The current furore about the leaked emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia will serve a long overdue notice on the politicians that the so-called science of climate change isn’t really that at all. What we have is essentially a very complex earth-atmosphere-sun-outer space system only fragments of which are understood in any scientific way.
It was a profound pity that Lord Stern, whom the government commissioned to write its chief advice report, is a statistician with no background even in those fragments which are understood and no obvious understanding of the bits of the system which need concentrated effort on them before any predictions should be broadcast.
In the present situation to expect to predict one variable set (temperatures of the surface of the earth at various points) for 50 or 100 years ahead without even an outline mechanism connecting this variable set quantitively to the principal variables in the rest of the system, is simply asking for trouble.
It is this outline mechanism which the critics of the predictions of the CRU, the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) would like to examine above everything else. In the absence of such a published mechanism, people are bound to conclude that these centres (and the International Climate Change Panel (ICCP) which largely depends on their predictions) are relying essentially on simply extrapolating the 0.8 centigrade temperature rise of the last 100 years and relating this to the most obvious change feature in the atmosphere of the last 100 years namely CO2 increase.
There is an exact parallel in this with the fate of the Met Office’s own weather model. This was sold to the government and the public in the wake of the great (unpredicted) storm of 1987 as the way to put computational physics and mathematics to work on the British weather so that at least we would have some warning of such catastrophes.
There is no doubt that 24-hour weather forecasting has improved of late. But this is due, not to sophisticated modelling, but to the much greater availability of satellite photography, which can track the fronts as they arrive in the vicinity of the British Isles. Actual model-based forecasts tend to disagree with each other for more than a few days ahead and are not currently used for weather forecasting.
So what is to be done? Here in Britain the issues are totally clear and not at all complex. With or without global warming we need to replace North Sea oil and gas with a new, comparably sized energy resource under our ownership and control. That can only be a massive programme of nuclear power over the next 40 years at around 2GW per year starting with the first new stations in 2018, the first practicable starting date. While not its prime objective, such a programme would on its own reduce our CO2 emissions by about 40%, more than all the other programmes put together.
Again, irrespective of global warming, we have had quite enough of river flooding and coastal erosion by the sea, exacerbated by the crank policies promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Natural England. We need a 20 year pogramme at about 2.5 billion a year on average to dredge and deepen the rivers which carry the main water flows to the sea, in some cases building new canals to assist this process along with a comprehensive programme of sea defences on the East Anglian coast. The increase in building and farming land values shared between the state and the landowners will mostly pay for this programme after the initial five years or so.
In parallel with these two strategic programmes for our own country we can continue research on the global climate system, but with the focus on teasing out the principal mechanisms involved. Not until these are straight, and supported by a set of independently verified submodels, should any attempt at climate prediction be sanctioned.