BBC Radio 4: Lawson Vs Hoskins On Flooding & Climate Change

  • Date: 13/02/14
  • BBC Radio 4

BBC Today Programme: Sir Brian Hoskins, a member of the Committee on Climate Change, and Lord Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and founding chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, discuss the extent to which man-made climate change is a factor in the recent extreme weather.

Audio: Is climate change a factor in the recent extreme weather?

Justin Webb, BBC: Is there a link, Sir Brian, between the rain we have seen falling in recent days and global warming?

Sir Brian Hoskins: There’s no simple link – we can’t say yes or no this is climate change. However, there’s a number of reasons to think that such events are now more likely. One of those is that a warmer atmosphere that we have can contain more water vapour and so a storm can bring that water vapour out of the atmosphere and we’re seeing more heavy rainfall events around the world. We’ve certainly seen those here.

Justin Webb: So it’s the heavy rainfall; it’s the severity of the event that points us in this direction?

Sir Brian Hoskins: Well, in this event we’ve had severe rainfall but we’ve also had persistence, and that’s where I say we just don’t know whether the persistence of this event is due to climate change or not. Another aspect is sea level rise – the sea level has risen about 20cm over the 20th Century and is continuing to rise as the system warms, and that, of course, makes damage in the coastal region that much greater when we get some event there.

Justin Webb: But can a reasonable person – possessed of the evidence as it is known to us at the moment – say look at the rain we’ve had recently and say “I do not believe that the evidence exists that links that rain to global warming?”

Sir Brian Hoskins: I think the reasonable person should look at this event – they should look at extremes around the world: the general rise in temperature that’s well recorded, the reduction in Arctic sea ice, the rise in sea level, the number of extreme rainfall events around the world, the number of extreme events that we’ve had – we’ve had persistent droughts, we’ve had floods, we’ve had cold spells and very warm spells. The number of records being broken is just that much greater.

Justin Webb: Lord Lawson, it’s joining the dots isn’t it?

Lord Lawson: No, I think that Sir Brian is right on a number of points. He’s right, first of all, that nobody knows. Certainly it is not the case, of course, that this rainfall is due to global warming – the question is whether global warming has marginally exacerbated it. Nobody knows that. He’s right too to say that you have to look at the global picture, and contrary to what he may have implied, people have done studies to show that globally there has been no increase in extreme weather events. For example, tropical storms – perhaps the most dramatic form of weather event – the past year has been unusually quiet year for tropical storms. And again going back to the “nobody knows,” only a couple of months ago the Met Office were forecasting that this would be an unusually dry winter.

Justin Webb: Do you accept that, Sir Brian, just on that important point about the global picture  – do you accept that we haven’t seen the extreme conditions that we might have expected?

Sir Brian Hoskins: I think we have seen these heavy rainfall events around the world. We’ve seen a number of places breaking records – Australia with the temperatures going to new levels.

Justin Webb: The trouble is we report those, and we’re interested in them, but there is an effect that is possibly an obfuscatory effect on the real picture, and you accept that that might be the case?

Sir Brian Hoskins: Absolutely, and we have to be very careful to not say “oh there’s records everywhere therefore climate is changing.” But we are very sure that the temperature has risen by about 0.8 degrees, the arctic sea ice has reached a minimum level in the summer which hasn’t been seen for a very, very long time, the Greenland ice sheet and the west Antarctic ice sheet have been measured to be decreasing. There are all the signs that we are changing this climate system. Now as we do this – as the system warms – it doesn’t just warm uniformly, the temperature changes by different amounts in different regions. That means that the weather that feeds off those temperature contrasts is changing and will change. It’s not just a smooth change – it’s a change in the weather. It’s a change in the regional climate we can expect.

Justin Webb: Lord Lawson?

Lord Lawson: I think we want to focus not on this extremely speculative and uncertain area – I don’t blame the climate scientists for not knowing. Climate and weather is quite extraordinarily complex and this is a very new form of science. All I blame them for is pretending they know when they don’t. Anyhow, what we ought to focus on is what we’re going to do. I think this is a wake-up call. We need to abandon this crazy and costly policy of spending untold millions on littering the countryside with useless wind turbines and solar panels, and moving from a sensible energy policy of having cheap and reliable forms of energy to a policy of having unreliable and costly energy. Give up that. What we want to focus on – it’s very important – is making sure this country is really resilient and robust to whatever nature throws at us, whether there’s a climate element or not. Flood defences, sea defences – that’s what we want to focus on.

Justin Webb: Can I just put this to you? If there is a chance – and some people would say there is a strong chance that man-made global warming exists and is having an impact on us; doesn’t it make sense whether or not you believe that’s a 95% chance or a 50% chance or whatever, does it not make sense to take care to try to avoid the kind of emissions that may be contributing to it? What could be wrong with that?

Lord Lawson: Everything. First of all, even if there is warming – and there’s been no recorded warming over the past 15, 16, 17 years.

Justin Webb: Well, there is a lot of controversy about that.

Lord Lawson: No there’s not, that’s a fact. That is accepted even by the IPCC.

Justin Webb: There’s no measured warming.

Lord Lawson: Can I continue my sentence?

Justin Webb: Well alright, we’ll get back to that.

Lord Lawson: No measured warming, exactly. Well that measurement is not unimportant. But even if there is some problem, it is not going to affect any of the dangers except marginally. What we want to do is focus with the problems there are with climate – drought, floods and so on. These have happened in the past – they’re not new. As for emissions, this country is responsible for less than 2% of global emissions. Even if we cut our emissions to 0 – which would put us back to the pre-industrial revolution and the poverty that that gave – even if we did that, it would be outweighed by China’s increase in emissions in a single year. So it is absolutely crazy this policy. It cannot make sense at all.

Justin Webb: Sir Brian?

Sir Brian Hoskins: I think we have to learn two lessons from this. The first one is that by increasing the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide, to levels not seen for millions of years on this planet, we are performing a very risky experiment. We’re pretty confident that that means if we go on like we are the temperatures are going to rise somewhere between 3-5 degrees by the end of this Century, sea levels up to half to 1 metre rise.

Justin Webb: Lord Lawson was saying there that there had been a pause – which you hear a lot about – a pause of 10 / 15 years in measured rising of temperature. That is the case isn’t it?

Sir Brian Hoskins: It hasn’t risen very much over the last 10-15 years. If you measure the climate from the globally averaged surface temperature, during that time the excess energy has still been absorbed by the climate system and is being absorbed by the oceans.

Justin Webb: So it’s there somewhere?

Sir Brian Hoskins: Oh yes, it’s there in the oceans.

Lord Lawson: That is pure speculation.

Sir Brian Hoskins: No, it’s a measurement.

Lord Lawson: No, it’s not. It’s speculation.

Justin Webb: Well, it’s a combination of the two isn’t it? As this whole discussion is…. Lord Lawson and Sir Brian Hoskins, thank you very much.