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Critiquing the PM's Chief Science Advisor

Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser & Climate Change

A critique by Hon Barry Brill, OBE, chairman, New Zealand Climate Science Coalition


In creating the position of Chief Science Adviser (CSA) in May 2009, the Prime Minister commented that “this role is one of vital importance that demands not only a high level of science expertise, but also the utmost integrity to fairly represent the state of science knowledge.”

There is no detailed job description, nor any body of precedent, to assist in defining the boundaries of the new position. However, it is clear enough that the role does not extend beyond “science” and that heavy reliance is placed upon the personal expertise of the incumbent.

It was therefore something of a surprise when a contentious article on “climate change” appeared on the website of the CSA within a few months. A world-renowned expert in medical research, Sir Peter Gluckman was not previously suspected of having any expertise in climatology or related fields. Indeed, the website states that the paper was written on the basis of some briefings and a literature review.

The appearance of this paper affords a useful opportunity for commentary on the responsibilities attached to the new position.

Independence

There is clearly little to be said for the Chief Science Adviser regurgitating opinions of other Government science advisers, particularly when he can bring neither expertise nor personal attributes to bear. If the Prime Minister should solicit the CSA’s “second opinion” on an issue outside the incumbent’s personal expertise, the most useful course would be to gather the arguments of those opposed to the official advice, and to then exercise a considered judgment.

The “support ministry” for the CSA is the Ministry of RS&T, whose relevant expertise resides with the climate section of NIWA, under Chief Scientist Dr David Wratt. We can be sure that it was Dr Wratt (New Zealand’s representative on the IPCC Bureau) and his people who provided Sir Peter with literature and assisted with the briefings.

But the website tells us that Sir Peter’s paper was then “peer reviewed” by the Chairman of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Climate Committee - none other than Dr Wratt of NIWA. Perhaps this tells us something significant about the incestuous nature of peer-review within the circles of climate change science.

Only one outsider’s input is mentioned: Rt Hon Simon Upton - a lawyer, environmentalist, politician and diplomat, but never a scientist.

Just 4 months earlier, John Key had stated: “Professor Gluckman will provide me with a direct line to advice when I need it. He will be an independent voice that will complement existing channels of advice such as government departments and the Royal Society.”

Regrettably, in this instance, Sir Peter failed to provide that independent and complementary voice. On the contrary, it appears that the sole purpose of this article was to allow NIWA to exploit a green (in the sense of being ‘outside the beltway’) but well-respected voice, to further reinforce an already well-trodden party line.


An Overview

The CSA website offers this description of the article - “This paper is intended to give interested parties an overview of the science related to climate change; it is not intended to be a comprehensive treatise on the subject”.

It is not obvious why such an “overview”, intended for the edification of the masses, should find a home on the website of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser. No explanation is offered.

The published Terms of Reference for the position clearly don’t include acting as a shill for NIWA’s brand of climate science. One clause provides that - “the Prime Minister may request the CSA to undertake a representational role” - but the website discloses no agency arrangement.

On the face of it, the web article is ultra vires the CSA role, and should probably be taken down.


The Prediction

As billed, the first page broadly introduces the multi-disciplinary scientific theory of anthropogenic global warming, in the standard IPCC mould. But the remaining pages then branch into opinions in futurology, economics, and politics which have very little to do with scientific expertise of any stripe.

The core of the article is the contention that the average of all global surface temperatures for the next 90 years is reasonably predictable; and that (all things being equal) this notional measure will rise by an amount between 1.8C and 4.0C during that period.

Is this science or astrology? The CSA quotes no specific source, but implies that the information came from the “scientific community”.

Perhaps this term was intended to be code for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. If so, it is mistaken on two counts. First, the Panel is a governmental, politically-directed organisation which conducts no scientific research, and concerns itself with much broader fields than those complexities of climatology which fall within the remit of NIWA (or the CSA).

Secondly, the IPCC makes no claim to any soothsaying ability. To quote New Zealander Dr Kevin Trenberth, an IPCC spokesman - “We do not attempt to predict the future. None of the models used by the IPCC are initialized to the observed state, and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate”.

However, it is well known that many climate models (and numerous customised calculators obtainable on the internet) are programmed with algorithms purporting to translate any given figure for future parts-per-million atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into a corresponding global temperature. In itself, this does not take matters very far, because the calculation of GHG emissions of future generations depends upon numerous yet-to-happen factors which are inherently unknowable.

In 1998, accepting that estimating future human behaviour was well outside the bounds of climate science, the IPCC harnessed a group of economists, statisticians, futurists, demographers, sociologists et al, to establish a picture of how the world might develop over the next century. This group eventually brought out a detailed book, the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) of 40 diverse story-lines, any of which might conceivably capture the emissions profile of the 21st century.

The CSA report proceeds on the basis that all this societal futurology is simply a branch of climate science, and therefore falls within the competence of NIWA – and within the vicarious expertise of Sir Peter. This is plainly not the case. The report says coyly that “science cannot provide absolutely precise predictions” about the future, whilst it ought to have confessed that climate scientists cannot predict the future at all.


The Scenarios
The SRES are divided into 4 families, imaginatively styled A1, B1, A2, and B2, and the consequent GHG emissions in year 2100 cover a huge range from 450ppm to 1250ppm. Obviously, a 300% margin of error, an unusual uncomfortable starting-point for policy-makers, would normally provoke a demand for further and better analysis. However, the IPCC authors insist that probability is not the issue and that all 4 groups should be treated as having equal weight.
It is undeniable that a considered analysis of this futurology by a New Zealand Government agency is long overdue - and ought to have been a prerequisite to such policies as the 2020 Emissions Targets and the ETS Amendment. Many expected this step to be the main task of the Select Committee reviewing the ETS during 2009.
Emissions growth is driven by four major global factors - population, economic output, energy intensity and fuel choice. These are matters for the Treasury to overview, perhaps calling for inputs from MED, MFAT and MAF, and probably consulting relevant specialists.

In 2005, the all-party Economics Select Committee of the UK House of Lords conducted a public enquiry into the IPCC Scenarios. Its unanimous report made some important findings:
• it is wrong to attach equal credibility to all scenarios
• the scenarios are not capturing recent experience in their short term projections
• there is an urgent need for a wholesale reappraisal of the emissions scenario exercise

In response, the IPCC commissioned a review by the same Austrian consulting firm as had written the original SRES. No changes were made.

In no circumstances, could Sir Peter plausibly regard the demographic and economic issues driving future emissions, as being properly within the purview and expertise of either NIWA or the CSA. Quite simply, scientists can’t be much help.

References to predicted future temperatures should be excised, if this article is to remain online.


Two Degrees of Warming

The purpose of the CSA paper is a call to action based on the premise that “we cannot gamble the future of the whole planet on the low probability” that the average global surface temperature will remain below 2C by the year 2100.

The somewhat breathless reference to “the future of the whole planet” seems rather unscientific when the stated threats are “flooding of low-lying areas, new patterns of infectious disease, and reductions in the capacity of many parts of the world to support agriculture”. All references to the benefits of warming are conspicuously absent, as is any discussion of adaptation. Given time, humans have proved remarkably adaptive in the past to ranges of average temperatures as far apart as 5C (Helsinki) and 27C (Singapore).

But the central issue is “low probability” - which judgment rests entirely on the statement “the mid-point of the IPCC estimates is a global temperature increase of about 3.3°C...”

Almost everybody now knows that the IPCC mid-point is wrong.

The A2 SRES group assumes that world population will grow to 15 billion, and rising, by the end of the century. Since this scenario was constructed, in 1999, a number of other UN agencies have contracted specialist demographic studies which agree that we are heading for a global peak of 9 billion around 2050, reducing to 7 billion by 2100.

The B2 family is not quite so extreme, but relies on world population of 10.5 billion by 2100 - 50% above the current official estimates. So this group can probably be put aside as well.

Both A1 and B1 have reasonable population estimates, but A1 assumes faster economic growth, greater convergence between rich and poor countries, lower technology take-up and higher emissions intensity.

Which of these should be preferred? Well, the House of Lords Select Committee had some clear findings:
• “the high emissions scenarios contained some questionable assumptions and outcomes.
• the Treasury believes average global growth of 3%pa over the next 100 years is unlikely.
• the assumptions made by IPCC about the rate of convergence in per capita incomes, should embody less optimistic assumptions”.

So it seems clear that A1 is not high probability.

Other unlikely assumptions are that there will be no constraint on the availability of any fossil fuels during the next 100 years, and real oil prices will remain steady at 1999 levels; average energy intensity will not improve and there will be no relevant technological change during the century. None of these are supported by studies published by the International Energy Agency, or by the oil & gas industry - whose oil usage estimates through the 21st century are about half those of the SRES mid-point

Within the actual purview of science, is the projection that atmospheric methane would increase sharply year-on-year - whereas the concentration has barely changed over the past decade.

B1 is the only family of Scenarios which might pass a probability test in 2010, and the “most likely” 2100 temperature from this group is 1.8C. As this falls within the range declared acceptable in the Copenhagen Accord, no further action is necessary.

Insofar as the Chief Science Adviser felt it necessary to forecast temperatures based on future global emission levels, he ought to have sought appropriate expert advice. Obviously, his publications would carry greater credibility if they were confined to issues of science.


The Politics

About one-third of Sir Peter’s article deals with policy responses which might or should be adopted in consequence of his “scientific” prediction of 21st century happenings. Domestic and international political considerations are canvassed as are economics, ethics, and foreign policy.

On all these non-scientific matters there is, of course, ample scope for differences of opinion, and readers have scant reason to assume that the CSA has insights which are denied to others. I will confine comment to just this example:

“... we think it prudent to insure our houses and wear seat belts in our cars not because we plan to have a fire or a crash, but rather because we are weighing the cost of the insurance premium or the minor inconvenience of putting on the seat belt against the significant risk of damage to our finances or ourselves if those events were to happen. It is the same with climate change....”

In these cases, we are able to rationally weigh a known cost against a known degree of mitigation of a known level of present risk. With possible future climate risks, where everything is unknown, what should be “weighed” against what? On any rough actuarial basis, the annual premiums seem to exceed the total 90-year cover. Perhaps the risks for future generations might be comparable to those covered by Earthquake & War Damage insurance - but the CSA report makes no attempt to quantify any of the elements required for sensible decision-making.

The Consensus

The article bulges with references to matters which the CSA apparently believes would muster majority support if put to a show of hands.

“The vast majority of the world’s climate scientists consider it likely that the current warming trend is of human origin”, he opines. “In general, there is a high degree of agreement among scientists about the ... probable path ahead for our planet and .. the expected future directions of change”. He makes several references to a (presumably homogeneous) “scientific community”.

Everybody knows there is a statistical science involved in the conduct of opinion surveys, but the impression given here is that the CSA may have preferred anecdote and hearsay. No questionnaires or sample sizes are cited, no shades of opinion or confidence levels or margins of error. No effort to ensure his sample is representative. With reluctance, I conclude that the science guru’s guesstimates are .. well ..unscientific.

The universe to be surveyed is also contentious. The article points out that “understanding the complexity of climate science requires the involvement of many scientific disciplines”. So any poll should doubtless include physicists, chemists, oceanographers, meteorologists, geologists, paleontologists, atmospheric analysts, biologists, climatologists (a new category), computer modellers and statisticians. But other disciplines were also involved in writing or reviewing aspects of the IPCC reports, including the ‘soft’ social sciences, and so the universe cannot readily be defined by any list of qualifying doctorates.

The argument for a broad church approach gains eloquent support from the very fact that Sir Peter himself feels competent to offer a formal written opinion on important aspects of climate change. I have no trouble accepting that his training as a paediatrician and many years of conducting medical research are adequate background for assessing the merits of any fully-documented scientific hypothesis. Other seasoned scientists would undoubtedly feel the same way, if they have taken the trouble to read widely on the subject.

The article turns to those who did not raise their hands in assent - “scientists who dispute the generally held conclusions” - but now adds the caveat that “few of these are active climate researchers”. Surprise. The numerous climate researchers who dispute the IPCC dogma may not all be “active” because they cannot obtain Government grants, or because their papers are banned from publication in most journals. What he does not say is that almost all “active climate researchers” are on the public payroll, and therefore constrained in their public utterances (cf Dr James Salinger).

Sir Peter then stoops to the term “denialism” - although he surely knows that this epithet has no place in respectable science.

There is something familiar about all this focus on consensus - on who should be heard, how many votes are required, and finding names for dissenters. It is everyday POLITICS.

Science is a very different pursuit, and depends upon observation, logic and formal proofs. As in other fields, one would expect to find reference to at least one seminal research paper which finally carries the endless argument - one which deals with the “fingerprints”, and pulls together the various strands of evidence proving that humankind is guilty as charged.

Albert Einstein said that the opinions of hundreds of scientists didn't matter, and his theory would have to be discarded if just one person could show that he was wrong. The great Sir Karl Popper, once of Canterbury University, held that an assertion could not be science unless it is capable of being falsified or refuted by experimentation.


Conclusion

There is no yardstick for the way the Chief Science Adviser should operate, and Sir Peter is effectively in the position of inventing the role. But if it is his intention that the office should be seen as technical rather than political, then the precedent created by the Climate Change paper will set back that objective for many years.

As an eminent medical researcher, Sir Peter is aware of all these things. Although it is unfortunate that this deeply unscientific paper should mark his early months in office, his mis-step could yet have a silver lining. He should remove it and lay down clear standards for any future document published in the name of the Chief Science Adviser. At the forefront of those standards should be a requirement that the best traditions of science are maintained and that all politics are strictly eschewed.

"The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us achieve new ideas. But he does think that, in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well
aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgment of it."
Karl Popper, 1999 All Life is Problem Solving

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