Communicating climate science - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. The UK Climate Change Programme was put in place in 1994. Its aim was to return carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. The previous Labour Government set an additional domestic target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to80% of 1990 levels by 2010.[1]

2. The previous Government's announcement, in 2006, that it expected to fail to meet the 2010 target led to various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) campaigning for tougher targets and, eventually, the introduction of the Climate Change Bill in 2007.[2] The resulting Act of Parliament[3] set the UK legally binding targets for reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990, an interim target of a 34% reduction by 2020, and an obligation for the Government to set five yearly carbon budgets.

3. The Climate Change Act[4] also established the Committee on Climate Change, whose role is to examine, and report annually, on Government policies for meeting these budgets, provide advice on policies to Government, including advice on adaptation to a changing climate.

4. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), together with other departments, has a wide range ofclimate focussed policiesaimed at achieving the emissions reductions it has committed to. These policies, together with actions and milestones, are set out in the UK Carbon Plan, which was published by DECC in December 2011:

    This plan sets out how the UK will achieve decarbonisation within the framework of our energy policy: to make the transition to a low carbon economy while maintaining energy security, and minimising costs to consumers, particularly those in poorer households.[5]

5. The Government's policy to tackle a changing climate is firmly based on scientific advice that there is a need to reduce carbon emissions and to decarbonise the UK economy. The International Panel on Climate Change published the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report in September 2013. This concluded that there was clear evidence of warming:

    Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.[6]


    Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system. [7]

6. More recently the Royal Society restated the current understanding of the link between human activity and climate change:

    Human activities—especiallythe burning of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution—haveincreased atmospheric CO2 concentrations by about 40%, with more than half the increase occurring since 1970. Since 1900, the global average surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F). This has been accompanied by warming of the ocean, a rise in sea level, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and many other associated climate effects. Much of this warming has occurred in the last four decades. Detailed analyses have shown that the warming during this period is mainly a result of the increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Continued emissions of these gases will cause further climate change, including substantial increases in global average surface temperature and important changes in regional climate.[8]

7. The Government is clear that it accepts the science. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) states on its website "the scientific evidence that the world's climate is changing is clear and extensive".[9]The website for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) states that "the world's climate and weather patterns are changing. Global temperatures are rising, causing more extreme weather events, like flooding and heatwaves".[10]

Our inquiry

8. Although government policy has been consistent since at least 1994 and there is wide scientific consensus about the causes of climate change, there has been increasing debate in the public arena in recent years on the validity of the science. The Government accepts that its plans will increase costs in the first instance, though it considers that there will be an eventual cost saving.[11] We were concerned that it would be very difficult to gain acceptance for even short term increased costs to individuals through energy bills and taxes unless there was confidence among the general public of the need to implement these policies.

9. We launched our inquiry on 28 February 2013. We asked for evidence on the level of understanding amongst the public of climate change, what voices the public trust for information on climate change, how understanding could be improved, and the role of the media and government in doing this. We received more than sixty submissions of written evidence and held seven oral evidence sessions.

10. This report first considers the level of public understanding of climate science and the potential consequences that scientists project from increasing emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. It then considers the communication by various bodies by which the general public might become more informed, including scientists, the media and the Government. Finally we consider what the Government will need to do if it wants to achieve its policy aims with regard to climate and demonstrate an evidence based approach to climate policies.

11. Throughout the inquiry we have sought to ascertain what the public understand by the term 'climate change', what experts mean when they use it and what Government 'climate change' policy encompasses.We did not find clear agreed definition amongst responses from our witnesses.[12]

·  Professor Slingo defined climate change as "something that transcends the natural variability of the climate on a range of time scales from seasonal to multidecadal.Within, say, our lifetime or longer—say 100 years—is the climate different now than it was 100 years ago when averaged over several decades?"

·  Professor Walport agreed: "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".

·  Professor Rapley also agreed: "that a better term than climate change was global energy imbalance".He went further preferring the term "climate disruption": "climate disruption because it is more descriptive of what this energy imbalance threatens to cause".

·  Catherine Brahic's definition was "it is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels, by and large, and the consequences of that accumulation.Carbon gets locked into the earth over the course of millions of years in the form of fossil fuels.It takes millions of years for that process to happen naturally.In a matter of seconds, when we burn fossil fuels—oil, coal, natural gas—we release it into the atmosphere, and as a result it creates an imbalance in a cycle that is normally timed and very balanced."

·  Professor MacKay's definition was "climate is the statistics of many variables: temperatures; precipitations; wind speeds; ocean currents; ice masses.The climate is the collection of all those variables, including salinity and acidity of oceans; and climate change is a change in those statistics."

·  Minister of State Gregory Barker MP said: "climate change is climate change" or alternatively "climate change is a changing climate".He did not believe that climate change was a technical term.

12. In order to communicate what climate change is, the Government must agree a clear consistent and precise definition which can be related to direct observations and measurements. This should be based on Professors Slingo's and Rapley's definitions.

1   Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Climate Change, The UK Programme, Cm 4913, November 2000 Back

2  Climate Change Bill [HL]Research Paper RP08/52, House of Commons Library, June 2008 Back

3   Climate Change Act 2008 Back

4  Ibid Back

5   Department of Energy and Climate Change, The Carbon Plan: Delivering our low carbon future, December 2011, p3 Back

6   IPCC, "Summary for Policymakers", Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013 Back

7  Ibid Back

8  The Royal Society, Climate Change, Evidence and Causes, February 2014  Back

9   GOV.UK, Supporting international action on climate change, [website as of 18 March 2014]  Back

10  GOV.UK, Adapting to climate change, [website as of 18 March 2014] Back

11   Department of Energy and Climate Change,Estimated impacts of energy and climate change polices on energy prices and bills, March 2013, p5 Back

12   Q298, Q409, Q45, Q174, Q370, Q369 Back

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Prepared 2 April 2014