Climate Change

Chief Scientific Adviser to DECC, David MacKay, wrote to Matt Ridley of the Telegraph in response to an article he had written challenging climate orthodoxy.  I was sent a copy of the letter by the office of Minister of State Greg Barker MP, and was moved to write to David MacKay in the following terms:

Mr. David MacKay,

Chief Scientific Advisor, DECC



Copies:      Office of Greg Barker MP, Minister of State

Mr. Matt Ridley

Dear Mr. MacKay,

Your letter to Matt Ridley

The Office of Minister of State Greg Barker MP was kind enough to share with me a copy of your fascinating and thoughtful letter of October 8th to Matt Ridley of the Daily Telegraph, in response to his article which I and others had drawn to the attention of the Minister.  I should perhaps add that I have read and very much enjoyed your book “Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air” — especially the very considered chapter on wind power.

I should like, if I may, to raise with you a couple of points.  You say with regard to “unprecedented warming”, “Yes, there is a precedent, but the precedent doesn’t make for comfortable reading”.  I suggest to you that there are many climatologists and paleo-geologists who would argue that the slight warming observed since the middle of the 19th Century exactly parallels the corresponding periods of natural warming before the Roman Optimum and the Mediæval Warm Period.

Indeed there has been a well-established cycle of between 1000 and 1500 years certainly throughout the current Interglacial, and indeed for perhaps a million years, which is sufficient to explain the current observed warming.  What we are seeing is entirely consistent with well-established, long-term natural climate cycles.  You need only go back to the Younger Dryas, around 12,000 years ago, to find natural climate change far more dramatic and rapid than anything we have experienced.

But one other key point struck me in your letter.  In the end, your view about anthropogenic global warming comes down to a rather arcane scientific debate that would probably not be understood by non-specialists — whether the admitted but slight warming effect of CO2 is subject to positive or negative feedbacks (or perhaps zero feedback).  You say that “a small number of climate scientists” believe that feed-back may be small or negative.  I have spent a number of years following the debate, and I suspect that there are many more such scientists than you appear to be suggesting, including some remarkably prominent ones.

Be that as it may, policymakers and our Coalition government are betting the ranch on one side of an obscure and highly technical debate which (with the greatest respect) I suspect that rather few of them understand.  The sums we propose to spend on “fighting climate change” are eye-watering, especially at a time of economic stringency.  They threaten to force millions of families into fuel poverty, while doing huge damage to the UK’s competitiveness.  And all because we have put all our chips on one side of a hotly-contested scientific issue.

You will also be aware that there are serious doubts as to whether any action we take will have any effect — even if you’ve bet on the right side.  These doubts fall into two areas: political and scientific.   First, will any significant part of the world support our efforts and join in?  All the signs are that Cancun will go the way of Copenhagen, that China and India will build many more coal-fired power stations and increase their emissions, and that our own painful sacrifices will count for nothing.

At another level (and assuming that AGW is valid), even if we start to reduce the rate of CO2 emissions, will it affect climate significantly?  There were widely quoted estimates that if Kyoto had been fully implemented (of course it wasn’t, and it doesn’t look like being replaced or extended), then the impact on mean global temperatures by 2100 would have been no more than 0.2 degrees C — almost too small to measure, and well within the range of natural and random variation. To summarise my case:

1   We may well not need to take any action at all.

2   Even if AGW is well-founded, our proposed actions will make little or no difference

3   Our policy prescriptions are ruinously expensive.

On point 3, it is worth reminding ourselves that although Stern concludes that the costs of inaction exceed the costs of mitigation, the Stern report is an outlier amongst serious economic reports, most of which reach a different conclusion.  Stern has been the subject of very credible, professional and damaging critiques, and you are probably as familiar with the report’s key failings as I am.

In this context, should we not look again at the recommendations of Lord Lawson, set out in his important book “An Appeal to Reason”?  Lord Lawson argues cogently that we should monitor the climate and the scientific debate (there has after all been no significant warming for a decade or more), and meantime focus on adaptation as and when required, rather than mitigation, which requires both a leap of faith, and massive and unaffordable up-front costs. I fear we are set to destroy our economy and our standing in the world for reasons that will soon look as dated as the Millennium Bug.

Yours sincerely,


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