Climate Change, Evidence and Back-Passages

A little while ago I attended a lecture at the university by an ex-speechwriter for Tony Blair. For those with short memories Blair was the Prime Minister in the UK pretty much throughout the first decade of the 21st century. In this particular lecture he addressed the global economic changes that were taking place, the fact that Europe was old, dead and buried, that the future belonged to China and that Blair and everyone subsequently, had got everything wrong. He alone had the answers and these were available in his new book…blah…blah…blah…

I hate to be hypercritical but I did think that his presentation, whilst so polished that I could almost see the reflection of my grimacing face, was pretty vacuous really, but then he said something, as a throwaway line, that I thought was terribly interesting and profound and has stuck with me ever since. He mentioned that when he had been in the inner echelons of political power he had come to realise that “politicians don’t do evidence, they do narrative”.

This lecture was before the arrival of the present government, but I doubt if much has changed. In the UK at the moment we have a coalition government formed by two political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the main opposition party being Labour. They are curious bedfellows as the Liberal manifesto was undoubtedly to the left of Labour’s, yet they find themselves governing with a centre right party (many of whom would want the word ‘centre’ dropped). This partnership has led to the Liberal’s dropping a number of key policy ideas and commitments and to the Conservatives losing err… well not much really.

Most infamous amongst these for the Liberal’s was a very public commitment to no tuition fees in English Universities. This was dumped as soon as they came to power, with the sort of indecent haste that poses all sorts of questions about the true motivations of politicians. Now I am really trying to remain (sort of) neutral here and not just attack the Liberal Democrats as some sort of disillusioned voter (although I am) but rather to analyse some of the decisions that have been made subsequently since the formation of the government.

Let’s take Carbon. The UK has rigorous targets for CO2 reduction and has in fact reduced Carbon emissions by 10% in the last decade. Hoorah, Hoorah! Although some of that is almost certainly due to production moving overseas, in fact if you take that into account CO2 emissions went up!

Boo hoo! Boo hoo!

However, despite the United Nations recently stating that it is (95%) certain that Climate Change is anthropogenic and the serious weight of academic scientific evidence for this, the UK government is looking at ‘opting out’ of its CO2 reduction targets. Now the reasons for this are that the UK would be at a disadvantage compared to the rest of Europe and that the Government want to fill the predicted energy gap with a new generation of Gas Powered power stations. So despite the increasingly dire warnings concerning climate change, the scientific evidence is simply ignored. Economic growth (at seemingly any cost) is the paramount consideration.

This is despite the following quote from the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the last election:

“We now know, from climate scientists, that the next government will be the last that can stop dangerous climate change.”

This year (2013) they ditched their opposition to Nuclear Power and the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy is just about to sign-off on the construction of the first new nuclear power station in the UK’s new nuclear program. They argued their support for nuclear power was to reduce CO2 emissions. OK, but at the same conference they decided that fracking is a good idea and now wholeheartedly support it. This is the party that recognised that they are the last government to stop climate and yet they support fracking!

To be fair, the Conservative are even worse and I doubt if Labour had won, much would be different. ‘Politicians don’t do evidence’.

Now it seems to me that scientists may have a role to play here. Back even further in time, a Conservative government had to deal with the arrival of HIV/AIDS. It was in the 1980’s when Margaret Thatcher was in power. Thatcher was so appalled by the idea of anal sex that according to the then Health Secretary’s diary she actually wanted it referred to as ‘back passage sex’ in any government information leaflets. Apparently, it was health professionals and senior clinicians who managed to talk the government into taking any action at all (she agreed to drop the term back passage sex when it was pointed out that this may be misconstrued as vaginal sex in an alleyway). The point being that the health community really pushed the evidence and eventually the government had to act.

We can’t push the evidence of climate change any harder, yet in the UK at least, we seem unable to influence policy. Economic considerations (and for the cynics – vote winning) seem to take precedence.

So, OK governments ignore scientific evidence. Governments have every right to – we live in a democracy, not a technocracy. However, every time they do so, they always question the science. Is global warming really anthropogenic? Is burning gas to produce electricity really that energy inefficient? Can we really provide 50% of our electricity from renewables? The answer to all of the above is yes by the way. Ignoring the evidence by doubting it, however tenuous and manufactured that doubt is, may be politically expedient, but it undermines the science. It would be far more appropriate (and honest) to accept the evidence, but then to state why they have decided to ignore it. It may well be for economic reasons, jobs, cheaper options, infrastructural investment, whatever, but it doesn’t challenge the science.

In an ideal world any government decision that choses to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence should have to be explained in this way. We should constantly be asking of our politicians ‘why are you ignoring the evidence?’ Or, in a way that gives them more room, “what evidence is your decision based on?”

We often talk about evidence-based practice, perhaps it’s time for our politicians to be encouraged to adopt similar methods, before we all end up a back passage.

Roger (Bernie posted this for me due to network issues)