Lord Turnbull: The Really Inconvenient Truth

by Andrew Turnbull, The Global Warming Policy Foundation

The UK Government takes great pride in its framework for climate change. It sees it as both comprehensive and ambitious, as one of the most an advanced in the world, providing a platform for moral leadership in global negotiations.

What are the components of this framework?

  1. A clear vision of the science which is based on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Driven by man–made emissions of CO2, the CO2 content of the atmosphere has risen from 280 ppm in the pre–industrial era to almost 400 ppm and, unless checked will double to around 550 ppm during the course of this century.
  2. This rise in CO2 is the principal cause of the increase in temperature of 0.7°C over the past century. On the business as usual case, temperature will rise by 1–1.5° C within the next 50 years, and by around 3° C by the end of the century
  3. If temperature rises more than 2C various adverse consequences will ensue, eg rising sea levels, droughts or floods, increased violence of storms, damage to food production, the spread of disease etc.
  4. To limit temperature change to no more than 2C global emissions of CO2 need to be halved, and given their contribution to CO2 to date the developed nations should take the lion’s share, ie reducing their emissions by around 80 percent. Taking account of growth in the economy, this means that 40 years from now each unit of GDP must produce only 5 percent of the CO2 it does currently

The UK Government has argued for this in climate change treaty negotiations, but in the absence of any agreement (a legally binding set of limits seems pretty dead) it has set its own limits.

The UK Government has created a powerful structure through the Climate Change Act 2008. Its opening clause creates a legally binding obligation:

“ It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80 percent lower than the 1990 baseline.”

The Act then goes on to establish the Climate Change Commission whose job it is the set 5 year targets on the way to the final goal, and to report to Parliament on whether the actions being taken which will deliver those targets.

A wide range of instruments has been introduced. At the EU level there are targets for 2020 to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent, with an offer to go to 30 percent as part of an international agreement, and an obligation to produce 15 percent of energy from renewable sources. To achieve this electricity generation will need to be over 30 percent from renewables. The EU has also set up a cap and trade system for carbon, the EUETS; targets for the efficiency of vehicle fleets and a mandatory component of road fuel to come from biofuels.

At a UK level, numerous other schemes have been set in place.

  • The Climate Change Levy; the Carbon Reduction Commitment; feed in tariffs, targets for wind energy, a carbon capture and storage obligation for coal fired power stations, and changes in the planning system to speed up replacement of our nuclear fleet.
  • In the pipeline are proposals for a carbon price floor, and an energy efficiency Green Deal.

It will no longer be simply larger energy users who are in the business of carbon reduction but every firm, large or small, and every household will be affected.

But there is an Inconvenient Truth, and it is not the same Inconvenient Truth of Al Gore’s film. The Real Inconvenient Truth is that this whole structure is built on shaky foundations.

One can analyse this agenda at three levels:

  • First, the basic science, i.e. the relationship between CO2 and temperature
  • Secondly, for any given rise in temperature the real world impact on sea levels, rainfall, drought etc
  • Thirdly, for any given picture of impacts, what are the appropriate policies?

The three tiers correspond to the three working groups in the IPCC structure.

What is described as a consensus is no such thing. There is a huge controversy at each level of the analysis. Let us look first at the science. The IPCC view has been characterized as an ice hockey stick. For the past thousand years, global temperatures are presented as fluctuating within a narrow range, possibly around a slight downward trend. But since the arrival of industrialization, the output of CO2 has risen sharply, producing the sharp rise in global temperatures, the so-called man-made or Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).

This has been challenged on a number of fronts:

  • Has the back history being correctly described? Many scientists believe that in the IPCC’s later reports the fluctuations in the past 1000 years have been wrongly flattened out, underplaying a Medieval Warming Period (1000 -1,350 AD), followed by a Little Ice Age (1350-1850), and the recovery from it over the last 150 years. This alternative view indicates that our climate has been variable long before the recent movements in CO2. Early reports from the IPCC acknowledged these fluctuations, But of course they are inconvenient to the AGW believers, one of whom e–mailed another saying “We must get rid of the Medieval Warming Period.”
  • Even the history of the last 150 year presents a lot of problems. Over this period the global temperature has risen by 0.7°C But unlike the rise in CO2 which has been pretty steady, there have been markedly different phases. Temperature rose rapidly from 1900–1940 when the CO2 increase was modest, followed by a small drop in temperature between 1940–70 despite the fact that CO2 growth was particularly strong at this time. Between 1970 and the late 1990s both CO2 and temperature increased strongly together, but over the past 12 years or so temperature has been on a plateau. If CO2 were as important as many AGW theorists claim, why has temperature not followed a steady upward path? Immediately it becomes obvious that one needs to bring other factors into the story, especially the sun and the way heat is stored in an distributed around the oceans. So it is very unclear what is the relative contribution of natural forces and what is AGW.
  • But principally one needs to look at climate sensitivity, by that I mean the coefficient between CO2 and temperature. No one questions that CO2 has greenhouse properties. A cubic metre of air with 550 ppm in it will retain more heat than one with 280ppm. But most scientists will admit that a doubling of CO2 alone will not produce the 3°C or more that is built into the IPCC models. The pure CO2 effect for a doubling in concentration is probably closer to 1°C. So where do the higher figures come from?
  • They come from what is assumed to happen to water vapour which is a much more prevalent and powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. A hotter atmosphere will hold more water vapour. But does this automatically mean that there will be a positive, ie amplifying, feedback effect? Not necessarily. Cloud does have an insulating property but it also has what is known as an albedo effect reflecting the sun back into space, which is why cloudy days are cooler. So the net effect could go either way.
  • The IPCC models have assumed but not proven a strongly positive feedback. But this is an area of science that is still poorly understood.

To summarise this part of the argument:

  • Global temperature has been rising since the early part of the 19th century, but at a much slower rate than is projected forward. There was a period of sharp rise from 1970 in the late 1990s but this is too short a period on which to base an extrapolation to the end of this century. In the opening decade of this century we have fallen way behind the asking rate to achieve a 3°C increase which is approximately four times the historic rate.
  • CO2 has been rising significantly only in the last 60 years while the rise in temperature has fluctuated

I can deal with Level 2 of the IPCC’s work very quickly. In my view this is where their work is at its shabbiest.

Lots of dramatic claims about sea levels, melting glaciers, ice, crop yields, extinction of species, especially polar bears. Much of this has been shown to have come from unpeer reviewed material, the so-called grey literature, and worse still some of it was even drawn from material supplied by green NGOs. There has been a consistent pattern of cherry picking, exaggeration, highlighting of extremes, and failure to acknowledge beneficial effects. By and large, humanity has prospered in the more warm periods. Plants grow faster and capture more CO2 in an atmosphere that is hotter, wetter and more CO2 rich. Cold causes more deaths than heat. The main cause of more storm damage has been that we have put more people and property in harm’s way. The fears about the spread of malaria are largely discredited.

Let me now turn to Level 3, policy.

  • The first problem is that policy has been based on a preponderantly warmist view of the world. Many such as the institution Civil Engineers think that too little attention has been paid to adaptation, i.e. being more resilient which ever way the sum of natural forces and CO2 takes us, up or down. This warmist view of the world may explain why we have been underprepared for cold winters, a phenomenon which is very readily explicable by the state of the 11 year solar cycle where sunspots are at an extreme low.
  • The major problem of UK policy is its unilateralism. Our Climate Change Act imposes legal duties, regardless of what ever else other countries do, or do not do. The UK, producing only 2% of world GDP, has minimal effect on the global warming outcome. If we push too hard on decarbonisation by raising the price of carbon through a range of instruments we will suffer double jeopardy. Energy using industries will migrate, and if the climate pessimists are right we will still have to pay to adapt, e.g. by raising our flood defences. In my view we should concentrate on those things which have a clear no regret benefit, and there are many, and advance into the rest of the agenda only as part of international action. There is furious row in the EU Commission on precisely this point. The Climate Action Commissioner wants to adopt the more ambitious 30 percent even in the absence of any agreement, while the Energy Commissioner is strongly opposed.

The logical economic approach is to rank policy responses according to the cost per tonne of CO2 abated and then work through the merit order, starting with the most effective. Or what amounts to the same thing, set a price on carbon and then let the various technologies – gas, coal with CCS, nuclear, wind, tidal, energy efficiency etc, fight it out for market share.

But the EU Renewables Obligation is the denial of this logic. One particular set of technologies, and in particular wind, has been given a guaranteed market share and a guaranteed indexed price, regardless of how competitive it is. The current pursuit of wind power is folly. Its cost per kwh substantially exceeds that of other low carbon sources such as nuclear when account is taken of intermittency and the cost of extending the grid far from where consumers are located. There is a constant confusion between installed capacity for wind and its actual output, which is about 25-30 percent of the former. There is also the problem that the coldest periods in the UK often coincide with low wind speeds.

There has been in this country, initially, a hostility to nuclear power and now at best a half-heartedness. The Secretary of State at DECC has called nuclear a tried, tested and failed technology. It may be that in the UK, historically, it has not been as successful as it might have been, but it has for 50 years provided around 20 percent of our electricity reliably, competitively and safely. Just 20 miles from our coast, France has produced over 2/3rds of its electricity from nuclear and regards this as a great success. Clearly, events in Japan are raising new questions about nuclear power. We cannot yet say whether there is a general lesson about current designs or whether the lesson is about 40 year old designs in seismically active areas.

The feed-in tariff mechanism is fast becoming a scandal. Those lucky enough to own buildings large enough on which to install solar panels, or enough land for a wind farm, have been receiving 30-40p per kwh which is retailed at only 11p. The loss is paid for by a levy on businesses and households. It is astonishing that the Liberals, who attach such importance to fairness, turn a blind eye to this transfer from poor to rich, running to £billions a year. If you live in a council tower block in Lambeth you don’t have much opportunity to get your nose into this trough.

There is a major new development which fits the description of a disruptive technology, that is the introduction of new drilling techniques which make it possible to extract gas from shale. This has dramatically widened the geographic availability of gas, has produced a massive upgrading of gas reserves and is decoupling gas prices from oil. Gas has the advantage that it produces about half the CO2 that coal produces. So we face a happy prospect that we can replace a lot of coal burning with gas, reduce energy prices, and make a big reduction in CO2 emissions, albeit not the complete decarbonisation sought by some. Certainly the opportunity cost of renewables has risen, and perhaps that of nuclear power too.

Another defence of the AGW agenda is the so-called green jobs argument, i.e. we should be in the vanguard of adopting green technologies so that we get first mover advantage as a supplier of these technologies.

My view is simple. If a technology can justify itself without massive subsidy we should build up our research and our skills. But if a technology exists only by virtue of subsidy, we only impoverish ourselves by trying to build jobs on such shaky foundations.

To summarise on policy:

We should concentrate on those measures which are no regret, which improve resource productivity, and which do not depress living standards. In my book these are stopping deforestation, raising the energy efficiency of our buildings and our vehicle fleet (though the effect of greater energy efficiency on CO2 reduction may be limited if consumption is sustained by lowering the effective price of energy), investment in nuclear power, an expansion of energy from waste and, if we are going to adopt CCS and the economics has yet to be established, it would be better to attach it to new gas-fired stations rather retrofitting old coal-fired stations.. It also means much less wind and solar, an end to current biofuels.

Let me conclude with a few remarks on the sociology and politics of the AGW phenomenon. First, there is the change in the nature of science. Great figures of the past such as Galileo and Darwin were not salaried professors, did not receive large research grants and were not showered with honours. They were driven by curiosity and were prepared to challenge the established order. Nowadays, our environmental scientists have jobs and research ratings to protect as well as celebrity and airmiles. There has been a shameful failure by the grandees of the Royal Society who should have been the guardians of scientific integrity, upholding its motto “Nullius in verba,” i.e. no one has the final word. Instead they have become campaigners, spouting nonsense that the science is settled, and failing to review rigorously the Climategate e-mails affair.

There are now plenty of vested interests in the green agenda, whether consultants, suppliers of green technology or those taking advantage of the economic opportunities. It is not just the traditional energy suppliers who have positions to defend.

Uncritical adoption of the green agenda by the Conservatives has helped them push the Blue is Green message as a way of escaping from the nasty party image.

There is a structural flaw in the IPCC. Far from being the distillation of the work of 2,500 scientists to produce a consensus, there is a core of 40-50 at its centre who are closely related, as colleagues, pupils, teachers, reviewers of each other’s work. They have managed to define a very simple AGW message and have sought to prevent alternative voices from being heard. The media have failed in their mission to challenge and have bought into the group think. It has been left to the blogosphere to provide a platform for different viewpoints.

Where does the religious moralising tone come from? It can be traced back to Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. Man was born into Eden in a state of grace, but has damaged his environment and now must repent and pay for his sins.

To conclude:

We need to acknowledge that there have always been fluctuations in out climate. Rather that writing natural forces out of the script we need to build them into the analysis.

We have witnessed a warming tend in the last 150 years, but this warming has not followed a steady upward path. We are currently on a plateau. CO2 has probably, ceteris paribus, made a small positive contribution.

Our understanding of the effects of water vapour is still limited and not enough to justify the weight that is put upon it.

We need a more eclectic approach and certainly a more modest one.

In the words of President Klaus of the Czech Republic.

“To reduce the interpretation of all kinds of climate change and of global warming to one variable, CO2, and to a small proportion of that one variable – human induced CO2- is impossible to accept.”

From our politicians we need more rationality, less emotion and less religiosity; and end to alarmist propaganda and to attempts to frighten us and our children. Also we want them to pay more attention to the national interest and less to being global evangelists.

Finally we need from our scientists more humility, and a return to the tradition of scientific curiosity and challenge. We need more openness and transparency and an end to attempts to freeze out dissenting voices. There should be more recognition of what they do not know. And acceptance of the Really Inconvenient Truth – that our understanding of the natural world does not justify the certainty in which the AGW views are expressed.

Andrew Turnbull,   March 2011

Lord Turnbull was Permanent Secretary, Environment Department,1994-98; Permanent Secretary to the Treasury 1998-2002, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service 2002-05. He is now a Crossbench member of the House of Lords and a member of the GWPF’s Board of Trustees.

Copyright © 2011 The GWPF. All Rights Reserved

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