Transcript - Newsnight discusses the Arctic, with Peter Lilley MP and Natalie Bennett

  • 12 Sep 2012, 10:30
  • Freya Roberts

The following is a transcription of a feature on Arctic sea ice from the BBC2 program Newsnight on the 5th September 2012.

The people referred to by their surnames are as follows: 

Jeremy Paxman: Presenter
Susan Watts: Science Editor
Adam Scaife: Met Office representative
Prof. Peter Wadhams: Scientist at Cambridge University
Peter Lilley: Conservative MP
Natalie Bennett: Green Party Leader 


Program introduction

Paxman: "Also tonight: newsnight uncovers new evidence suggesting melting Arctic ice will have a dramatic effect on our climate. Is now the time to kick back, relax and learn to love cloudy Augusts?"

(cuts to video clip of scientist in the Arctic)

Wadhams: "The summer area of ice has already gone down from eight to four million square kilometres, and as it collapses we'll lose another four million. Now four million is about one per cent of the surface area of the earth."

(back to the studio)

Paxman: "The new leader of the green party and a prominent climate change skeptic are both here."


Arctic feature

(begins at 35 minutes and 19 seconds)

Paxman: "It's life Jim, but not as we know it - as Dr Spock never said. The latest evidence of what's already happened to the Arctic suggests that it may already be too late to do much about climate change, we're just going to have to adapt big time. It's more than this year's awful summer because scientists have told newsnight that the disappearance of arctic ice is effectively doubling mankind's contribution to global warming, which rather raises the question of why we should bother not driving to the shops anymore. We'll be discussing that with Peter Lilley, who's written a new report which can be summarised as 'don't panic' and the new leader of the Green Party, but first over to Susan Watts."

Watts: "So Jeremy we've known for some time that the Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate, but new figures that we've been given suggest that the impact of that melt is effectively doubling mankind's contribution to climate change. Now when we first saw these beautiful first shots of earth from space courtesy of the Apollo astronauts (refers to NASA image), it triggered the green movement. But 30 years since satellites started observing the Arctic in detail, that view has changed. This is what the Arctic looked like in the summer of 1979. And this is what it looked liked in 2007 - half of its ice had gone (refers to images of Arctic sea ice). One of Britain's leading ice scientists is predicting that all of the ice could be gone at the North Pole in summer within a few years. Well this year there's been another big melt and we're still a few days away from the official minimum."

(cuts to video clip of scientists in the Arctic)

Watts as narrator: "Professor Peter Wadhams has spent the summer on the Arctic ice, using lasers and robot submarines to get a picture of just how much is left. He's also taken part in a BBC2 documentary series to be broadcast next month called operation iceberg, on a giant berg twice the size of Manhattan, where he had to dodge the odd curious polar bear. He's seen for himself the dramatic decline in sea ice."

Wadhams: "30 years ago there was typically about eight million square kilometres of ice left in the Arctic in the summer. And by 2007, five years ago, that had halved, it had gone down to four million. And this year it's gone down below that, and it's really heading for oblivion."

Watts as narrator: "And the ice is also getting thinner"

(cuts back to studio)

Watts - (standing in front of a PIOMAS graph) "The volume of ice at the pole naturally goes up in the winter and down in the summer, but its been declining over the last 30 years. It's now at the lowest level since records began."

(cuts back to video clip)

Watts as narrator: "Estimates that the north pole could be ice free in summer in a few years contrast with the official views of the Met Office, that the Arctic will not be completely free of ice before the summers of 2030. But it's the effect of losing all that white ice that matters. The polar ice cap acts as a giant parasol, reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere in what's known as the albedo effect."

(cuts back to studio)

Watts: "30 years ago the ice looked like this (gestures to image), the Arctic ice covered two per cent of earth's surface, reflecting most of the suns rays. But half of that ice has now gone, and open water absorbs far more of the sun's energy."

(cuts to interview with Wadhams)

Susan: "Professor Wadhams told us parts of the Arctic ocean are now as warm in the summer as the North Sea in winter."

Wadhams: "Over that one per cent of the earth's surface that you're replacing, a bright surface which reflects nearly all the radiation falling on it by a dark surface which absorbs nearly all the light falling on it, and the difference, the extra radiation that's absorbed is, from our calculations, the equivalent of about 20 years of additional carbon dioxide being added by man."

Watts as narrator: "If his calculations are correct, that means that over recent decades, the melting ice cap has put as much heat into the system as all the CO2 we've generated in that time. And if the ice continues to decline at the current rate, it could play an even bigger role than greenhouse gases. Professor Wadhams stresses there are uncertainties - cloud cover over the Arctic could change and help reflect back some of the sun's radiation. But then another greenhouse gas, methane, currently trapped in the Arctic permafrost, could be released with warming and make matters worse. So what does this mean for us? Well we could end up with more of the kind of weather that deluged so much of June and July."

Adam Scaife from the Met Office: "As the ice melts, this pumps a lot of heat into the lower atmosphere. That has an important effect on the jet stream, and the storm track that impinges on Europe and can change the weather on seasonal timescales. For example, some studies suggest that there is increased risk of wet, low pressure summers over the UK as the ice melts, and other studies suggest that the winter weather could become more easterly, cold and snowy due to the Arctic ice decline."

Watts as narrator: "All of which raises questions for both sides of the debate about how best to respond to our changing climate. Do we need a new Manhattan project, and ambitious engineering schemes such as mirrors in space or artificial seeding of clouds to keep the planet cool? Or does it reinforce calls for urgent action to save the Arctic by cutting carbon emissions?"

(cuts back to studio)

Paxman: Well the very question we want to discuss now with Natalie Bennett who's the new leader of the Green Party, and Peter Lilley who's just written a pretty extensive rebuttal of the Stern findings on climate change. Now, if that analysis is correct about what's happened to the Arctic and what're the consequences, there is really precious little point in making any of the adjustments to our lifestyle that you and the Green Party seem to be suggesting."

Bennett: "Not at all. What we can do is we can still make a big impact in cutting our carbon emissions, and the thing is by cutting our carbon emissions we can also act in ways that make our society better and stronger. We can invest in the future of our society, and we must do that now. We just saw those figures in terms of the ice melt, we need to act and we need to act now."

Paxman: "But if the effect of the melting ice cap, or melted ice cap, is as is suggested, that will make damn all difference?"

Bennett: "Well lets think about how we can make a difference to people's lives, what we want to do is bring industries back into Britain, bring farming back into Britain..."

Paxman: "Well that's entirely another point isn't it? It isn't climate change is it?"

Bennett: "Well no it very much is, because what we need to do is shorten our supply chains, use much less fossil fuels..."

Paxman: "Why?"

Bennett: "Because then we won't have the carbon emissions that are having the effects that have just been seen.

Paxman: "But if the damage is already done then what's the point?"

Bennett: "We can cut further damage, reduce further damage if we act now and immediately which is what we need to do."

Paxman: "Peter Lilley?"

Lilley: "I was told to come on this program and not discuss the science, to take the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment as a correct projection of what the likely trends were going to be, and I was happy to do that. Instead you've presented something which purports to be new evidence that contains nothing new, which is tendentious, not peer reviewed, by a well known alarmist, and absolute bunkum... compared with the IPCC. The IPCC's forecast is this, not what you've just projected, the IPCC says sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic, under all scenarios. In some projections, Arctic late summer ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century. They then present a graph of all the different projections - none of them shows it melting before the year 2070 on a regular basis in the summer. Now of course, it used to melt from time to time, in the 30s it was much warmer in the Antarctic. So you've got a very tendentious piece of, presentation there, by someone who's disagreeing with the IPCC science. Its the BBC's policy not to broadcast anyone who thinks the IPCC is excessive..."

Paxman: "But you do accept that climate change is happening?"

Lilley: "I do, and I want to work on the basis of the IPCC's science, not something that concocted by BBC in a rather alarmist fashion, which isn't peer reviewed, which none of us has seen before..."

Paxman: "I'm afraid the BBC's not sufficiently coordinated to manage to concoct something like that..."

Lilley: "It did. It just has."

Paxman: "It's a report presented by our science editor speaking to someone who frankly knows a great deal more about this than, certainly I do, and I suggest than any of the three of us"

Lilley: "No, not than I do."

Paxman: "Not than you do? You know better than this chap?"

Lilley: "Well I do, I know what the IPCC says, and I think that their assessment of the science is better than Professor Wadhams who is a well known alarmist."

Bennett: "We do know that consistently all of the indicators of climate change of global warming, have moved much faster than scientists have been expecting..."

Lilley: "So the scientists have all been wrong?"

Bennett: "Everything has been at the upper end of projections, or well beyond the projections...

Lilley: "Except the temperature..."

Bennett: "So the fact is really, Mr Lilley, what you represent are the last throes of a dying argument. The Economist totally accepts that climate change is happening much faster than expected, the geological association of America last year entitled its conference as being about the anthropocene. We have created a new geological era through human activities."

Paxman: "There is no dispute between the two of you that something is changing in the climate, there's no dispute there, so lets just get that out of the way. The question is, what needs to be done, or what can be done?"

Lilley: "Well I think we need to project forward, what is likely to happen, on the basis of the best scientific evidence, and the IPCC provides that, not some BBC bit like that. And then work out the economics, and only do things where the costs are less than the benefits, that's what we ought to be doing. I've assessed the Stern report and looking at the Stern report, he says even on his worst scenario that he depicts, if we take the action that he proposes, the cost will exceed the benefits for the first century. So we're talking of doing something where any returns are going to accrue to people more than a century hence. Should we be doing that? Well the Green Party may think so..."

Paxman: "Well lets just find out, do you want us all to stop flying in the Green Party now? Stop owning cars that sort of thing?"

Bennett: "Uh no, we don't want you all to stop flying, no absolutely not..."

Lilley: "Well actually that's not what Stern proposes so lets be sensible, I think you're being unfair to the Green Party."

Paxman: "No I'm just asking what the Green Party's policy was on these matters."

Bennett: "Well, what we'd like to do is to relocalise our industries, bring farming back into the UK, stop flying peas from Peru and beans from Kenya, we want to bring jobs, we want to bring industries back into the UK, all of these are things which are very much positive for the UK and are good for reducing our carbon emissions at the same time. We can insulate people's homes, so that then we have a situation where people have warmer homes, more comfortable homes, lower fuel bills and lower carbon emissions."

Paxman: "So you think the benefits way outweigh the costs do you?"

Bennett: "Very much so. We can give everyone a much more comfortable, healthier life. We can create jobs."

Paxman: "When? Timing is key here isn't it?"

Bennett: Well lets look at the timing of green business. The green economy now accounts for about nine per cent of the British economy, that's about the same as the finance industries. A five per cent growth rate every year, year on year, a third of the growth in the UK last year came from green industries."

Paxman: (directing to Lilley) "So what do you say to that?"

Lilley: "Well if we spend lots on subsidies, we will get a growth in those subsidised industries at the expense of all the other industries which are paying the taxes. If you spend a lot of money on building wind turbines, you'll get employment in erecting wind turbines, you'll get less employment in erecting gas turbines which are much more efficient, because you're not producing them - so it's just transferring employment from one part of the economy to the other..."

Paxman: "Alright, lets just leave it there for the time being."

Lilley: "But hang on, I do want to resent the idea that we should impoverish people of Kenya and Peru by stopping trading with them. That seems to be manifestly cruel."


Updated 12:41 12/09/12 to reflect Natalie Bennett's status as Green Party leader.

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