We go through a spell of cold or warm weather and people start drawing conclusions which are not warranted, because we all know we go through season cycles, the climate is variable and we are talking about a very long period. Julia Slingo provided you with a very good definition of climate change and, to anticipate the question, I cannot do better than Julia’s definition.

Q408 Chair: Do you think that is the biggest misunderstanding, or are there others that you would rank up there?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It is difficult to say what the biggest misunderstanding is. Again, people need to realise that the evidence for climate is more than simply that 0.9°C. It is all of the things that go with it: it is more water in the atmosphere; it is warming at the surface of the oceans; it is the expansion of the oceans and the rising of sea levels; it is the reduction in ice levels in the Arctic; it is the melting of glaciers. All the signs are pointing in exactly the same direction. But I repeat that I do not think we can do better than to communicate that science as clearly as we possibly can. All the scientists involved in this who are capable of clearly communicating need to do so.

Q409 Graham Stringer: I have asked every witness who has been here for a definition of climate change, and we have had as many definitions as people who have been questioned. The most precise and most useless was from the Minister, who said that climate change was climate change. What is your definition?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: As I say, Julia Slingo had it exactly right. The climate is the average of the weather over a long period of time, and, if you compare two different periods of time and you see that the climate has changed, that is climate change. The issue here, of course, is the human contribution to that over a very short time scale.

Q410 Graham Stringer: One of the advantages of talking about global warming, or the global warming of the surface, was that it could be measured. Science is a lot about measurement.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Absolutely.

Graham Stringer: It is much more difficult to define what we are measuring if you take that definition of climate change, is it not?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: No, with respect, I disagree with that. As I have already said, it is not simply one set of measurements. It is measurement of the temperature in a variety of different locations, measurement of water temperatures and measurement of sea level rises. If you look at the graph of sea level rises, you can see that it is rising relentlessly at about 3 mm per year. That sounds like a rather small number, but, if you sum that over a long period, it has significant effects. There are very many measurements and the IPPC report has a whole collection of graphs which all point in the same direction. We are not basing this on a single set of measurements by any means.

Q411 Graham Stringer: In the written submissions, we heard that there is background climate change, natural variation. One of the submissions we heard is that nobody knows how to separate the natural variation from that caused by the carbon dioxide that human beings are putting into the atmosphere. If you are saying those are your many measurements, how do you then make that accurate to know what is natural variation and what is man-made?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It is the speed of the change that is unprecedented here. Of course there have been climatic variations over very long time periods-for example, associated with changes in the earth’s orbit-but it is the speed of what is going on that is unprecedented. If you simply look at the change in concentrations of carbon dioxide, which have gone up dramatically from 280 to around 400 parts per million, you can see that it has happened over an extraordinarily short time period in geological terms.

Q412 Graham Stringer: That does not quite answer the question, does it? We can measure accurately the increase in the carbon dioxide. How do you measure the difference between-and how do you get it to a level of precision that is useful-the background variation and that induced by human beings putting a lot of carbon into the atmosphere?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The answer is that you can look at the sources that give you very long time periods; for example, you can look in ice cores. There are ways of looking at climate over very long periods.

Q413 Graham Stringer: I enjoyed your speech yesterday at lunchtime.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Thank you.

Graham Stringer: You talked about the levels of discounting impact.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Graham Stringer: What level of discounting would you have?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I probably need to explain the background to that. We are now moving to a different part of the discussion, in a sense, which is that the way I talk about this is in three parts. There is the science, there is the communication of that science and then there are the policy decisions that follow that. Those policy decisions are for all of us, and they are not policy decisions where science has special expertise. The challenge is to communicate the impacts that climate change is likely to have if we continue to emit carbon dioxide at the same rate. In a sense the challenge for policy makers is that the real impacts are going to be felt for future generations, so the question in an economist’s terms is, "What would be the discount rate for a grandchild?" Most of us would have a very low discount rate for our grandchildren because they are very tangible individuals to us. The question for society is how much we are prepared to invest now for a world that is going to be a better environment for our grandchildren’s children, their children and their children. That is where there are interesting questions about how we all think about future generations. Turning those emotional and moral questions about our duty of care to future generations is a different set of questions, and it is a set of questions for all of society.

Q414 Graham Stringer: That was the question I asked and I would be interested in your answer to it. You defined my question much better than I did and I would be interested what your-

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I can give you a personal view.

Graham Stringer: I would be interested in your own personal view.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: My personal view is that I do care about my grandchildren’s grandchildren. But that is a personal view; I would not say it was a scientific view. That is a view for all of society.

Graham Stringer: Thank you.

Q415 Stephen Mosley: Following on from that, for me there are four key stages in the communication. First, is climate change happening? The answer is clearly yes.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Q416 Stephen Mosley: Second, is it man-made? Again, there are elements of it that are clearly man-made.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The answer to that is yes, it is.

Q417 Stephen Mosley: Thirdly, what should be the aim of policy? Fourthly, what should we do about it? When it comes to the aim of policy, we have a decision. We could look at climate change and say, "Is it beneficial? Is there a chance of it being beneficial? Should we try and reach a situation where there is no climate change whatsoever? Should we just eliminate the manmade portions?" There is a whole range of options around that. What should be the Government’s international aim in our policy towards climate change?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: There are several questions embedded in that. The key issue around this, of course, is that the policy decisions are about energy. Those are the policy decisions. If we are to mitigate the human contribution to climate change, we have to reduce carbon emissions, and that involves changing how we use fossil fuels. We tend to think on the energy generation side, but there is also the demand side issue, which is "How can we change our demand?" The challenge for policy makers is that when you are looking at energy policy you have to look at it through three different lenses. Again, this is something I have talked about publicly: you have to look at it through the lens of security of supply, because if the lights go out that is very bad news; you have to look at it through the sustainability lens, in other words the lens of the health of the planet for humans; and then you have to look at it through the affordability lens, and that is the challenge for policy makers.

On your question about whether it has benefits, the short answer is that in the short term the wetter parts of the world are tending to get wetter and the drier parts are tending to get drier. So while there might be minor climate benefits in some parts of the world, they are matched by disbenefits in other parts of the world. Again it depends on the extent to which we as individuals, electorates and politicians take a global view. That is always the challenge. It does require a global solution, but that is very difficult if the countries that historically have not been major emitters of carbon do not show a leadership role.

Q418 Stephen Mosley: I agree with you entirely, but I know that 20,000 years ago my constituency was under a kilometre of ice.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: That is correct.

Q419 Stephen Mosley: So as far as I am concerned, in terms of where I live currently, climate change over the past 20,000 years has been beneficial.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: That is absolutely right.

Q420 Stephen Mosley: The question is, going back to the third point that I raised, what should be the aim of policy? I am not talking about what we should do about it, but what should be the aim? Should we eliminate manmade climate change? Should we seek to eliminate climate change altogether? Or should we seek to alter climate in a way that is beneficial?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: We cannot alter climate change caused by natural causes that are outside human mediation. Again it comes back in a funny kind of way to the discount rate question, which is what will the climate or the planet be in another 20,000 years, in 100,000 years or in a million years? Leaving aside the carbon emissions question-because of course if we continue to emit carbon at this continuous rate, we will have had a dramatic and extraordinary effect on the planet-there are some things that we cannot do anything about. You have to distinguish the 20,000 and the 100,000-year time horizon from the 100-year and 500-year time horizon.

Q421 Stephen Mosley: In the evidence that the Government sent us, they told us, "It is essential to have a simple, clear evidencebased narrative about climate change, its causes and likely impacts in the public domain."

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I could not agree more.

Q422 Stephen Mosley: Do you think the Government do that?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: When you say "the Government," there are people who speak on behalf of the Government, and that takes us, to some extent, to the topic of this session. Part of my job is to give that very clear communication; it is to work with my colleagues-with David MacKay, for example, who is the chief scientist at DECC-and with other chief scientists. Sir David King has now been appointed as the Foreign Secretary’s envoy on climate change. There are a group of us who have, I think, a duty as part of our jobs to provide a very clear narrative.

Q423 Stephen Mosley: You have a duty, but do you do that? That is the question.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes is the answer. I have here a talk that I first gave at a public meeting in Cambridge, and I have planned a series of occasions when I am going to give this talk to public audiences around the country. I have also, interestingly, because I was in the United States and Canada a couple of weeks ago, given this talk in Houston and in Ottawa as well.

Q424 Stephen Mosley: Do you think there is one individual or one body that should be the clear voice of Government on climate change?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: No, I don’t think there can be one. Putting all one’s eggs in one basket would be a mistake. We have a duty for as many people as are competent to deliver the message to do so.

Q425 Pamela Nash: Sir Mark, could you clarify for the Committee what you think the Government’s responsibility is exactly when it comes to communicating science, putting that in relation to other scientists and academics in the country and their responsibility to do so?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The answer is that Government seek scientific advice. We have probably the best embedded system of scientific advice to Government of any country that I am aware of, in that we have a chief scientific adviser and we have scientists-a chief scientist in almost every Department. We have numerous scientific advisory committees, and all of us speak. In a way, Government are communicating science through the scientists in Government. I think that it is our job to communicate.

Q426 Pamela Nash: Do you think there are enough resources devoted to the communication of science at the moment?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: There is more resource devoted to communication of science than there has ever been in the past. As you know, my history has been in the funding of medical research, and during the time I have been in that world there has been a stronger and stronger emphasis on the public communication of science. We have seen a transformation in the media overall as well. We are seeing much more science in the public media than we used to. There are certain misconceptions, such as that the public are not interested in science. They are. Science well expressed is absolutely fascinating and people are interested in it.

Q427 Pamela Nash: But is it enough?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: You can always do more.

Q428 Pamela Nash: Thank you. I thought you might say that. I was looking at quotes from your speech in October to the Centre for Science and Policy, and some of the reaction to that. Someone said that the Government sometimes find it difficult to separate when they are communicating science and fact and when they are communicating policy. Is that something you recognise as an issue?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: No, they are different issues. My job as a scientist is to comment on the science; it is not to externally criticise the policy, because the policy is made by politicians and it is we the electorate that vote for them. It is worth saying that that speech at CSaP was webstreamed at the time, and I think it is available on YouTube or somewhere like that for anyone to watch.

Q429 Pamela Nash: Yes, we have seen it. Just to be clear, you do not think there is a problem at the moment. You think the Government are quite effective at separating communication on science and policy.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I am very clear on separating the communication on science and policy, but-

Pamela Nash: Just to be clear, this is not a criticism of you.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: For the politicians themselves, it is how the science feeds into the policy. That is the big question.

Q430 Pamela Nash: Do you think there is anything else that Government could do to feed the debate more effectively?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: This is a topic that is being extraordinarily actively debated in political circles at the moment, given that it is energy-where there are major policy changes-and our consumption of power where the issues are. There is a great deal of political debate about that and I am not going to comment on it.

Pamela Nash: Okay, thank you.

Q431 Jim Dowd: People talk about the need for a national debate or conversation, but, by its nature, politics is about debate. Surely what really matters are conclusions being drawn from that.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Absolutely.

Q432 Jim Dowd: It is no use talking about things for ever. Do you have any feel as to the kind of conclusions we are reaching?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The challenge at the moment is that we would be having a very easy discussion if decarbonised energy was as cheap as fossil fuel. There is a big technological challenge that we face. We have globally to put an enormous amount of effort into the technological challenges of, for example, how we sequester carbon. One way of dealing with carbon emissions is to capture them and bury them deep underground. It is a technology that is possible but still relatively expensive. We have, for example, to work on battery storage. There are all sorts of solutions where we need a technological investment. That is a particular scientific focus that I have at the moment, which is actually identifying the key areas-and I am working with others-where we need to do the research globally, because it comes back to the three lenses. It comes back for energy to the lenses of security of supply, affordability and sustainability.

Q433 Jim Dowd: Contained within that answer as I understood it was the idea that technology can contribute to this.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Technology has to, yes, absolutely.

Q434 Jim Dowd: But that then brings its own problems. When I was on the Health Select Committee we carried out an inquiry into obesity. While there was a recognition that it is-pardon the phrase-a huge problem and growing, it is one where a lot of people felt that it was up to the scientists, clinicians or medics to provide us with a solution; it is a pill we need so that we do not change our lifestyle or do anything ourselves. Others do it for us.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: That is a fair point. Another part of the equation has to be around our consumption. But again technology can make it easier for us to modify our consumption. For example, when I was in the US a couple of weeks ago I visited a project in Austin looking at smart metering of houses. I have to emphasise that this was an experimental project where they were looking in great detail at volunteer households, monitoring every single electric circuit in the household and seeing how people consumed electricity. Part of the challenge is to give us the information that enables us to make the choices that we need to make. You are absolutely right-the metaphor is not a bad one, I think-that one of the challenges for obesity is behaviour change, and one of the challenges in the world of energy is behaviour change as well. But we have to make it easy for people to change their behaviour, and that will require a lot of technology. For example, decarbonising transport would be an important thing but we have to make it an affordable thing for people to do; we have to provide the wherewithal, for example, for people to recharge battery-powered cars. There is a lot of technology required to enable people to make choices. That is one of the challenges around smart metering. Done well, it will enable people to know more about their energy consumption and to start making choices.

Q435 Jim Dowd: But the primary incentive in smart metering is cost, isn’t it?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It is quite interesting to take the electric car model in the States. People’s energy consumption at home was low during the day, as you would expect, and then they would drive home from work, plug their car into the electricity, turn the air conditioning on and turn the microwave on. All the consumption would be done at once, as opposed to in the middle of the night when they were asleep and could have been charging the car then. There are ways in which technology can even out our use of consumption, and obviously that then means that you can use energy at times when the tariffs are cheaper. You can win on all fronts if you get this right, but it requires very significant technological investment.

Q436 Jim Dowd: Stephen and Pamela have already touched on most of the other questions I was going to ask. One of the Government Ministers we had before us said that the role of the Government was just to stand behind the scientists on this matter. Mind you, Government Ministers wanting people to stand behind is nothing new. Is that your role?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: No. Surely the role of Government is to make the policy decisions that follow from scientific and other evidence. Politicians have to take it all into account.

Q437 Jim Dowd: I was thinking in particular of advocating the issues around it.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It is worth saying that I have had the opportunity to present the IPCC report to the full Cabinet, so the Government have been listening very carefully indeed.

Q438 Jim Dowd: Why then do you think, given the prominence of the issue, that all recent polling seems to indicate that the public’s belief in "climate change" is declining? It is still overwhelming, but it is declining.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: That is exactly the point I was about to make. Let me challenge the use of the word "belief". Ultimately, this is not a matter for opinion or belief. It is a matter of fact whether humans are altering the climate or not. There is a correct answer to this question. You can believe what you want, but there is, ultimately, a correct answer. On your specific question, which is about public comments about this, it is perfectly true that about 10 years ago, more than 90% would have answered that they were clear that humans were modifying the climate. The figure is now something like 72% or 73%. So there has been a decline, although, as you point out, that is still a very significant fraction of the population; I have somewhat flippantly said that most politicians would be happy with a majority like that. We do not have a big problem.

Why has opinion moved? We do not know is the short answer. There are groups in the UK-for example, the group in Cardiff led by Nick Pidgeon-doing a lot of social science around this. There is no doubt that hard economic times-fuel bills-are going to affect people’s views. There may also be a sense that this has been going on for a long time and nothing has obviously changed. There are likely to be all sorts of reasons. There have been some loud, sceptical-though wrong-voices, and it is quite difficult for a public faced with two apparently equal and opposite views to make the judgment between them. But of course the reality is that they are opposite views but they are not equal views. I think it is a combination of "It’s been around for a long time and apparently the world hasn’t changed," sceptical voices and the economic environment.

Q439 Jim Dowd: In my experience, Sir Mark, I would say that politicians are quite happy to accept a majority of one, let alone anything more extravagant than that.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: That one is for you to comment on, yes.

Q440 Jim Dowd: Is there not a conundrum or a paradox in what you are saying? When you said there is a right answer to this, that is perfectly true, but science is not a democracy any more than mathematics or anything else. The fact that 90% of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Correct.

Q441 Jim Dowd: You cannot simply discount the other 10% because they happen to be in the minority.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Hang on a second. That is the sort of argument of the scientific outsider. There comes a point when the overwhelming consensus is such that we can be as confident as we can that the science here is correct. While I am perfectly happy to agree that there are all kinds of uncertainties about the precise details of the future, I go back to the IPCC statement: "Human influence on the climate system is clear." There are a number of others that are very strong: "Warming in the climate system is unequivocal." "Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean." There are a whole series of statements. It is not a matter of "The sceptical voices might be right," in this case.

Q442 Jim Dowd: The vast majority of the population are scientific outsiders, and what we are trying to deal with in this inquiry is how they appreciate the issues.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Jim Dowd: You mentioned the Arctic ice cap shrinking, which has major implications for a number of people. But at the same time the Antarctic ice sheet is growing.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes. There is-

Jim Dowd: I know what you said about climate disruption and I appreciate that as a definition, except that it seems to say there are a lot of things going on for a wide variety of reasons and we cannot really just analyse the lot.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It is an enormously complicated system, and there are perfectly good explanations; there is more water in the atmosphere, and at very cold parts of the world it will turn into snow and ice. There are explanations, but of course there are things we still do not understand. What tends to happen is that people cherry-pick the piece of evidence that suits them, and that is not the way to do science. What you have to do is look at the bulk of the evidence and put it all together. That is the basis on which the IPCC have done their work, and they have done it extremely well.

Q443 Chair: Isn’t the conclusion of your comments to Mr Dowd about the change in public perception-public belief-that the science you are arguing is now clear, that the scientific advice to Government, as I am sure you would say, is very clear, and that it therefore needs strong political leadership to carry the public in the right direction so that the correct policy decisions can be made?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I do not want to stray too much into the world of politics, but it is an iterative process, where politicians need to, as it were, show leadership and persuade the electorate, but then the electorate need to elect the politicians they want. There is a sort of virtuous circle potentially.

Chair: Some of us think so. We shall not stray too far into that.

Q444 Stephen Metcalfe: In your responses to Stephen Mosley, you talked about the need for a clear narrative and said that you thought it was better not to have one voice but a number of voices communicating the same thing. Does that approach constitute a Government communications strategy, and is it something that has just grown out of the desire to communicate or is it a planned approach?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I do not think there is a formal Government strategy as such. However, I work with a community of scientists, both inside and outside Government, and we certainly discuss communication. It is our collective view that we need to communicate this, and indeed other scientific stories, very clearly.

Q445 Stephen Metcalfe: I agree with that, but does the Government need a strategy that is formalised, that identifies where the sources of information are coming from, and that is visible and accessible so that people can see what is behind the communications?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I am more concerned about function than I am about form. As long as the communication is happening effectively, that is what matters. It is always one of the challenges. It is the function that matters.

Q446 Stephen Metcalfe: Can you expand on what activity is going on behind the scenes-with David MacKay, as you mentioned, or as he has mentioned to us? Is there a process that takes place that engages in this communication?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: There is informal work, in that we meet as a community every Wednesday morning. I had a meeting at 7.45 this morning with other chief scientists. We talk about these matters. Another very good example of what I think is Government communication is the 2050 calculator, which is on the DECC site. That is an extraordinary tool for communication because it gives anyone-a policy maker, and in fact there is a young person’s version of it as well-the opportunity to play around with the parameters to see what changes in both supply and demand would be needed to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. There are quite a lot of tools. The interesting thing about the 2050 calculator is that it is gradually globalising. There is a Chinese version available in Mandarin on a Chinese website, and now a global 2050 calculator is being prepared. The UK 2050 calculator is for the UK and the Chinese one is for China, but a global one is being prepared. That is an example showing the diversity of communication that is needed and the sort of tools that are needed. They have to be very user-friendly.

Q447 Stephen Metcalfe: That global tool being developed-is that us?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: We are doing it in collaboration. It was launched recently at DECC and it is a group, so it is not just the UK that is involved.

Q448 Stephen Metcalfe: That leads on to the question: is there any formal communications collaboration with other countries?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: There is not a formal global strategy in any sense at all, but the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology met the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the United States-PCAST-a couple of months ago. The scientific community, and particularly the scientists who advise Government, do talk among ourselves. But again it is worth emphasising that the UK should be proud that it has one of the best systems in the world for providing scientific advice to the Government.

Q449 Stephen Metcalfe: Going back to those discussions between countries, is there general acceptance that there needs to be more public engagement, and that communication to the public needs to be a priority?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I think it would be very hard to find a scientist involved in this subject anywhere in the world who did not think that more public communication was needed.

Q450 Chair: Following on from that, and thinking of your comments to Mr Dowd as well, presumably there is some harm done if a Cabinet Minister does not toe the line. Prime Ministers always want collective responsibility, but we have seen plenty of examples of people straying off-piste. That must do a huge amount of damage.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I am not going to comment on that point. There is obviously a strong diversity of views on this as on any other subject, and that is a matter for the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Q451 Pamela Nash: Can I turn that question around, Sir Mark? It does not have to be an announcement, but if there was a Government policy that you or one of your other adviser colleagues in other Departments felt was contrary to the scientific evidence available, would you be able in your role to talk publicly about that and make it known?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: My primary job is to provide advice to Government, and I make that advice very abundantly clear in Government. My job is not to go out and criticise the Government. I am a public servant. I am a civil servant and I am bound by the civil service code. I think have expressed my views on the science pretty clearly.

Q452 Pamela Nash: Just to be clear, in that instance, if there was a policy that you were extremely unhappy with-I am not suggesting that you are at the moment-you would be able to seek a meeting with the Government about that.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes. I am very satisfied that I have extremely free access to the most senior members of the Government.

Q453 Pamela Nash: But you would not be able to communicate that at this stage or publicly.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I would never, as it were, communicate the contents of an individual conversation with a Government Minister.

Q454 Pamela Nash: I do not mean the conversation. If you remained unhappy, that is not something that would be in your role to communicate publicly.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It would not be in my role to go to the media and say that I am dissatisfied with X’s view on Y. Absolutely not.

Q455 Chair: The Prime Minister gave me a commitment in the Liaison Committee that in circumstances like that it is important that the Minister is clear in making the policy pronouncement that he did hear the scientific advice but chose, for other policy reasons, to adopt a course of action. Have there been examples of that in your tenure yet?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: That was in a slightly different context, when an advisory committee gave a particular piece of advice on a particular aspect that reflected policy to a Minister-if they disagreed there. There has been one example, in relation to drugs policy, where there was that communication, and it did happen properly.

Q456 Pamela Nash: Moving on slightly, clearly you are a very publicly visible figure.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Pamela Nash: Do you think that the Government could do better in using all the scientific advisers to communicate to the public? In written evidence, we have had the comment that scientific advisers are not visible enough and could be made better use of.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I think this is a work in progress, to be honest, and it goes back to the point I made earlier: we can always do better, and we will.

Q457 Pamela Nash: Is there any blockage on that at the moment or is it just a change of culture?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I do not believe so. No, I do not think there is a blockage.

Q458 Pamela Nash: We are not just looking at people who are working directly for the Government; we are looking at scientists who are publicly funded in their research. Do you think there should be a commitment or an expectation for them to communicate their findings publicly?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I think increasingly there is that expectation. We are now moving into the territory of the research councils, for example, and I think there is a far higher expectation that there should be public communication. I am well known for saying that I do not think that scientific research is complete until the results are communicated. Part of that communication is communication to the general public as well as to the specialist audiences that scientists normally communicate with.

Q459 Pamela Nash: Should that be a condition of funding?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: With all these things there needs to be proportionality, so where it is appropriate. Not every piece of research is of overwhelming interest to public audiences, so I would say it needs to be-

Q460 Pamela Nash: Our meeting today is on climate change so I am thinking about those climate change elements that are of public interest.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes. We also have to be very careful about individual studies. The great thing about the IPCC process is that it looks at the whole array of science and puts it all together. There is the slight danger that individual studies can show effects that are out of kilter. One just has to be careful. You can mislead if you overemphasise the results of a particular study as well. One has to be very careful about that. We do not want to get into the position of at least one paper, where all foods either cause cancer or cure cancer. I think that is an issue.

Q461 Stephen Metcalfe: When the Met Office gave us evidence, they indicated that they did not have an explicit role in communicating climate change/climate science but would be willing to take that on. David Willetts also seemed to be quite supportive of that. Are any discussions taking place towards that end?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes. I talk to the Met Office frequently at the Hadley Centre, with Steve Belcher and Julia Slingo, and, although they do not have it as a written requirement, they are doing an enormous amount of very effective communication. Implicitly, they have been communicating very effectively, and I hope they will do more.

Q462 Stephen Metcalfe: When you say they are doing that very effectively at the moment, could you give us some examples? I think on their website there is only one page, following the publication of the IPCC report, and a couple of blog posts. How are they communicating?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Julia Slingo speaks frequently. She is someone who you see in the media; she does talk. Steve Belcher communicates. Is there more they can do? Yes, of course there is.

Q463 Stephen Metcalfe: Any suggestions about what that might be?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The short answer is that there is no single thing. I have been involved in the public engagement world for a long time, and sometimes different people like different forms of communication. There is no single magic formula. It is about speaking, writing, very good animations, illustrations, art and plays. There are all sorts of ways to communicate.

Q464 Stephen Metcalfe: The Met Office is obviously a Government agency.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Stephen Metcalfe: If they were to get more involved in the communication of climate science, do you think their lack of independence from the Government might compromise the way that that communication is seen?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I honestly cannot see why it should. They may not always get the weather forecast right, but do people say they get it wrong because they are a Government agency? The climate forecast is the weather forecast over a very long period, as it were-maybe that is not specifically right-so I do not see why they should. They are excellent scientists. None of us in this has any axe to grind. I would be absolutely delighted if humans were not responsible for climate change, but I am sorry to say that we are.

Q465 Stephen Metcalfe: I would tend to agree with that point of view quite strongly, but we have to communicate to those who might not be as involved as we all are in examining this and weighing up the evidence. It is about the kind of mass communication that we need to engage in with the public, and I am concerned that we are not very good at doing that.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: But it comes back to the point that it is not one individual that needs to communicate. All sorts of people need to communicate. You are slightly getting on to the issue of trust: are they not trusted because they are Government- funded? But trust is always contextspecific as well. Any scientist can be trusted when they are talking about the Higgs boson but might not be trusted when they are talking about something of more direct policy concern.

Q466 Graham Stringer: They might not be understood if they were talking about the Higgs boson, but that is a different matter. I agree with the essential thrust that nobody is entitled to their own facts even if they are entitled to their own opinions.

Do you think the current policies are working? One of the reasons I ask is that the Climate Change Committee’s report in April said that our carbon footprint is increasing and we have one of the largest carbon footprints in the world, whether you measure it per capita or not. I hear very little communicated about that. That is a measure of the success or failure of our policies, is it not?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I would comment that we are one of the very few countries in the world that has legislative targets for 2050. We have carbon budgets set by the Committee on Climate Change, and we are currently within those carbon budgets. But, as I said, Government policy is a matter for our elected politicians and for all of us as electors. I can only emphasise again and again the clarity of the science.

Q467 Graham Stringer: I am not questioning the clarity of the science. I am saying that the policy at the moment in the Climate Change Act and in various European directives is to talk about emissions, but, when you look at the carbon footprint, either of this country or Europe, it is increasing partly because we are importing goods that we used to manufacture and therefore they have a bigger carbon footprint. That is very serious. If you take the policy seriously, that is ineffective if not counter-productive.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: But the scientific role here is to relentlessly point out the data, the point about the carbon emissions. Then it is for us, the electorate, collectively to hold policy makers to account.

Q468 Graham Stringer: But that is slightly avoiding it. If the objective of the policy is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, and the policy that we have is actually leading to our carbon footprint being greater, should you not, as a scientific adviser, be saying, "Take a look at this policy; it is not doing quite what we want it to"? I do not hear that voice.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The first thing to say is that the UK is continuing to reduce its carbon emissions. There need to be loud and clear voices on the science and the data, but as I said, it is for the policy makers to decide. This morning, I have the privilege of talking to a group of MPs; you have a political role to act on the science.

Q469 Graham Stringer: Can I ask a similar question? I agree with you completely that there would not be a difficulty if renewables were cheaper than fossil fuels. Everybody would be happy with lower bills. Is there a case, and should you be making it, that, if we put a lot more research into renewables now, we would be able to make that leap to, if not cheaper sources of energy, comparable sources of energy in terms of cost?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Absolutely. As I said earlier, I believe that I am making that technological case. We are making it as a community. I think it is a global imperative for the science, engineering and technology community to work as we have never worked before as a collective to take on some of the challenges of both affordable and lowcarbon sources of energy.

Q470 Graham Stringer: There is a paper going about-it does not matter in one sense whether it is accurate to a few billion pounds or not-which is saying that the replacement of our power sources, our energy sources, at the present time with renewables is, over 16 years, going to cost us an extra £250 billion. I think that is a lot of money; Lord Stern does not seem to think it is, but I do. Would it not be sensible to be arguing that, rather than going for those alternative forms of energy production now, we should grab some of that money and put it into research, so that we get more effective and efficient forms of energy production?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I am not going to get into the either/or. I am going to reiterate that global investment is needed in the R and D to give us affordable decarbonised sources of energy, and that is a global grand challenge. I am struck that there have been over the past 70 years or so a series of grand challenges. The first one, sadly driven by war, was the Manhattan project. There was the Apollo project, which was driven, in a way, by competition between nations; and the genome project, which was driven by scientific opportunity and collaboration. I believe that now is the time for a further set of grand challenges driven around the imperative to find sustainable sources of energy. I would not put all my eggs in one basket either. It is not a question of solar, or CCS or batteries. There is a whole series, and I believe that political leadership is needed here because this is a global grand challenge.

Q471 Stephen Mosley: During the course of our inquiry, we found it difficult to get evidence from sceptical voices. We put out an open call for evidence. We have written-I do not know whether you are aware of it-to a couple of the national newspapers that tend to have a more sceptical stance, asking for evidence, but we have not been able to engage them, or they have not engaged with us. Does that surprise you at all?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: It speaks for itself, does it not? I think it is quite interesting.

Q472 Stephen Mosley: If that is the case, why do you think that the sceptical voices have such a high profile in the media?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: You would need to ask the newspaper editors that, but of course I would also say that channels for communication have been democratised, and it is difficult to argue that that is anything other than a good thing, so now it is easier for anyone to publish anything on the internet and for people to have access to it. While it has created enormous opportunities technologically that simply were not there before, it has created a new set of challenges, and one of the difficult challenges is, "How do people who do not have a certain level of expertise judge the veracity of what they read?" That is difficult. It is a different question for those who are responsible for the traditional modes of publication, and I cannot answer it. I can only say that if I was in their role I would be behaving differently.

Q473 Stephen Mosley: Lord Stern recently said in an interview-I think it was with The Guardian-that the sceptical voices should be treated as noise and ignored. Would you agree with that?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: The point is that they are not ignored, although we should not glorify them by believing that people take too much notice of them. I think we could over-emphasise their importance. They are not insignificant, and some voices are more effective than others, but at the end of the day, it comes back to the fact that we have to make sure that the evidencebased science has a very loud voice. It goes back to my point that it is not about one person communicating; it is about lots of people communicating.

Stephen Mosley: Especially scientists, I guess.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Q474 Stephen Mosley: Do you think that the effects of scepticism in the media, things like the "Climategate" problems at the university of East Anglia, have affected the willingness of scientists to speak about the future of the climate as such?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: No, I do not think so. The lessons that have been learned around the communication of science are that we need much more transparency of data. I come from a world where I was very influenced by having been involved in the aftermath of the genome project, but of course that was done completely in the open, so I find it difficult to understand why measurements-the data-should not be made available. There is no reason why scientific data should not be made available to anyone to scrutinise.

Q475 Stephen Mosley: A lot of the issues round UEA and the "Climategate" thing were over access to data and information. Do you think UEA got it wrong at that time?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I am not going to comment on the past, but I would say that the inquiries did not, at the end of the day, show that there was any problem with the data itself.

Q476 Stephen Mosley: But it was the publication of the data that caused it.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I will just make the point again-and the Royal Society did a good report on open science which I was involved in-that science is at its best when the data are made as widely available and as early as possible.

Q477 Jim Dowd: A couple of final questions occurred to me. In your response to Stephen’s first question in that round about those who do not share the orthodoxy of the human effect or the human influence on climate change and why, you said it speaks for itself and did not really elaborate what you thought the reason was. Is it because they think inquiries like this, being attached to, or in a part of, Government, cannot be trusted, that the report has already been written and that we are only listening to one side of the argument? Is that what you were referring to?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: You would have to ask them why they were not showing up, but maybe people are not prepared to deal with the tough scrutiny of a Select Committee.

Q478 Jim Dowd: One of the difficulties of the Select Committee system is that we cannot ask questions of people who do not turn up. We have to ask them of those who do, like you.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Indeed, yes, absolutely, but it is very difficult for me to put myself in the head of other people.

Q479 Jim Dowd: The final question is this. How useful is it for, as you said earlier, the scientific outsider community-which is the vast majority of the population, as I said-in what seems to be a utilitarian term of abuse, to accuse somebody of being a climate change denier? It seems to attract the kind of opprobrium that, within scientific circles and more broadly, many other insults have? Is that a very useful way of approaching it?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: As far as possible, it is always best to avoid abuse. People obviously get heated and emotional about this. There is another term that I intensely dislike, which is "warmist", which I believe is intended to denote the idea that there is some kind of cult around "warmism". I do not think these terms are helpful. But we have to be clear that those who argue against the human contribution to climate change are wrong.

Q480 Jim Dowd: Sure, and I do not dispute that. But it is not just a term of abuse, although it is that: it is actually a way of closing down argument, because the assumption is that the vast majority of "rightminded" people would automatically understand that anything else coming from this source or from this individual must be wrong.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Yes, but there does come a point in any discussion where you have to say, "Okay. We have discussed this endlessly. This is the point at which we must just agree to disagree." It is the proportionality question always.

Q481 Chair: Finally, so that we are clear, you relied heavily in your presentation to us, and indeed to the Cabinet, on the robustness of the IPCC report. It has been suggested in other circles that the IPCC report is not scientifically driven. Would you refute that?

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I would say that is completely wrong. It is led by scientists and conducted by scientists, but it is not my sole source of information on climate change. It is well known that my background is as a medical scientist, and that has had some advantages because I have come at this with no axe to grind. As you can imagine, I have spent an enormous amount of my first seven months in office becoming well briefed on climate science. I have spoken to many, many climate scientists during that period. I have read a great deal, not only the IPCC report but the peerreviewed literature, so I have had a lot of opportunity to brief myself. I do not base this solely on the IPCC process. There is a lot of extraordinarily good science that lies behind it, and we have to acknowledge that climate systems are incredibly complicated.

Q482 Chair: Thank you very much for your attendance today, Sir Mark. You may be interested to see, as you walk out, that there is a good exhibition with Bloodhound on promoting young engineering skills, and I hope you will show your face there along with members of the Committee.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: I will. It is timely because of John Perkins’s report earlier this week on the supply of engineers.

Chair: We thought it was a very good report, especially the bits that were lifted from our Select Committee observations.

Professor Sir Mark Walport: Excellent.

Chair: Thank you very much for attending.

Prepared 1st April 2014