Source: BBC2: The Daily Politics
Date: 06/02/2014
Event: Lord May: "
And what we've got now, increasingly, is weather on steroids"
Credit: BBC2

  • Robert May: Baron May of Oxford, theoretical ecologist
  • Andrew Neil:  Journalist and broadcaster
  • Eric Pickles, MP: Conservative MP and Communities Secretary

Andrew Neil: ... So, all of that in the next hour. With us, for the duration - Bob May. He's a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the government, former President of the prestigious Royal Society. He's now a fellow of Merton College, Oxford - he sits as a cross-bench peer at the House of Lords. Welcome.

Now, in an age-old British tradition, let's start by talking about the weather. Heavy rain is set to continue to batter large parts of the country, especially concentrated in the south and the south-west of England. Yesterday the storm damaged the railway at Dawlish, after a part of the sea wall collapsed and left the tracks suspended in mid-air - amazing pictures. It's a vital route to the south-west - Network Rail, though, says it could take at least six weeks to repair. Work can't even begin until the weather improves. The Somerset Levels could also be hit again - there are two severe flood warnings in place, signifying a danger to life. Many flood-hit homes have already been evacuated. Further rainfall raises the prospect of more residents having to leave their homes. 

Now, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was meant to be making a statement to MPs this morning, but he had to go into hospital yesterday, for an operation on a detached retina, so for now, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has assumed responsibility. This is what he had to say in the Commons, a short time ago.

Eric Pickles: In the short term, I can announce that the government will provide an additional £130 million for emergency repairs and maintenance - £30 million in the current year and £100 million next year. This will cover costs incurred during the current emergency response and recovery, as well as essential repairs to ensure that defences are maintained. 

Emergency work and repair started after December's coastal surge. However, the full picture of the damage caused to the flood defences has not yet emerged, and the weather conditions have proved to be so savage. The government will therefore carry out a rapid review of the additional work needed to restore our flood defences and maintain them in target condition.

Andrew Neil: Well, that was Mr. Pickles picking up the brief there, on the problems on the floods, addressing the Commons. There'll be more on that, as the programme goes on. What do you make of the government's response, so far?

Robert May: I think it's appropriate, and might have been better if some of these precautions about preparing flood defences had been done earlier, because it is clear we're headed in a direction where it's going to be more and more of a threat.

Andrew Neil: I'll come on to that in a minute if that is clear, but there seems to be a real division of opinion, between the experts here in London, at the Environment Agency and other quangos, and the experts on the ground in Somerset - they wanted dredging all along. And there hasn't been dredging, and they say if there had been dredging, it wouldn't have stopped all the flooding but it would have been less and it may have drained away more quickly.

Robert May: Well, I would include dredging, to keep the rivers flowing and draining properly as they should. I would include that in flood control.

Andrew Neil: So you think it was a mistake to stop the dredging?

Robert May: Yeah.

Andrew Neil: Why did we do that?

Robert May: I dunno. [Laughs.]

Andrew Neil: I mean, there is some - there is clearly now a complete rift between the Environment Agency and the government, which is why the government's moved in to take control of this -

Robert May: Well, we should simply be doing both. We should be dredging but we should also be preparing, sort of, barrier defences.

Andrew Neil: Building more defences.

Robert May: Yes.

Andrew Neil: That becomes even more important, because we're building more and more homes on flood plains. So, you have to do that, don't you... You said we're going to face more and more of this, and it's often said politicians say endlessly that because of global warming, climate change, we're going to see more and more of this. Where's the scientific evidence for that?

Robert May: Well, go back a hundred years to recognising that the more - post-Industrial Revolution - burning fossil fuels - we burn a million years' worth of fossil carbon each year, at the moment - thickens the greenhouse blanket and that's going to cause warming. Warming, in a sense, is energy - it means there's more energy in the weather system. You can't, on the other hand, attribute any single episode to glob- because there have always been extreme events, there's just now more of them -

Andrew Neil: So how can we -

Robert May: There's a wonderful blog that I came across the other day - an American - who pointed out: there's a chap called Barry Bond, who broke Babe Ruth's home run record for the season. And then he was found to be on steroids. And this blog said: you couldn't attribute any single home run to his being on steroids, but you can attribute the fact that he broke Babe Ruth's record to the fact that he took steroids. And what we've got now, increasingly, is weather on steroids.

Andrew Neil: You say that, but the IPCC report, the latest one, AR5, in Chapter 2 page 57, says - quote - "There continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale."

Robert May: That's true, there's lots of uncertainties about the actual magnitude, just as they say -

Andrew Neil: And frequency.

Robert May: - yeah, but the overall fact, that the world is warming, is not - 

Andrew Neil: No, I'm not arguing - that's not what I'm arguing with, about. What I'm arguing - what I'm trying to find out - we don't often get the chance to speak to scientists - is where the scientific evidence is that - because, for example, this leads to more extreme weather. I mean, hurricanes and tornadoes, for example, they're now at very low levels, compared to historic records.

Robert May: Well, historic records fluctuate, all these things fluctuate - so the basic trajectory we're on is clear,  but that doesn't mean, moment to moment, you can make predictions, because there's lots of fluctuations.

Andrew Neil: But I get -

Robert May: And the IPCC recognises this, and the climate change science -

Andrew Neil: But they say it's low confidence. I mean, you say this has been very wet and extreme, but if you take - because we're always told not to use one month - January has been one of the wettest ever, on record, but if you take the months October to January for wetness, in Britain, 1914-15 was a lot more -

Robert May: At times it has been wet -

Andrew Neil: - '29-30 was more. '60-61 - were they caused by global warming?

Robert May: No - I say weather is weather. Home runs are home runs - the analogy I just gave is a good one. Home runs are home runs, but some people hit more home runs than others -

Andrew Neil: All right.

Robert May: People on steroids do better. Whether it's warmer - there's more energy in the system, and you get more extreme events. 

Andrew Neil: Okay. Now, let's stick with his story because there's a ongoing political row - we featured it yesterday on the programme - about the floods and whether or not the government has been spending sufficient money...

[To be continued.]