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A climate change of heart?

30 September 2010

The Royal Society has made its position clearer regarding the science of climate change with the publication, last week, of a revised short guide to the subject. The launch of this new publication follows a three-year long campaign by forty or so Fellows to establish a more balanced account of global warming and one that included a fuller account of the scientific uncertainties, as well as providing a vehicle for more enlightened debate.

The RS says the purpose of its latest guide is to summarise the evidence and to clarify the levels of confidence associated with the current scientific understanding of climate change, making clear what is well-known and established about the climate system, what is widely agreed (but with some debate about the details) and what is still not well understood.

John Pethica, vice-president of the Royal Society and chairman of the working group that wrote the document said that much of the public debate on climate change is polarised at present, which can make it difficult to get a good overview of the science. “This guide explains where the science is clear and established, and also where it is less certain,” he says. “It is not a simple guide, as this is not a simple issue.”

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which dubbed the Royal Society’s previous guide an ‘alarmist pamphlet’ welcomed the ‘revised and toned-down’ tenor of the new publication. The former publication, it says, gave the misleading impression that the 'science is settled', whereas the new guide accepts that important questions remain open and uncertainties unresolved. According to GWPF director, Benny Peiser, the Royal Society also now recognises the observation that the warming trend of the 1980s and 1990s has come to a halt in the last ten years. But there remain dissenting noises at the Foundation.

GWPR science editor, David Whitehouse, says the biggest failing of the new guide is that it dismisses temperature data prior to 1850 as limited and leaves it at that. “It would cast a whole new light on today's warming if the Medieval Warm Period, the Roman Warm Period and the Bronze Age Warm Period were as warm as today - possibly even warmer than today, “ he says. “A thorough discussion of the growing empirical evidence for the global existence of the Medieval Warm Period and its implications would have been a valuable addition to the new report.”

The previous guide’s call to politicians to act ‘as much and as fast as possible’ to cut CO2 emissions has now been replaced by what the GWPR declares is a more sober assessment of the scientific evidence and ongoing climate debates. But Dr Peiser believes this
volte-face may probably have cost Britain dear. “If this voice of moderation had been the Royal Society's position all along,” he says, “its message to government would have been more restrained and Britain's unilateral climate policy would not be out of sync with the rest of the world.”

The protestations of the forty Fellows aside, it is difficult to resist making some sort of connection with the release of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia towards the end of last year, which added an enormous amount of grist to the mill of the climate change sceptics, as well as provoking a global controversy that simply won’t go away.

Readers may well recall allegations by the media and others that senior climatologists at the CRU had manipulated results, flouted Freedom of Information laws and prevented critics from being published in the academic literature, dividing opinion among scientists, policy makers and the lay public around the world.

This imbroglio quite possibly softened attitudes toward previously branded climate change ‘heretics’, giving their scepticism a wider platform for debate. The Royal Society’s apparent watering down of its urgent climate change warnings sends a signal, right or wrong, that everybody, whether their views are extreme or carefully considered, now have the right to be heard without fear of ridicule.

Les Hunt

The Royal Society's guide on climate change is available for download here

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