Monday, 7 December 2009

Copenhagen, e-mails and the climate

It is a real shame that the start of the Copenhagen summit will be partly overshadowed by the silly controversy about the leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia.

To the climate change denying mischief-makers, this story was gold dust. They found initially plausible evidence that the whole idea of climate change was being made up by a secret cabal of scientists - to what end, who knows! However, to anyone with any knowledge of practical science, there is simply no story. The UEA e-mails change nothing - man-made climate change is real and urgent.

The seemingly incriminating e-mails are refer to statistical approaches to correcting the raw data that they were analysing for a variety of known errors and quirks. Yes, they are written in offhand language. Yes, they look a bit silly when taken out of context. But they also look like dozens that I've sent in my 'real life' occupation as an academic. When I am analysing data I often talk about 'playing with data', 'fixing data', 'having a fiddle', 'trying a little trick', 'slicing and dicing', 'separating sheep and goats' and so on. It doesn't mean I'm making stuff up. It's just silly stats slang! In particular, it's something I do when I am e-mailing people less numerate than me as if I explained what I was doing properly, they probably wouldn't understand it. Thankfully, my casual e-mails aren't the subject of Freedom of Information requests and they aren't posted on the internet.

There is a great demolition and explanation on the New Scientist website. Even if the UEA were falsifying evidence (and it does happen in science and academia occasionally), they are only one small piece in a worldwide agreement about climate change. It wouldn't make it a sham or a lie, as Daily Mail journalists and Saudi Arabian politicians say. It would be a small group of fraudsters in a big pond of good scientists. But there is no evidence that this is the case anyway - just scientists doing their jobs.

One of the major challenges of dealing with climate change is that we are all (and especially us politicians) very reliant on scientists. The basic concept is simple and compelling, but the detail is mucky, complex and often contradictory. Scientists with different views are pitched against each other in the media and this is used by those with a denial agenda to undermine climate change - and the whole of science. Barely a day goes by without a story about one scientist disproving another's work... so who do you believe? But the key thing is that if you asked climate scientists the simple question of "Is our climate changing and is it caused by humans?", over 95% would say "yes" twice.

There is, of course, a chance that the vast majority of scientists could be wrong - it's happened before. Maybe. But with this issue, the perils of a false positive are more than outweighed by the false negative. It must be better to do something now than to wait and see and find it's too late. Especially when the 'doing something' is simply about good housekeeping of the planet anyway. And, as someone pointed out to me the other day, even if you deny climate change, we will run out of cheap fossil fuels in my lifetime and that is undeniable. By definition, they are finite.

I do confess to having two climate change heresies that will anger purists. Firstly, I believe in the Great Technological Solution. I think humankind will solve climate change and find ways of maintaining our standard of living without some of the catastrophic shifts that some commentators predict. As a species, we have solved countless big problems before and I see no reason why we won't this time. Secondly, we're actually overdue an ice age, which could make all this stuff irrelevant anyway! Predicting ice ages is a pretty imprecise science and we might be 5,000 years either way. Maybe we're actually in an ice age already, but global warming has overtaken it. Something in the back of my mind tells me that humankind will need to turn its attention to warming the place up in the next little while (in geological timeframes). Our planet is in a 'Goldilocks zone' for life and it doesn't take much in either direction to disrupt the status quo. In the long game, humans are going to have to become adept at managing global temperatures lest we go the way of the 95% of species that have ever lived!

But I might well be wrong on either or both of these - and in any case, neither are a reason for not believing the science on climate change and not acting on it now. The stakes are just too high.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

On the same subject, do you agree with your climate change spokesman that the PM and Ed Miliband should have taken the train to Copenhagen?

Neil Harrison said...

In the long term scheme of things, a couple of flights don't add up to a hill of beans. There is a danger that if that had gone by train (or ferry!), they would have been accused of tokenism. A bit of a no-win situation.

On the other hand, symbols can be important. There is little point telling people to cut carbon if you don't demonstrate it your own life. That's why I was upset that Labour voted down a 10:10 commitment for parliament. And I guess that your question fits into the same league.

I would have liked to have seen Gordon and Ed on a train, but it is possible that it simply wasn't practical for some good reason - e.g. security. So, I'm not going to judge them too harshly.

Barbara has gone to Copenhagen today too and she has flown. I know that she looked at the train, but the journey length was too long to fit in with other commitments. She is there convening a meeting of other major cities to lead a campaign about the delivery of low carbon economies at a local level. I guess I'm disappointed that she couldn't go by train either, but you sometimes have to break eggs to make an omelette.

bristolwestpaul said...

This pathetic window dressing meeting just shows the CONtempt Lib Dems hold the people of Bristol. You can agree a campaign on low carbon activities by telephone conference or email.

This Janket is a waste of council tax payers money.

On 10:10 you know that the Government had a motion supporting 10:10 but pointing out that it actually represented a reduction in the Governments target of a 12% cut by 2010.

Neil Harrison said...

Paul - I understand that the Labour leader (or someone) from Manchester is attending... perhaps you should let them know your views about them!

P.S. This is a sensible blog (usually), so perhaps you could keep your ill-considered silliness on your own...

Neil Harrison said...

Looks like I was right!

Quote : "Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese will also be travelling to the Danish capital where he will present world leaders with the document and call for them to make meaningful decisions at the summit."

Pete Goodwin said...

Neil

It may seem like a small point, but those of who are trying to evaluate this trip, made at our expense, really would like to know if it lives up to the claims for it. On the face of it, it doesn't.

According to the EP "Mrs Janke will fly out from Bristol Airport on Monday for two nights with two council officials for the summit" - in which case they'll miss most or all of the 'study tours' of low carbon projects that are being run before the evening's mayoral bunfights. We know - because she said she's only there for two of the four days - that she's coming back on Wednesday, so she'll miss a further big chunk of the conference. You have to wonder what's left.

If she's really gone today, as you suggest, then there are questions to ask about whether she couldn't have used less climate damaging transport. Trains do give plenty of opportunity for work and for sleep - they don't have to be wasted time. (You know that, of course!), and they get you there in time for the start of the mayoral summit.

Finally, this doesn't look like the sort of event where they'll meet potential investors in Bristol - which suggests that it's not even a marketing trip, it's just a vanity project.

Even so, thanks for putting your head above the parapet on this one. Your LibDem elders are keeping theirs well down!

Neil Harrison said...

Pete - always happy to engage with sensible politicians!

I don't know the details of her trip. I believe that there are two specific meetings, but presumably that isn't all she'll be doing. The first is something with the Covenant of Mayors which is drawing down lots of funding for localised city-level projects. I presume that this is far too large to do by other means and I am sure that there is a lobbying element too. The other is a new network of the Green Capital finalist cities to act as a specific collaboration for EU innovation funding. I believe that Bristol is convening this. From my own Euro trip (largely funded myself!), it's clear that this collection of cities are being given high priority in the eyes of the European Commission.

To be clear: I can't vouch for the details. I am only going on what I have picked up on the grapevine.

On a personal level, Barbara didn't seem to me that keen on going and she is staying in Malmo to keep the cost to the taxpayer to a minimum. I wouldn't say that Scandinavia in the middle of winter is the most sought-after junket! She was excited about the opportunities for Bristol.

On the timing of her journey, I'm sure the Post is right (#said with twinkle in eye#)! As I said, I'm not sure on the details and I may well have the timing wrong. I know that she is constrained for travel time from a brief corridor conversation.

Cutting foreign travel is part of the 10:10 commitment that we have made, so we are putting together a new system of monitoring what does go on - officers and councillors. We can then evaluate value for money and for carbon.

I've said before that I am a strong supporter of purposeful travel and I am not an apologist for people travelling to do important business. But I do agree that we need to clear what the purpose is and whether it has been achieved.

Pete Goodwin said...

Thanks, Neil. That takes us into new territory about on the real purpose of the trip; nothing to do with the Copenhagen COP talks, nothing to do with the 'Climate Summit for Mayors'. I'm surprised Barbara and those highly paid council PR people didn't latch on to it to try to face down the inevitable flak.

That said, any opportunities it brings to lobby for green EU development projects seem inconsistent with the 'equal opportunities' that the EU market is supposed to espouse.

Barbara's 'great honour' in being invited to Copenhagen springs from having being one of the cities competing for the European Green Capital status. Are they the privileged elite at the front of the queue for any euro-subsidy? Yet the 'Covenant of Mayors' - loads of them from all over Europe - include many cities far more needy of this kind of work. Just looking at the UK, there are most of the north-east councils among the 24 members, and they probably need this kind of investment far more than Bristol does. I wonder if they're in Copenhagen, up for the same cash? Almost certainly not.

(I confess to an interest because I lived for forty years in the north-east!)

Finally, it's good to see you talk of the need for evaluating trips like this in financial and in carbon terms. I remember getting hot under the collar about a couple of council member-and-officer trips (one by air to Newcastle, one by air to Glasgow) for a first hand look at their museums set-ups. So far as I could find out, there was no report, let alone any evaluation.

Neil Harrison said...

Pete - we are talking about the same things! There is no deception - I think the Climate Summit is just a subset of the signatories to the Convenant.

The EU is intending to move towards achieving its climate targets partly by dispersing funds through the Convenant for capital projects. It makes sense to give money to those cities who have signed to say they are positive about climate change than those who couldn't be bothered.

I know that the Green Party is as irrationally and voraciously anti-EU as UKIP, but surely you aren't suggesting that Bristol shouldn't be seeking money for climate change where it is available, especially as it is seen as a leading city?

Pete Goodwin said...

There is no deception - I think the Climate Summit is just a subset of the signatories to the Convenant.

Doesn't seem to be, Neil. The Climate Summit for Mayors is global, there are mayors going from all over: but the Covenant is strictly European, and EU at that. They're different entities.

It makes sense to give money to those cities who have signed to say they are positive about climate change than those who couldn't be bothered.

My point was that many towns and cities other than Bristol are Covenant signatories, making the same commitment (though I don't suppose many have flown to the Copenhagen beanfeast). Some of them need the work more than Bristol. I've no problem with Bristol putting its case, but I think it should be a level playing field.

I know that the Green Party is as irrationally and voraciously anti-EU as UKIP

Oh no we're not. We're as internationalist as any party could claim to be, but we have very serious reservations about what the European Union is really about, and how it is constituted. We'd like to see big changes in it, not withdrawal.

I suppose the way this money is spent is a good example - virtually no democratic control, and probably for the benefit of the corporations rather than the people.

I've never quite seen why cities should be expected to compete with each other for the largesse of national or supra-national governments.

Neil Harrison said...

Pete - you may be right and they are two separate events. Sly digs at the Evening Post aside, I do know that the press release would not have been incorrect. It is also possible that the officer who told me what Barbara was doing had it wrong (or that I misunderstood). Barbara's meeting list is a matter of public record, so I'm sure you could get a copy if you wanted one.

On competitive funding, the simple answer will be that with large capital projects (e.g. district heating systems), if you spread the money too thinly you wouldn't get anything for it. Just as half a wing is useless to a bird, half a district heating system is useless too!

If you have constrained resources, then the efficient thing to do is to give the majority to the city which has the experience, expertise and will to do use it well, while leaving some to help others to catch up. This is why most EU funding pots require there to be 'leader' and 'learner' partners.

On the Green Party's international credentials, I think we best agree to differ! I would agree that the EU needs reform, but your contempt leaks from every pore of your last comment. A well-known feature of the far left is saying that organisations they don't control are undemocratic... 8-)

Pete Goodwin said...

However did the far left come into this? Or does the smiley mean it's merely tongue-in-cheek?