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The Spectator debate: A victory for reason?

  • 30 Mar 2011, 17:00
  • Robin

Debater Simon Singh.

Opinions in the audience for last night's well-attended Spectator debate titled 'The global warming concern is over: time for a return to sanity' seemed pretty set. As I went in, the steward commented that it's "all the young people who are against the motion," but the room at the Royal Geographical Society was dominated by an older crowd who appeared very much in favour, and it looked as though the speakers against the motion might be in for a rough ride.

Speaking for the motion were ex-Chancellor Lord Nigel Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser, both of the climate sceptic think-tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation, with Labour MP Graham Stringer. Opposing the motion were climate physicist Tim Palmer, ex-Chief Government Scientist David King and popular science writer Simon Singh. Each of the presenters was given nine minutes to present their case, before a short period of questions from the floor and a final vote. 

The framing of the debate was interesting. The speakers against the motion had successfully lobbied for "hysteria" to be replaced with "concern" in the title of the debate. But Lord Lawson argued that "neither half of the motion is strictly speaking about the science of man-made global warming". He stated that the first half of the motion is about the "alleged consequences" of global warming, and the second half, the policies to avoid those consequences.

In discussing the consequences of climate change, Lawson questioned the IPCC's contention that the negative impacts of climate change will outweigh the benefits. He argued that there has been no scientifically established causal link between rising temperatures and recorded extreme weather events, that "the recorded rise in temperature has been trivial - well under 1°C" and that "there has been no further recorded rise in global temperature so far in the first ten years of this century."

His colleague Benny Peiser quoted Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington in support of the GWPF's argument:

"I don't think it's healthy to dismiss proper scepticism. Science grows and improves in the light of criticism. There is a fundamental uncertainty about climate change prediction that can't be changed."

However, Peiser didn't mention the recent publication of a series of letters between John Beddington and Nigel Lawson in which Beddington accused Lawson of making "incorrect" and "misleading" claims about climate change.

On the other side of the table, both Tim Palmer and David King discussed the different lines of evidence showing that climate change is happening. Palmer pointed out that our understanding that rising CO2 levels will lead to a rise in temperature is based on basic laws of physics. There are uncertainties - and the science is always evolving - argued Palmer, but

"the risk of dangerous climate change is quite unequivocal"

Citing IPCC evidence showing that under "business as usual" projections there is a 90% likelihood of a 2°C rise in global temperatures by 2100, and with a risk of 4°C or 5°C of temperature rise by the end of the century, he asked the audience "do you feel lucky?"

Graham Stringer MP was critical of the three enquiries into the UEA email hack. Simon Singh, firmly establishing himself as "not an expert" on the science of climate change, examined the credibility of those who argue for and against climate change, an approach which did not find favour with all of the audience.

Overall the debate was lively, with frequent interruptions from the floor and even a threat that a member of the audience might have to removed from the hall. Most of the questions were hostile to those speaking against the motion, but a notable rejoinder to Nigel Lawson's statement that:

"there is no scientific basis whatever for the apocalyptic consequences of global warming with which our children and grandchildren are being terrorised"

…came from a ten-year old boy, who corrected Lawson -

"we don't get terrorised about it. We get taught about it but not enough to terrorise us."

In the end, the 'in favours' nominally won the day, but it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. At the start of the evening 423 of the audience of were in favour of the motion, 149 against and 101 undecided. At the end 428 were in favour, 214 against and 31 undecided. Roughly, the debate appears to have persuaded 5 people that 'the global warming concern is over', and 65 that it is not.

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