Wishing the science away

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Ahead of the Copenhagen conference on climate change (which starts Monday), those who have argued that there is no conclusive proof that climate change is man-made were encouraged by the recent leak of e-mails from the archives of the University of East Anglia. The exchanges suggested that some scientists were manipulating data to support their theories about global warming.

It is unfortunate that acrimony among scientists has sometimes prevented the necessary painstaking review of scientific evidence and opinion.

This sort of debate has also been inhibited by the way in which libel laws, especially in Britain, are used to mute or prevent publication of scientific criticism of papers produced by other scientists. Some companies have used these legal openings to protect their product claims from scientific challenge of quoted data and tests used to back up the claims. Much harm can be done if tests are not rigorous and subjected to peer review.

An example of the dangers arising from the use of inadequate data is the controversy in Britain over the triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). This vaccine has done much to reduce the incidence of diseases that were the scourge of childhood. One doctor, who suspected a connection between the use of the vaccine and instances of autism and a rare bowel disease, produced a paper purporting to show the connection. As the paper was based on a small sample, the unanimous view of those responsible for the vaccination program was that the allegations had no scientific basis. This inadequate study, however, caused widespread fear among parents that the MMR vaccine was unsafe, and their resulting reluctance to let their children be vaccinated has led to increasing incidence of the diseases.

If world opinion is to be convinced of the colossal sums of money needed to reduce carbon emissions to levels that will ensure that human activities do not add to any natural warming trends, the debate must be seen as frank, fair and based on data that is as comprehensive as possible. It may be that absolute proof cannot be obtained from the data available; in that case we must be guided by the weight of evidence and the strength of probabilities.

As for climate change, we do not have statistics covering millennia and must rely on extrapolations of known figures for recent decades. We cannot be certain that we are not at the beginning of a natural cycle of global warming, but there is enough data to have convinced most of the leading scientists in the world that the threat of global warming, to which the activities of man have significantly contributed, is real and pressing.

If we refuse to accept, in the face of such evidence, that human activities have contributed to global warming or give in to a skeptical minority view because we don’t want to accept the economic consequences, we could justifiably be accused of criminal negligence. Future generations who will suffer as a result of our negligence will surely condemn us for our selfish shortsightedness and wishful thinking.

Extreme doomsayers may have exaggerated the dangers, but their aim has been to wake us up to the potential risks. Among these are the threats to the very existence of some of the world’s island states such as the Maldives and Tuvalu, which could literally disappear under the sea if sea levels rise as much as predicted following the melting of the ice caps. The latest figures suggest that a rise of 1.5 meters is possible. It is not surprising that the president of the Maldives drew attention to the threat to his country with the gimmick of holding a Cabinet meeting under the sea.

If rising temperatures lead to the spread of deserts in formerly temperate areas, the impact on food production will be serious. Although there are signs that the growth of the world’s population may be slowing, world food prices are rising and it will become increasingly difficult to meet not only the demands for meat and dairy products — which will grow as world prosperity rises — but also for staples such as rice and wheat.

The number and severity of hurricanes, other storms and floods in parts of the world have been rising as have droughts and searing temperatures in Australia and elsewhere. Some of these weather patterns can be attributed to the so-called El Nino effect of changing currents in the Pacific, but it seems likely that changes in climatic patterns have been exacerbated by the action of man including the destruction of tropical forests.

England has had a series of disastrous floods in recent years in different parts of the country. November rainfall in Cumbria, northwest England, caused widespread damage and has been called “a once in a millennium” event. In many tropical countries, floods have been even more damaging and have led to serious loss of life.

When considering world problems, we should be guided by scientific facts and rational principles as far as possible and we should not allow wishful thinking to influence our conclusions. The Copenhagen summit is a highly significant event, and for the sake of future generations, we must hope that its conclusions are not swayed by prejudice or distorted by political ambitions.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.