Ed Davey: vested interest & nimbyism drives climate contrarians

Speech by UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Edward Davey at the Met Office Climate Services event at the Institute of Physics, London.

It’s a great pleasure to be here today supporting the work of the Met Office and your partners.

In a previous guise in the Business Department, I had Ministerial responsibility for the Met Office.

I’m proud of that association. And Britain should be proud of its Met Office and our national excellence in weather and climate science.

If there is one thing we Brits know about, it’s weather. So it’s unsurprising that we created a weather forecasting service that is the envy of the world.

World class scientists doing world class work across the gamut of climate science.

With the backing it receives from Government and in collaboration with the academic community, including people represented here, the Met Office Hadley Centre is a key component of the UK’s national climate capability.

And this is a resource not just for Britain, but as we have heard about today, a resource for other countries too.

I applaud this initiative, the Met Office working alongside the Natural Environment Research Council and the Environment Agency, to build the Climate Service UK based on your record together of delivering climate data, science research and sound, evidence-based advice.

The Climate Service UK will, I’m sure, become an essential framework for advising on the risks and opportunities of a changing climate at home and abroad.

Climate Change

Here at home, yesterday, we marked a milestone in our modern history. The 60th anniversary of the coronation Queen Elizabeth II.

Much has changed during her reign – not just in Britain, but across the globe. There are more of us.

The population of Britain has increased by around a third. In that same time, the global population has close to trebled to over 7 billion people.

Inevitably, as a planet we consume more.  Britain’s own energy use has increased by around 40% since the 1950s.

But global energy use is rising more quickly – doubling in the last 30 years alone. And, as we have heard from the scientists here today, our climate has been changing – and is continuing to change.

Since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, average global surface temperature has risen by around ½ a degree Celsius.

All these changes are connected.

The rise in population accompanied by increasing development has fuelled a rise in energy consumption – the vast majority of it supplied by fossil fuels – which has meant more carbon in the atmosphere – which has meant a warmer planet.

The facts don’t lie, the physics is proven. Climate change is real and it is happening now.

That’s what I want to talk about today – the science of climate change and the action we need to take limit it to manageable proportions. So let me start with the science.

Scientific consensus

We reached another milestone this spring.

Carbon dioxide briefly reached 400 parts per million in the atmosphere – 40% higher than before the industrial revolution and most likely higher than at any point in the last 3 million years.

The physics is clear: greenhouse gas emissions trapped in the atmosphere have direct consequences: increasing temperatures; less ice and snow; sea levels rising; more risk of extreme weather to name but a few.

Forecasts of the rate at which the world will warm in the future may differ – but all the traffic is in one direction.

The decade between 2000 and 2010 was the warmest in the global temperature record – warmer than the 90s, which was warmer than the 80s, which was warmer than the 70s.

And if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the rate we are now, this will continue and will get worse.

On emissions, I agree with what Oxford’s Professor Myles Allan wrote last week in the Mail on Sunday:

“As almost everyone agrees, they still have to come down.” And how do we know all this to be true?

To coin a phrase, “it’s the science, stupid.” It’s what the evidence tells us.

As an example, a recent survey of over 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers provides a startling picture of the consensus that exists in our scientific community.

97% of the climate experts who expressed an opinion agree that human activity is driving global warming.

Just 3% question man’s contribution. 3%. Let me quantify that for you. If this was a general election vote, 97% of the vote would generate 630 MPs, the 3% just 20. Under a system of proportional representation of course.

Surveys like this are, of course, indicative rather than definitive, but when, as a policy maker, I am confronted with the evidence supported by such an overwhelming scientific consensus, I am clear, I am with the 97%.

And it frustrates me that there remains the need to confront those who loudly deny the basic proposition and seek to turn the public against the action required to meet the challenge.

Destructive scepticism

Of course there will always be uncertainties within climate science and the need for research to continue.

The world’s climate is one of the most complex and chaotic natural systems. Forecasting and modelling will never be 100% perfect.

There will be divergences between modelling systems, re-appraisals of evidence or adjusted projections.

Healthy scepticism is part of that process. We make progress by building on what we know, and questioning what we don’t.

But some sections of the press are giving an uncritical campaigning platform to individuals and lobby groups who reject outright the fact that climate change is a result of human activity.

Some who even deny the reality of climate change itself. This is not the serious science of challenging, checking and probing.

This is destructive and loudly clamouring scepticism born of vested interest, nimbyism, publicity seeking contraversialism or sheer blinkered, dogmatic, political bloody-mindedness.

This tendency will seize upon the normal expression of scientific uncertainty and portray it as proof that all climate change policy is all hopelessly misguided – from pursuing renewable energy to emissions targets themselves.

By selectively misreading the evidence, they seek to suggest that climate change has stopped so we can all relax and burn all the dirty fuel we want without a care.

This is a superficially seductive message, but it is absolutely wrong and really quite dangerous.

Take the issue that the Head of the Hadley Centre, Prof. Stephen Belcher addressed in his talk: the smaller than expected rise in average global surface temperature in the last decade.

As has been explained today, this pause in surface temperature is a false summit.

We have seen this before in the recent past, periods with little warming after which global temperatures have continued to rise.

The early 20th century and a period around the 1950s for example.  These are consistent with climate models which show similar plateaus.

Nothing in the basic physics of climate change has altered. And surface temperature is but one indicator among many.

As a whole, the Earth continues to heat up. The seas have continued to warm and sea levels to rise.Arctic ice continues its long-term decline.

We have continued to see record-breaking weather events around the globe, and while each instance cannot be accurately attributed to climate change, we see the pattern and it should be a warning to us all what is at risk.

So climate change is most definitively not in reverse. Unless we do something about it, the world is going to continue to get warmer and warmer – and the consequences for future generations will be severe.

The science tells us we cannot afford to relax, let up or wait for a miracle.

Those who argue against all the actions we are taking to reduce emissions, without any serious and viable alternative, are asking us to take massive gamble with the planet our children will inherit, in the face of all the evidence, against overwhelming odds.

No Government worth its salt would take that gamble. And no political party worth voting for would make that argument. So let me turn to how, politically and practically, this Government is getting on with bringing emissions down

Reducing emissions

The goal has to be led by the science too. Our main challenge is to agree international actions that will reduce emissions enough to avoid really dangerous climate change, keeping global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

This is the level at which it is widely accepted that society can adapt to climate change. Not without significant challenge and change, but manageable.

And to meet this scenario, we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050, with greater cuts for the developed world, where per capita emissions are highest.

Every year we delay, the harder the target will be to reach, and the more severe the action required.

That is why the deadline of 2015 for a global deal for binding emissions reductions is really make or break. Everything that we do between now and then has to be geared towards achieving success.

Let me set out how the UK is determined to make this happen by taking action at home, in Europe and on the global stage.

UK leading by example

Here in Britain, building on the groundbreaking Climate Change Act of 2008 enacted under the previous Government, we are now acting to meet the domestic emissions targets we have set ourselves.

The Carbon Plan sets out how we will achieve an 80% reduction by 2050. Progressively decarbonising our energy sector, our transport, our economy. Become much more energy efficient.

Encouraging the development of a diverse mix of low-carbon technologies, and lower-carbon fuels like gas, to meet our goals.

And this diversity is key. We need to tap into all the viable low-carbon technology available and help to drive its commercial viability.

We cannot afford to turn our back on a technology that can contribute to the overall goal of emissions reduction – nuclear for instance or carbon capture and storage or on-shore wind.

None of these alone represent a single silver bullet, we need them all to contribute.

There is strength in a diversity of low-carbon platforms – including the flexibility to veer towards technologies as they mature and become more efficient and cost effective.

Putting all our eggs in one basket now, relying on a single immature technology such as carbon capture and storage for example, would be extremely dangerous – another huge gamble I’m not prepared to take.

And we would be utterly foolish to reject the development and use of lower-carbon fossil fuels such as gas to replace dirtier ones such as coal as a staging post on the way – particularly if this drives down emissions while other technologies mature.

The Energy Bill going through parliament at the moment is a key part of our domestic response – enabling low carbon technologies to compete in the electricity market and attract investment.

The Green Deal is designed to create a similar boom market in energy efficiency too. This approach is win, win, win.

Win for the climate change policy as we reduce carbon emissions and transition to a lower-carbon economy.

Win for energy security and consumers as we diversify the energy mix and progressively wean ourselves off the volatile global fossil fuel market.

And win for the economy – for growth, jobs, research and development, as we unleash £110bn of private sector investment to modernise energy infrastructure.

UK leading through Europe

It is not only setting an example at home, we are leading through Europe too:

Building the necessary alliances to push through a substantive structural reform for the EU Emissions Trading Scheme which is a key mechanism in helping us to meet our climate change goals.

And making the case for an ambitious EU emissions reductions target for 2030.

By being a strong voice for emissions reduction in Europe, the UK is shaping the global debate in the run up to 2015.

Under the UN climate negotiations Framework, the UK negotiates as part of the EU, providing us with greater credibility and weight when it comes to dealing with the super-economies of China, India and the US.

Together we represent 504 million people and 25% of the world’s GDP (compared with 63 million people and 3% of the world’s GDP as the UK alone).

The EU has a real opportunity to be the driving force behind a new global deal that will see international action complementing the UK’s domestic action.

That is why the UK is arguing for Europe to adopt an ambitious emissions reduction target for 2030 of 50% on 1990 levels as part of Europe’s approach to the getting a global deal in 2015.

And even if such a global deal doesn’t come about, the EU should aim for a unilateral 40% reduction.

These targets are achievable, affordable and necessary if we are to limit climate change to manageable proportions.

Countries should be free to pick the mix of technologies to decarbonise their energy that suits their circumstances and are most likely to succeed for them: from energy efficiency to new nuclear; from carbon capture and storage to renewable heat.

Above all, we must keep our eyes on the prize: a binding global deal to reduce carbon emissions and limit climate change to manageable levels.

Without the EU adopting an ambitious approach, a global deal will be virtually impossible.

That is why the ambitious emissions target for the EU that we are arguing for is so important.


Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude today by referring back to where I began – with anniversaries.

There is another 60th anniversary we celebrated last month – that of the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Since then – as climbing technology has improved, gear has got lighter, and safer routes mapped – over 3,000 climbers have made it to the top, including the first octogenarian who summited a fortnight ago.

This just underlines the determination of the human spirit – and the progress of human ingenuity.

But those who scale today find an Everest that is changing rapidly. It is not just the detritus of the constant human traffic.

As new study has found that with rising temperatures on the mountain, the snowline has shifted upwards by some 180 metres over the last half century.

These are weathervane events that should spur us to act. When it comes to tackling climate change, as a global community, we have made it to base camp. Science has given us an understanding of the scale of the problem we face.

And is providing us with the tools to tackle it. Now we need to find the will to make the climb. To harnessing all the ingenuity we can muster. To tap that determination of the human spirit.

To build the low-carbon societies that we will need to survive through the next century and beyond. The next few years will be definitive in the fight against climate change.

I am determined that together we grasp this opportunity. Governments, scientists, campaigners, businesses, journalists, the whole of society.

The 97% working together to meet our collective responsibility to pass on to future generations a planet that can sustain them.

This speech was first posted on the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change website

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