The Spectator debate: A victory for reason?
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
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
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
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
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
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