We need facts, not spin, in the climate debate

Telegraph View: the case that global warming is man-made needs to be constantly tested and credible

Telegraph.co.uk 31 January 2010

The question of what, if anything, to do about global warming is one of the most important that humanity faces. Most people believe that the Earth is becoming warmer – but there are significant disagreements over the speed and extent of the process, the danger it poses, and its precise causes. The Government is convinced that the debate is over, won by the scientists who insist that climate change is the result of the carbon dioxide generated by human activity. It has now embarked on the project of "decarbonising" the economy; since carbon-based energy provides most of our electricity and powers nearly all of our transportation, this is a colossal, and colossally expensive, task.

We need, therefore, to be very sure that our policy is based on an accurate diagnosis. But such certainty has become much harder to come by in recent weeks. A paper to be published in the journal Science by a team of researchers from America's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that changes in the amount of water vapour high in the Earth's atmosphere may affect the extent to which the planet heats up or cools down to a much greater extent than previously thought. That, of course, is something which those who doubt that man-made activity is responsible for global warming have long maintained. And other developments have struck not just at the data but at the trustworthiness of those presenting it. Our columnist Christopher Booker, among others, has highlighted that extent to which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose objectivity and neutrality most people thought could be taken for granted, has been caught acting like a pressure group. Not only did it insert into its latest report the claim that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 – which has now been acknowledged to have no basis in fact – but, as we report today, it appears to have recycled observations on the dwindling levels of ice on mountains around the world from a climbing magazine and a student dissertation.

In its zeal to persuade the world of the catastrophic consequences of man-made global warming, the IPCC has lost both its objectivity and the trust of the public. That is one of the main reasons why we, along with our sister newspaper The Daily Telegraph, believe that Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC's chairman, should step down. This issue is far too important for there to be a scintilla of doubt about the reliability of the reports and raw data on which policy must be based. While Dr Pachauri remains in post, those doubts will remain.

As with every other scientific theory, the case that global warming is man-made needs to be constantly tested. Mr Booker and others have been enormously energetic in pointing out the weaknesses and uncertainties in the argument. Are the doubts enough to mean that the Government is proceeding from a false premise? There is no doubt that there needs to be a continued and vigorous debate on this topic – although there are, of course, additional reasons for decreasing our dependence on carbon, such as the need for energy security, the desirability of adopting more energy-efficient (and therefore cheaper) technologies, and the role of CO2 in the acidification of the oceans. Ministers' insistence that those who question their presumptions are irrational and dogmatic does nothing to help bring about the consensus that is so sorely needed.