Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/14/lord_turnbull_interview/

Former Civil Service chief calls for climate shakeup

What do our mandarins really think of global warming?

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 14th September 2010 10:15 GMT

Interview The former head of the civil service has called for a new approach from scientists and policy makers to restore waning trust in climate scientists. Speaking to The Register, Lord Andrew Turnbull, former cabinet secretary and head of the Home Civil Service between 2002 and 2005, says the University of East Anglia's internal enquiries into the Climategate affair were hasty and superficial, and called for Parliament to sponsor two wide-ranging investigations.

One study should examine the "ethos and governance" of climate science. The other should conduct "a fundamental review of the science itself". He thinks policy makers are getting skewed and self-centered advice.

Lord Turnbull

Was he speaking out because of the damage to Britain's academic reputation, or the implications for policy? Both, he told us.

"The so-called guardians have bought into a particular narrative. I'm not a skeptic, I can compare what my childhood was like, and I can see climate change going on," said Turnbull. Nor does he contest the radiative properties of CO2. But the hypothesis depends on positive feedbacks that are far from certain, and these haven't been explained to the public, with confidence wrongly assumed.

"We get fed a Janet and John version - a simplified story, and the world's politicians use this to persuade the world's electorates to take action, and action soon."

Now we're in the internet age, he thinks is untenable.

"This is backfiring because people are intelligent enough, and well-armed enough with information.

"The deference is no longer there. We don't live in that kind of world any more. People in the blogosphere don't have to accept these and other statements from the authorities, and they will challenge them. We have seen that they can challenge them quite effectively."

Trouble in Watermouth

Did he think the inadequacy of the Climategate enquiries would leave lasting damage to the British reputation?

"I see some damage to British academia, and lasting damage to the [University of East Anglia] Climatic Research Unit which is possibly terminal, really. I don't see how it can now recover.

"The Russell Report talks about the 'rough and tumble' of academic argument. But all this is publicly funded research programs. They're not arguing about whether Dickens is better than Jane Austen - their work goes to the basis of public policy."

Wouldn't academics resent the intrusion, and defend the principle of academic freedom?

"Does academic freedom include the freedom to stop other people being published at all?" he asks.

"There's an observation in Muir Russell's report that's very good, you can't fault it, and I'll quote it. The report points out that 'It is important to recognise that science progresses by substantive challenges based on rigorously logical, published arguments that present a different view of reality from that which they challenge'. This is absolutely correct.

"But then you get the CRU scientists saying the opposite. They were engaging in groupthink. And having set out the principles the enquiries haven't used them to make judgement about what they found."

Parliament probably doesn't have the resources to conduct the two studies by itself, Turnbull says, and staffing them with people who haven't bought into the 'Janet and John' version might be tricky - but not impossible.

"There are some people in the Royal Society who think it's gone too hard over onto the simplified consensus. There are climate changers who believe in the most sophisticated version and who are prepared to be more admitting of doubt - but they all fear they get branded as 'deniers'."

What do civil servants really think?

What about the civil service itself, we wondered. How deeply wedded is it to an increasingly unpopular position?

"It's almost totally embedded. Ministers don't get a range of views presented to them.

"The public is under pressure. If you take a family or small business, they're facing ten rather austere years. But they're also being asked to incur major costs and make significant changes to your lifestyle. So people ask 'do I really have to?'

"So three things happen. They begin to worry about the science. They see that the scientific consensus isn't as solid as they were led to believe. And they don't see other countries doing the same things - the prospects for another Kyoto are worse than ever.

"So if we decarbonise by 2050 there's a risk we'll suffer double jeopardy. We'll incur a cost to moving to higher-priced energy and others won't follow."

Turnbull adds that decarbonisation policies are now hugely unpopular with electorates, and led to the collapse of the Rudd government in Australia.

What's going to give, then? Not a lot, he thinks.

"Initially I would predict there won't be very much change in attitudes. The scepticism isn't there. Ministers and civil servants still believe what the scientists tell them.

"We'll still pay lip service to all these obligations but the urgency will fade. It will be like the [Minimum Development Goals] commitment to devote 0.7 per cent of GDP to overseas aid - it will rest there. We will just fall further behind the schedule. Then, eventually, there'll be the dawning that we're doing this when nobody else is."

Turnbull makes his call for new enquiries in the foreword to analysis of the Climategate enquires published today. The review of the two internal University enquires - Sir Muir Russell's Climate Change Emails Review and Lord Oxburgh's Scientific Assessment Panel was conducted for the Global Warming Policy Foundation think-tank by Andrew Montford, author of The Hockey-Stick Illusion. More from the Foundation website later today. ®