Feb 222010

– The warmists won.

It was a friendly, good-humoured occasion, and well chaired by the Master of Wellington College, Dr Anthony Seldon. (For short biographies of the speakers see my post 9633.)

The bottom line is that the motion, that “the prophets of global warming are guilty of scaremongering“, was defeated. Here’s how it went:

(First, a vote was taken as we entered the hall (the school chapel). The result was:

129       for
175       against
29        undecided

Then each speaker had 10 minutes to make his case. After this, the speakers replied to questions from the floor and had 2 minutes (in reverse order) for a closing comment. I’ve attempted in these notes to summarise all the views of each speaker in one paragraph. (These are necessarily personal impressions.)


Professor Philip Stott proposed the motion.

He came over (to me) as knowledgeable – but, with his tweed suit and tie and rather excited and assertive manner, I thought he rather failed to strike the right note. A brief summary of what he said:

It’s not about whether or not the climate is changing: it always has. No, it’s about one key matter: is any change today man-made and will it have, as claimed, apocalyptic consequences? Note how post Copenhagen, the message has changed: Professor Beddington (the Government’s chief scientific adviser) has called for less exaggeration, more openness and more honesty about uncertainties; Phil Jones of CRU has admitted to uncertainties and has agreed that the vast majority of scientists do not believe the debate is over; and even Bob Watson (chief scientific adviser to DEFRA and ex IPCC chair) has agreed that the IPCC has made mistakes and accepted that that is worrying. So, in contrast to years of claims, it is now being accepted that there is uncertainty about causes and about consequences. Yet the scare generated by past claims of certainty has, for example, by delaying action, damaged our future energy supplies, reduced our aid budget to the world’s poorest people, imposed taxes on the poor, insisted on low energy light bulbs whose production damages the health of Chinese workers, created food shortages (from biofuel production), taken money from where we really need it and, above all, damaged the reputation of and thus trust in science itself. So, yes – there’s been scaremongering and, by preying on fear, the alarmists have undermined energy and food security and taken money from where it’s really needed. It’s been seriously damaging to our society and to some of the poorest people in the world.


Mark Lynas replied to the motion.

He looked “cool” (no tie, white shirt (outside his trousers) dark suit) and spoke in a quiet, confident manner. A brief summary of what he said:

The word “prophets” suggests that supporters of AGW hold some bizarre belief. But the reality is simple: 2009 was the 9th warmest year on record and we’ve just experienced the warmest decade on record. That’s real science. Yet, with all these “gates”, the deniers are telling us it’s all a conspiracy, a massive cover-up. But is it really likely the world’s leading scientific institutions, most governments and thousands of the world’s climate scientists would all decide to take part in a vast conspiracy? Are all these the “bad guys” – as opposed to, say, the fossil fuel industry? OK – experts can sometimes be wrong. That’s obvious. But compare a few inevitable errors with the attitudes of the sceptics. They’re all over the place – Is it warming? Is it cooling? They cannot decide. The basic science is simple: the emission of more CO2 will cause the atmosphere to tend to warm. And what’s happened? Well, it’s warmed. It’s simple enough to understand. And denial of this amounts to war on science. Would you allow open-heart surgery to be carried out on you by a builder? I don’t think so. Moreover, there’s a positive side to this: the science represents an opportunity. Everyone agrees that we need, in any case, to reduce our dependence on carbon. So those who do not evolve accordingly will be left behind. It’s clear that denial has serious and dangerous consequences – see what happened in South Africa when the HIV/Aids link was denied. The reality is that the consequences of ignoring dangerous global warming will be appalling for our children’s and for their children’s lives. It’s not a risk we can take.

David Davies MP supported the motion.

Another grey haired man (as is Stott – unlike either Lynas or Aaronovitch) with suit and tie. Unlike Stott, he was impressive: fluent, amusing and persuasive. A brief summary of what he said:

I once accepted the “green’ position but, having listened to it being debated, I was brought up short by the rudeness of so many of the global warming promoters. I found intimidation, not persuasion – cover-ups of findings yet loud insistence that the debate was over. But such debates are never over – especially for an area of science in its infancy. Would I to have open-heart surgery by an “expert”? Well not if that “expert” was practicing 17th century anatomy and medical practice. Yes, of course warming is happening. But, despite the reason and consequences being ill understood, the warmists insist we must take their proposed enormously expensive actions anyway. In contrast, there is no uncertainty about third-world poverty and that’s where action now can unquestionably help. That’s how money should be used. A major reason for uncertainty is that no one seems to be able to offer an objective test of what is really happening re climate in the real world. Instead we learn that data and methodology are withheld from independent review and that findings appear to be manipulated. There’s too much politics in this. The Scientific Method knows nothing of politics. It means independent replication. It means potential for falsification. It means openness to challenge. To ignore these is politics not science. Global warming proponents suffer from two human weaknesses. One is “confirmation bias” – looking for the facts that support a belief and ignoring those that don’t. The other is “noble cause” motivation – so that the end (the cause) justifies the means (such as hiding the data). Remember the DDT scare where doing the “right” thing had terrible consequences. Remember Pachauri’s “voodoo science” reaction when faced with research that undermined the IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim. No, that’s how politicians operate. Not scientists. And that’s why good scientists have left the IPCC process. So we get people crying wolf. And, next time – when the wolf is really there – no one will listen.

David Aaronovitch opposed the motion.

Aaronovitch looked good: very modern casual. He came across much better than Lynas: witty (more laughs than Davies who had several), fluent and totally assured. A brief summary of what he said:

This is a “proposers’ motion” – i.e. it’s designed to be much easier on the proposer than the opposer. Moreover, the debate’s being held in a very cold building. And that, incidentally, is the level of “debate” we keep hearing: oh look the weather’s cold – global warming is disproved. I’m going to consider what matters, what’s really the key issue. And it’s not whether the so-called “prophets” have been scaremongering. Our opponents never tell us that global warming might be a bad thing. They just go on about “uncertainty”. They seem to think that just because AGW is “problematic” that excuses them from action. Yes, scientists are “human”. But it’s funny how so many more of these “human” scientists support the AGW position than oppose it. They say: oh it’s only 80% sure (as David Davies said recently on the BBC) and conclude that therefore there’s no need for action. But, if there were an 80% chance that a vaccine will protect his child from a major disease, would he do nothing? I don’t think so. Their position on this is idiotic. Sure, if we’re to tackle it, there are lots of difficult things to do. And, if we refuse to accept it, there’s nothing to do. We hear of the “energy gap”, allegedly caused by AGW fear. Nonsense: there are many other reasons. “Oh dear”, they say, “these AGW buggers have made life so complex and awful – so it’s best to do nothing”. They worry about third world poverty. So, when those Bangladeshis drown, they can say, “at least we thought about poverty”. They say taxes hit the poor – yet they know it’s really the rich. And then they say we’re damaging science – that’s no different from the boy who killed his parents and pleaded that he was an orphan. No, this “uncertainty” simply absolves them from responsibility. Look at it this way: if we take action and I’m wrong, at least we’ve done something about renewable energy – if we do nothing and I’m right, mankind faces disaster. No choice really. And, in any case, most of the science is unchallenged. Yes, we’re crying wolf – but the wolf’s almost certainly there. To demand total certainty before we act is absurd.

Finally, at the end of the evening, another vote was taken. The result was quite a substantial change from the initial vote:

Those for the motion had decreased from 129 to 126.
Those against the motion had increased from 175 to 217.
Those who were unsure had decreased from 29 to 5.
(I don’t know where the extra 15 voters came from.)

Therefore the motion was defeated.

7 Responses to “Yesterday’s Wellington Squared debate”

  1. After the debate, I had a chat with David Davies. I said it was interesting that he had come to his current view on AGW recently and asked if there was, in his opinion, any possibility that the Tory party might (particularly if it came into government) also change its stance on the subject – especially in view of recent revelations. He thought there was no such prospect. To take a view contrary to the present orthodoxy (untroubled it seems by IPCC errors, CRU emails etc.) would be seen as too “toxic” – no one in the party was interested in putting their head over this particular parapet. Not now nor, he thought, in the future.

  2. Robin:

    Sounds like a tactical blunder on the part of the proposers of the motion to me. They should have gone for what has been in the papers and treated it in detail, rather than the usual generalities. And one of them should certainly have crucified Lynas on a point of order when he used the term ‘denier’.

    But it’s interesting that, although the warmmists are so keen that we must listen to the scientists, on this occasion the only scientist on the platform seems to have been ignored by the majority of the audience.

  3. TonyN:

    Yes, I too disliked the motion. Odd really: I thought the usual practice was for each side to approve it before the debate. And I was surprised Lynas wasn’t given a harder time. I thought his presentation rather poor – just reiterating his old, discredited and outdated arguments. Aaronovitch was far better: his views, although essentially making little real sense, were well expressed and entertaining. So he came over well and had a great debating technique. And that’s what matters on these occasions – people don’t listen all that carefully to what’s said.

    Re Stott – a scientist perhaps but not a “climate scientist”. And, anyway, he’s retired (“emeritus”) so doesn’t count any more.

  4. Robin

    Was the debate recorded? If so, will it be available for view on you-tube or elsewhere as far as you know?

    Sounds like there was not much talk about the “science” supporting the AGW premise, just the old, worn out arguments.

    The motion was poorly worded to start off with.

    Then it appears that Lynas was not put on the defensive from the start with a barrage of IPCC screw-ups and revelations of bad conduct by so-called scientists, but rather allowed to give his ramble about “conspiracy”, “war on science”, the old “heart surgery” saw and the “HIV/Aids denial” analogy.

    Too bad.

    But it may be symptomatic that rational scientific discussion cannot compete with emotionally presented polemic in the eyes of a non-scientific public. The firey-eyed scaremonger will always win the debate because he reaches the public on an emotional level where impressions are always stronger than at the rational level.

    Thanks for your notes, Robin.


  5. Robin 1

    After the debate, I had a chat with David Davies. I said it was interesting that he had come to his current view on AGW recently and asked if there was, in his opinion, any possibility that the Tory party might (particularly if it came into government) also change its stance on the subject – especially in view of recent revelations. He thought there was no such prospect. To take a view contrary to the present orthodoxy (untroubled it seems by IPCC errors, CRU emails etc.) would be seen as too “toxic” – no one in the party was interested in putting their head over this particular parapet. Not now nor, he thought, in the future.

    I’m afraid that this demonstrates a lack of courage amongst our politicians. I am now convinced the only reason that AGW got any traction was because we all felt very wealthy. Those days have long gone but currently most people have not noticed due to the money printing. This will come home to roost sooner rather than later, and I doubt there will so much as a half crown to spare.
    I for one don’t want to see services cut, or defence cut whilst we waste millions on some fictions nonsense.
    It maybe this issue gets resolved after a change of leader and an early election. Cameron doesn’t seem to be able to hold his lead in the Polls. He and his team misread why they went so high in the first place, and he and Osborne have done the opposite to what they need to do. Parallels are with the Heath Govt
    As for the Debate, I tend to agree that the subject was a little odd and to me seems to be designed to give the result it did.

  6. It’s good news. 6 months ago they would not have even held a debate on this subject.

  7. There’s a rather different take on the debate at the Bishop Hill blog here.

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