Lord Lawson, The Climate And The BBC: Who’s The Real Expert?
Climate policy is a matter of balancing political values and objectives – an issue on which Lord Lawson is indisputably one of the world’s leading authorities and about which the climate scientist knows absolutely nothing.
Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is now the head of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. So when global warming policy is debated, he has sometimes been invited to debate the issue on television and radio, often with climate scientists.
Last week it was revealed that the Radio 4 Today Programme has been rebuked over a particular exchange between Lord Lawson and Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London. In the exchange in question, Lord Lawson contended that nobody knows the extent of climate change and that 2013 was unusually quiet for tropical storms. The BBC’s Editorial Complaints unit accepted that it was not made sufficiently clear that Lord Lawson’s views on climate change are not accepted by the majority of climate scientists.
If the debate is about how many storms there were in a particular year, and Lord Lawson got his facts wrong, that is obviously a mistake on his part. But the affair points to a more general issue. Lord Lawson has no extensive scientific training or track record of peer-reviewed research into climate change science. So when he is invited on to debate climate change policy with some established mainstream climate scientist, is it genuinely a debate between peers, or is it a matter in which viewers and listeners should be clear that one of the debaters is a established expert with a long track record of productive work in the relevant area and the other is, at best, a semi-informed amateur?
I say the latter – it is not a debate between equals. Let’s see why.
A debate about climate change policy is a debate about what policies should be introduced to respond to the consequences or risks of human-induced climate change. What does that involve and which of the components of the discussion are matters on which Lord Lawson has any relevant knowledge or expertise, and which are those on which his climate scientist adversary is really the expert?
Well, first, we need insights into how humans have induced and/or will in the future induce climate change (absent any policy change or other human response – e.g. via market forces). The first part of that is an economic model. All models of human-induced climate change include, at their core, economic models – otherwise how would we forecast the human contribution without a model of how much output there will be, how much energy will be used in producing that output, and so on. Who, out of Lord Lawson, former Chancellor the Exchequer and before that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and before becoming an MP for many years an economics writer, and a climate scientist, do you suppose might have the more relevant expertise in the assessment of economic models or forecasts for the future of the economy? Maybe some climate modellers do in fact have knowledge of the relevant economic models, but many others will actually be experts in the physics of the atmosphere and related matters. Normally, Lord Lawson will have the advantage here.
Next, we need a model of how carbon emissions will affect the climate (absent any automatic equilibrating mechanisms of the earth responding to carbon emissions). On this the climate scientist will clearly have the advantage. But then again, Lord Lawson is most unlikely to disagree with the climate scientist about anything to do with this, since the science on this point is pretty much undisputed by anyone sensible (and certainly not disputed by Lord Lawson).
Third, we need a model of how the earth might respond to changes in CO2 or other greenhouse gases. This is a point on which the climate scientist will undoubtedly have more direct expertise than Lord Lawson. It is also the non-human aspect of the issue that climate science understands the least. For example, see this transcript of the American Physical Society climate change statement review workshop of January this year. The very limited increase in global surface temperatures over the past fifteen years now goes well beyond anything that could be written off as “noise” in climate change models – it simply wasn’t initially predicted. It obviously in no way follows that climate change is not real or not human-induced. But what does follow is that our models of how the earth responds to increased CO2 could be improved materially. Some researchers have been seeking to explain the current hiatus for a number of years, but the conclusion a number of perfectly respectable mainstream scientists draw is, as per the American Physical Society workshop transcript (p105): errors in current models “raise serious questions about the ability to simulate processes and feedbacks that are temperature dependent“. So, to be sure, the climate scientist will probably understand more about the detailed drawbacks of such models than Lord Lawson does, but it is a hotly debated topic (genuinely hotly debated, not 99pc vs 1pc) with each climate scientist having her own pet theory and no consensus at this time. Let’s score this one to the scientist.
Since government policy interventions only become an issue if market processes or other forms of natural ingenuity would not address climate change automatically, the next element we need is a view about how market processes and ingenuity might respond to climate change. That’s obviously again an economics question, on which Lord Lawson will be fairly expert and most climate scientists almost nowhere. [...]
So, overall, I agree. Given that how, if at all, we should respond to climate change is a matter of economics and political judgement, not (emphatically not) atmospheric physics (for nothing whatever follows from any climate change model about what policy should be adopted in response to its findings), I entirely agree that when Lord Lawson debates climate change policy with climate scientists there is only one person there with relevant expertise and the other party is, at best, a semi-informed amateur. The relevant expert is Lord Lawson.
The sooner people grasp that climate change policy is not a scientific question, the sooner our debate on this matter will become a whole lot more rational and balanced.