Source: YouTube
Date: 03/11/2011
EventMyles Allen gives a presentation on "Climate Change - So Last Decade"
CreditBristol Natural History Consortium

  • Professor Myles AllenPhysicist and head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford

Professor Myles Allen: I'm a scientist - just to introduce myself - so I need PowerPoint, um, and... But I'm also talking about climate, and therefore I need all the visual aids I can get, because people have largely lost interest in climate change. It very much feels like last decade's issue. But I can be fairly confident that a lot of you here in this room, if you've been in the business of environmental communication for more than a year or so, have probably worked on communicating climate change, or the climate change issue, at some point in the past, even if you've sort of given up doing that sort of thing now.

And I think the question we have to ask ourselves is why, as Angela pointed out at the beginning, this issue is so firmly in reverse, as far as public perception of climate is concerned, public understanding of the issue is, despite the enormous amount of effort and investment that's been made over the past decade in communicating this issue and educating people about what the issue means, and so forth. 

I'm going to try and convince you that it, essentially, it is your fault. Sorry about this. But this issue has been, not undersold or oversold - there's a lot of debate about whether it's undersold or oversold - but it's been mis-sold, very badly, over the past decade. And just in case I don't get to the end of my talk, I think the bottom line of what I'm saying, which I normally don't - the bottom line of what I'm going to be saying - sorry, that wasn't a prediction of cataclysm [audience laughter], it's just that I tend to overrun. One should be very careful, as a climate scientist, to avoid that alarmism. 

The problem is that this has been very much presented as an issue of global catastrophe that will affect our grandchildren, whereas, in fact, the issue is substantially more prosaic than that, but no less serious. And that's the - sort of the point I'd like you to think about and to take away and consider. The other aspect of mis-selling, on the climate question, is that it, sort of  - is that the debate is over whether climate change is happening or not. Okay, so there's been an enormous amount of argument, over the past decade, about, you know - "Is it true that climate change is happening, or is it not?" 

Aubrey Manning mentioned that when you have an economic debate, you can get prominent economists on both sides of the argument, talking on talk shows, giving both sides, pro- and anti-growth. This - you may not have realised this, but this actually never happens, or hasn't happened for at least a decade, on climate. Yes, you can get Nobel laureates on both sides of the argument, but only one of those Nobel laureates will have done any research on meteorology, or oceanography or climate. Okay? And that Nobel laureate will be going along with the consensus view of the way climate is changing. 

But what we've seen, over the past few years, is events like this one, the sort of, whole Climategate email revelations, giving the population at large the impression that the whole issue hangs by a thread of evidence, that a few scientists might have fiddled the data and therefore, you know, if they're caught out, as it were, undermines the entire case for human influence on climate. I asked for some PowerPoint, because I think you can't really get this one unless you visual, which I've got behind me here. So this is the impact of the whole UEA email affair - and think about the amount of newsprint, the amount of airtime, and so forth, which was devoted to that affair, over the past couple of years. This is the total impact of that affair on any published dataset that has any relevance to the influence of humans on the climate. 

[Slide shows graph for "Globe" found here: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/crutem3/jan_2010_update.html]

And to help those of you at the back, who may be missing something, that's the correction, okay? It's about two hundredths of a degree in the late 1870s. Okay? Now, it's important to get these things right. And we are grateful to those who've scoured over the data and identified a problem with input files, which resulted in that small correction in this record. Okay? But that's the only change to any published number that's resulted from this entire affair. 

Now you wouldn't have got that impression from the way it's been covered in the media. Certainly the public has not got that impression. They're all under the impression that, basically, it's all up in the air again, they've really no idea what's going on, because people have been caught fiddling the numbers. In fact - again, another point that I want to take issue with, with Aubrey on - he mentioned to you that the economists' models, they're on a level with the models which have been used to predict climate. I'd like to object very strongly to that statement. It's very - as it happens, it's very substantially easier to predict climate than it is to predict the world economy. 

An illustration of this is shown by this figure here, where I'm showing you how global temperatures have evolved over the satellite era, so it's the surface record, that controversial one which people say has been fiddled, and the satellite record, which the sceptics are most fond of - that's the one which comes out of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. And as you can see, they match each other very well, they show this decadal warming trend, and I've just added in grey here the predicted range of warming trends base - made by the IPCC in 2000, based on data available to the mid 1990s. 

So this is a genuine prediction, by the time you get to the end of this series, not a matter of fitting data that's already happened in the past. The IPCC - or "us scientists", so to speak - did predict that this decade we've just had would be around two tenths of a degree warmer than the decade of the '90s, and we were right. Other people predicted it would be either the same temperature or cooler than the '90s, and they were wrong. This is a fact that nobody really gets. Okay? But it's a very simple fact. I'm not saying "just because we were right in the past", like the usual disclaimer. Being right in the past is not a guarantee that you'll be right in the future, but it does indicate that the business of prediction may actually turn out to be not entirely impossible. And the business of predicting climate, or certainly the response of the climate system to rising greenhouse gases, turns out to be actually a lot more straightforward than some of us feared it might be.

Whoops. There we are. Okay? [Adjusting slides.] So that's the point we want to make here, that it's not - it turns out to be not nearly as difficult a prediction problem to what many of us feared it was, when - well, around the time, for example,  when I started working in the field, around 1990. 

We do understand, there are uncertainties, of course. We do understand, broadly speaking, what's happening at the global scale. The public doesn't understand that we understand, and hence a lot of the confusion that surrounds this topic at the moment. That doesn't mean we understand everything, just because we can predict what's going to happen in the next decade or two doesn't mean we'll always get it right, because of course a volcano could go off, something else could happen, and that would have to be factored into the prediction as it evolves. But, broadly speaking, we do understand, at the global scale, what's going on. Doesn't preclude the possibility of surprises, but you're having to look increasingly into the fringes of what's possible in order to work out that this warming trend will suddenly stop in the next decade, of its own accord. 

However, that's talking about global temperature, which has no impact on anybody. And the kinds of thing which people really care about are events like this one - this is a striking image of temperatures in Russia in the middle of 2010, July 2010. You can see there's a location here where temperatures were 10-12 degrees above normal, and that's the conditions in Moscow at the time. I don't know how many people were killed by this heatwave, but crucially you will see that it's a localised phenomenon. It killed a lot of people but it happened there. Over here in Siberia or down - you know, down here in the Middle East, temperatures were cooler than normal. This is the kind of event that people actually notice.

My worry is that having messed it up on the global temperature question, we're now in the business of messing it up on the weather event - understanding the link between weather and climate - as well. This is the sort of thing that gets said about weather and climate. A quote from Al Gore - he's a very public figure, so I feel okay quoting him, but he said here "We used to say we're changing the odds, loading the dice. Now" he says, "we're painting more dots on the dice." Instead of rolling twelves, we're rolling thirteens and fourteens. Okay? It's a striking image, a bit like a lot of the images of, you know, cataclysm that were thrown around in the mid, sort of, 2000s, about climate going over a tipping point and leading us all into a new ice age, or whatever. 

But it's wrong. We are not seeing weather events that could not have happened in the absence of human influence on the climate. What we're seeing is indeed "loading the dice." We are seeing weather events being made more likely. That, however, is deemed - and I've been in correspondence - not with Al Gore, because of course he doesn't answer emails - but the people who advise him on this kind of thing, and their reaction is "Well, the loading dice analogy isn't strong enough. People don't see that as a problem. And so this is a more striking analogy." Yeah, but it's striking but it's wrong. 

That doesn't help. Because it's far too easy for someone then to stand up and say, you know, "He's got it wrong, therefore you can ignore everything else he's saying." So we're walking into exactly the same trap again - overegging the - not over-selling the case but mis-selling the case. Because I wouldn't say that loading dice is necessarily any better or worse than painting more dots on them. You can lose money against someone playing with a loaded dice just as easily as you can lose money against someone who's sneakily painting an extra dot onto one of the faces. Okay? So just because it concerns probability, rather than the actual number of dots, doesn't mean it's not there. So it's back to this mis-selling problem.

To simply - Einstein had a great comment, that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. And this has dogged the climate issue from the start. People really want to simplify it down, to make it easy to communicate to the public. And they simplify it so far, they just make it wrong. And then it's incredibly easy, for anyone who wants to stir the pot a little bit, to point out what is wrong and undermine public confidence in the whole issue. 

The kind of thing we do is looking - this is my little techie-slide - is indeed looking at how the dice have been loaded towards heatwaves of this nature becoming more likely. And we do indeed see something like a fourfold increase in risk of a heatwave of the magnitude of what occurred in Russia, in the - since the 1960s. A substantial fraction of that increase in risk is likely to be due to the increase in greenhouse gases. That is not an insignificant change - this is a very important change. Okay? But people have to understand it. There's no point in simplifying it down beyond what is actually supported by the science. And that's the problem we face, here.

So the real challenge I want to put out to you as communicators is - maybe the fact we've got to the point - so, that climate science is - the sort of stuff that I do is becoming uninteresting to you. It's becoming quite technical. It concerns how climate is affecting weather in various parts of the world. It's concerned with how the odds on specific weather events are changing. The sort of big picture questions that got everybody so juiced up in the last decade - whether the climate was changing at all, why it was changing, what we need to do about it - they're not evolving. The answers to those questions are not evolving. There's not much happening, on those questions, any more. 

So the whole process of what we might call, rather rudely, "climate infotainment" - which was a big feature of the BBC, a couple of years ago - is dead. I mean, there's no point in running repeated climate scare stories in the media, because people have just lost interest in it. Professional climate communicators are, likewise, dying out. This is no longer an issue. So because climate change has become boring. But the question we have to ask ourselves is, I don't know, "Maybe that's a good thing", because maybe the idea of selling this as something that people are going to deal with as a great collective action - um, er, enterprise - was never going to work, and that actually the way it's going, the whole climate change issue, will be played out by professionals, largely leaving the public out of the picture. That's sad for democracy, but it may, ultimately, be best for the planet.