BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for March 2010

UK attempt to push world "Beyond Copenhagen"

Susan Watts | 17:30 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010

With the UEA climate e-mails report still fresh from the printers, Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, chose today to attempt a "kick start" for international talks on a new global climate deal.

Ed MilibandHe offered a major sop to developing countries dismissive of the political agreement that emerged from Copenhagen. They want a legally-binding treaty, under which developed countries agree to cut their emissions.

The UK is offering to sign up to a further round of the Kyoto Protocol, so long as the world embraces a second legally-binding treaty at the same time. According to Ed Milband, this so-called twin-track approach is "a signal that we are determined to unblock negotiations".

He sees a role for the UK in being out front: "We do not want to let a technical argument about whether we have one treaty or two derail the process. We are uncompromising about the need for a legal framework, but willing to be flexible about the precise form that that takes."

In the closing days of Copenhagen there was much talk of China's hardball negotiating style and use of divisions over Kyoto to scupper hopes of a legally-binding deal. Take those divisions away and it's harder for China to use them as an excuse not to engage.

Today's move is also a deliberate nod to Kyoto because it has gained what Ed Miliband called "totemic" status for many in the developing world. The hope is to leave behind what he described today as the "painful and frustrating process" of Copenhagen.

That won't be easy. The US, a vital part of any global deal, is set hard against Kyoto and president Obama is bogged down in trying to usher through domestic climate legislation let alone having to cope with a complicated two-tier international arrangement.

Gordon Brown is doing his bit to help get things moving. This evening, at Downing Street, he'll host the first meeting of the UN's high level advisory group on climate finance. Without finance there will most likely be no global deal at all. Today's meeting is the first since last year's pledge by developed countries to find money over the long-term to help developing countries tackle climate change.

This was described by senior UK officials today as one of the few breakthroughs of Copenhagen.

The finance group includes four heads of state, several finance ministers, President Obama's chief economics advisor Larry Summers and the financier George Soros. Their mission - and they've apparently accepted it - is to find $100 billion per annum by 2020.

They'll be considering all options, including a so-called Robin Hood tax on international financial transactions and a levy on global aviation and shipping. They hope to report to the next big international climate meeting, in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year.

Why 'Climategate' may be good for climate science

Susan Watts | 11:27 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010

I'm sure no irony was intended in the headline: "Climate science must become more transparent say MPs", but this is the message today from one institution forced to open up to another whose transformation is only just beginning.

And it's Freedom of Information (FoI) that's been the force for change in both.

In the long run, "climategate" will prove to have been "good for" climate science, according to the chair of parliament's cross-party science and technology committee.

Liberal Democrat Phil Willis was unveiling the conclusions of MPs who have been looking into the email release from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), just two weeks before the Copenhagen climate conference last November.

The committee blamed the university, not the CRU, for "mishandling" of FoI requests.

The university, they said, failed to challenge a "culture of non-disclosure" at the unit, and "instances where information may have been deleted to avoid disclosure, particularly to climate change sceptics".

The MPs also noted the university's "failure to grasp fully the potential damage this could do".

If it all sounds like a re-run of the MPs expenses scandal then that's no accident. In fact Phil Willis drew a direct parallel.

The MPs want openness to be the watchword now, in all that climate scientists do. They say that the quality of climate science has to be "irreproachable" because so much is at stake, with governments across the world planning to spend trillions of pounds on climate change mitigation.

The committee highlight their key finding: "What this inquiry revealed was that climate scientists need to take steps to make available all the data that support their work and full methodological workings, including their computer codes. Had both been available, many of the problems at CRU could have been avoided."

It's a philosophy that extends beyond climate science to all science - and describes a change that's actually already underway, with scientific journals increasingly publishing not only the "methods, results and conclusions" of new research, but all the data involved, and in cases such as this, the computer source code and methodologies used to crunch that data too.

As for Phil Jones, the head of the CRU who became the focus of the row, the MPs conclude that he has been left with his scientific reputation intact. They found that although Dr Jones did refuse to share raw data and computer codes, his actions were "in line with common practice in the climate science community".

But those practices, they stress, must now change.

On the much cited phrases "trick" and "hide the decline" - the MPs concluded that these were colloquial terms used in private emails and that the balance of evidence is that they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead.

There was one dissenting voice. Labour MP Graham Stringer did not sign off the report. He said the committee had gone beyond its remit in stating that it had found no reason to challenge the scientific consensus that "global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity" - citing the chief scientific adviser.

And he'd wanted them to go further by supporting his call for a "reputable scientist" sceptical of anthropogenic climate change to sit on the panels of the two other inquiries into email controversy currently underway. The committee rejected this.

There remain plenty of questions for the other two teams. Sir Muir Russell's UEA inquiry into how CRU operated, and the other under Lord Oxburgh, which will examine any implications for climate science itself.

The MPs acknowledge throughout their report that they have had to rush through this inquiry, with no time to explore all of the questions that they might have wished to.

Importantly, the MPs threw down a challenge for lawmakers under the next government, post election. They want a change in the Freedom of Information laws themselves.

At the moment if someone breaches the FoI Act, but this comes to light more than six months later, they cannot be prosecuted. The committee found prima facie evidence that CRU has breached the FoI Act, but it appears to be too late for prosecutions. This needs resolving, the MPs say, and want the law itself revised whatever the outcome for the CRU.

A neat ending then, if the machinery of FoI itself gets a shake up now that it has dealt with MPs and their expenses and climate scientists and their data.

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