Blog on Select Committee Hearing

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog for the ‘Environment’ web pages of ‘The Guardian’ expressing my concern about an upcoming oral evidence session by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change as part of its inquiry into the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In my view, the plan to devote half the hearing to a panel of individuals who reject the findings of the IPCC was an example of bias towards the views of the climate change ‘sceptics’ on the Committee, Peter Lilley and Graham Stringer.

In my evidence to the Committee’s inquiry I pointed out that Mr Lilley had already blatantly misrepresented the work of the IPCC in a newspaper article after the draft report of its working group I was published in September 2013.

I suspected that the Committee’s oral evidence session would be used by Mr Stringer and Mr Lilley to give a platform to the ‘sceptic’ witnesses so that they could attack the IPCC and climate science in general.

The evidence session took place on 28 January and largely confirmed my suspicions – the recording of it shows that the witnesses were allowed to make a number of erroneous statements largely without proper challenge from the MPs.

For example, Donna Laframboise, the world’s leading producer of conspiracy theories about the IPCC, was asked by Mr Stringer why she thought the organisation should be abolished. Her reply was extremely misleading: “When the IAC [InterAcademy Council] reported in 2010 it said that there were significant shortcomings in every major step of the IPCC process. That is not a mild criticism. That suggests that there are serious reasons to be very careful about the conclusions of the IPCC process.”

In fact, the IAC was commissioned by the IPCC to conduct a review and to make recommendations about how its processes and procedures could be strengthened in order to ensure the ongoing quality of its reports.

Rather than delivering the scathing critique that Ms Laframboise suggested, the IAC’s report concluded that “the IPCC assessment process has been successful overall and has served society well”, while also recommending some fundamental changes to ensure its future success.

But Ms Laframboise was not the only one to misrepresent the facts in order to attack the IPCC. Nic Lewis, who retired from the finance industry to pursue an amateur interest in proving that the climate has a low sensitivity to rising greenhouse gas levels, was questioned by Mr Lilley about the slowdown in the rate of increase of global average surface temperature over the past 15 years.

Mr Lilley asked Mr Lewis to confirm that the natural factors that are thought to have largely counteracted the underlying warming effect of rising greenhouse gas levels since 1998 could also have amplified the global temperature increase prior to that period, adding “does the IPCC report make that point?”

Mr Lewis replied: “It certainly could have been affected in the opposite direction over the previous 20 to 25 years since the warming started in the late 70s. I don’t think the IPCC report brings that out. In fact, I think, if anything, it suggests that that’s not the case.”

Mr Lewis’s statement was simply untrue. Chapter 10 of working group I’s report explicitly considers the evidence for such a claim. It notes on page 885 that “several studies claim a role for internal variability associated with the AMO [Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation] in driving enhanced warming in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the recent slow down in warming, while attributing long-term warming to anthropogenically forced variations either by analysing time series of GMST, forcings and indices of the AMO or by analysing both spatial and temporal patterns of temperature.”

However, the report points out: “There is agreement among studies that the contribution of the AMO to global warming since 1951 is very small (considerably less than 0.1°C) and given that observed warming since 1951 is very large compared to climate model estimates of internal variability, which are assessed to be adequate at global scale, we conclude that it is virtually certain that internal variability alone cannot account for the observed global warming since 1951.”

But the most inaccurate and misleading comments were made by Professor Richard Lindzen, who is courted by climate change ‘sceptics’ around the world.

Professor Lindzen was asked by Mr Stringer if the IPCC report had ignored research on the potential contributions to climate change of solar activity, as well as cosmic rays from outer space which might have reduced the amount of clouds blocking out the Sun’s rays. Professor Lindzen replied: “The IPCC not only didn’t include it, but it may not even have any way of including it at the moment.”

This was not true. The role of energy from the Sun is examined in detail in the report, and the Summary for Policymakers indicated from the evidence that it “made only a small contribution to the net radiative forcing throughout the last century”. It also concluded: “No robust association between changes in cosmic rays and cloudiness has been identified.”

But Professor Lindzen did not restrict himself to misrepresenting the IPCC. He also gave a false impression of a recent book, ‘Climate Casino’, by Professor William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale University.

Professor Lindzen told the Committee: “An economist at Yale, Bill Nordhaus, has a book on climate policy and if you look carefully at that book, he estimates the cost-benefit and so on of various policies and it’s clear that there is virtually no policy that beats doing nothing for 50 years.”

In fact, Professor Nordhaus’s book makes no such claim. In the final chapter, Professor Nordhaus asks what an impartial jury would conclude from the available evidence. He states: “A fair verdict would find that there is clear and convincing evidence that the planet is warming; that unless strong steps are taken, the earth will experience a warming greater than it has seen for more than half a million years; that the consequences of the changes will be costly for human societies and grave for many unmanaged earth systems; and that the balance of risks indicates that immediate action should be taken to slow and eventually halt emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.”

But nobody challenged Professor Lindzen’s fib. Indeed the whole hearing was largely a demonstration of how much the Select Committee reflects the deteriorating quality of UK political debate about climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science