Sunday, April 22, 2007

The anti-salt war jerks back into life

Another over-hyped finding of tiny differences -- and this time the differences are not even statistically significant. The article below appears to be a rewrite of a BMJ press release but at the time of writing this I could find no trace of the article in the current issue of BMJ -- which suggests extraordinary eagerness to publicize findings that are yet to be put up for detailed scrutiny -- not unexpected in the heavily politicized BMJ.

But working from the figures below we find that there were only 25 deaths out of a sample size totalling 769 and only a 25% difference between the two subgoups. Reconstructing from that information, it seems that around 10 controls died of heart attacks and 15 salt-eaters died of heart attacks. Given the differing subgroup sizes of 337 and 432, the expected frequencies would be 11 and 14 -- yielding a Chi-squared of 1.00! -- which is nowhere near statistical significance.

Note also that the findings concern hypertensives only. Among people in general those on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And the Japanese eat heaps of salt -- soy sauce is VERY salty -- yet have exceptionally long lifespans. This is really crazy stuff below but the fact that it appeared in "The Times" of London will make it very influential nonetheless

Eating less salt reduces the chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke, the first long-term study of salt's impact on health confirms today. The findings, from a 15-year study, offer the clearest evidence yet that cutting salt consumption saves lives by reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease. People who ate less salty food were found to have a 25 per cent lower risk of cardiac arrest or stroke, and a 20 per cent lower risk of premature death. The results, published in the British Medical Journal, underline the need for population-wide salt reductions in the diet, the scientists conclude.

Despite campaigns to reduce salt intake, such as that run by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), actual evidence of any benefit has been limited. This has enabled the salt industry to contest vigorously the value of such campaigns. Both sides accept that cutting salt consumption reduces blood pressure, although not very dramatically. This ought to translate over the longer term into reductions in strokes and heart attacks, but no studies have been able to show this convincingly until now.

The new findings are the result of work by a US team led by Nancy Cook, of Harvard Medical School, which has followed up two trials originally conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both were designed to persuade people to cut their salt intake and to measure how far their blood pressure fell. By pursuing these trials, Dr Cook's team has shown that those who reduced their salt intake did have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. "Our study provides unique evidence that sodium reduction might prevent cardiovascular disease and should dispel any residual concern that sodium reduction might be harmful," it concludes. The interventions had reduced sodium intake by about 25-35 per cent - roughly the same as is planned by the FSA, which is seeking to reduce daily intake in Britain from an average of 9.5g to 6g ( /3 oz to /5 oz) a day.

Ellen Mason, cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "Salt intake amongst many adults and children in Britain is way too high. Many people could lower the level of salt in their diet by reducing the amount of processed food they eat. Also, by simply checking the labels and switching to a lower salt option, you'll be doing your heart a favour."

But the Salt Manufacturers' Association questioned the quality and conclusions of the study. "The research only relates to subjects who already have high blood pressure. Most people have acknowledged for some time that such individuals may be advised to restrict their salt intake with their GP's advice. "What the evidence does not prove is that salt reduction will have any significant health benefits for the majority of us."

The original studies - called the trials of hypertension prevention (TOHP 1 and 2) - used counselling and advice to persuade participants to reduce intake. In the first trial, 327 healthy men and women aged 30-54 who took part in the intervention were compared with 417 controls who did not. Measurements of sodium in urine showed that a reduction of roughly one third in salt intake had been achieved in the 327 who took part- but blood pressure was found to fall only slightly.

The authors of the original study had no idea if this reduction would be sustained, but estimated that if it were it might reduce stroke deaths by 6 per cent, heart disease deaths by 4 per cent, and deaths from all causes by 3 per cent. However, the follow-up has shown much more marked health benefits. The actual numbers of heart attacks and strokes are small - 76 heart attacks, 19 strokes and 23 heart deaths without previous warning - in both TOPH 1 and 2. So it remains possible that chance, or incomplete follow-up, have distorted the findings.

Graham MacGregor, a professor at St George's University of London, said the size of the benefit was not surprising. "When there was a campaign in Finland to cut salt there was a very large reduction in stroke and heart attacks."

Exactly how salt increases blood pressure is still in dispute. The simplest explanation is that when salt intake is too high, the kidneys cannot pass it all into the urine and some ends up in the bloodstream. This then draws more water into the blood, increasing volume and pressure. But not everybody is equally sensitive to salt, and so not everybody will benefit equally from reducing intake.



Though anybody who knows of their absurd "600,000 Iraqi deaths" claim will not be surprised. The BMJ has also of course long been known for its frantic Leftism. This politicization does of course explain the very low intellectual standards in both journals that I have repeatedly noted on FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC. With their openly avowed contempt for the truth ("There is no such thing as right and wrong") and their failure to consider ALL the facts of most matters, Leftists corrupt everything they touch

A leading international medical journal has denounced the Prime Minister and urged its Australian readers to vote against him in the election. In an editorial titled "Australia: the politics of fear and neglect", The Lancet said John Howard had jeopardised Australia's enviable reputation in medical science with his suggested ban on HIV-positive migrants. It also censured the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, for saying those who spoke up for indigenous health were "simply establishing politically and morally correct credentials", and criticised the Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, for his stance on climate change. It said Australian politicians were scoring below par on health.

The journal said Australian clinical and health research was "an emblem of excellence" in the Asia-Pacific: "That enviable position is being put at risk by Prime Minister John Howard's indifference to the academic medical community and his profound intolerance to those less secure than himself and his administration."

The latest example was his comment last week that HIV migrants should not be allowed, says the journal, whose editor, Dr Richard Horton, spoke at a conference on global health in Sydney this month. "To any visitor, Australian culture feels progressive and inclusive," The Lancet says. "This attractive exterior belies a strong undercurrent of political conservatism, which Howard is ruthlessly tapping into." The Lancet has a significant readership throughout the world and regularly takes a stand on key medical issues.


Any lingering doubts about the political motivation behind their "600,000 Iraqi deaths" claim should now be completely at rest. The editor makes clear that for him the term "conservative" is a term of abuse. Definitely the impartial scientist!

They're flooding into Britain

Record numbers of people are flowing into the UK after net immigration rocketed by 42 per cent in just a year. The gap between those arriving and staying for at least a year and those leaving is now at its highest because of Labour's open door on immigration. And the influx of Eastern Europeans since Tony Blair threw open our labour market has helped fuel the massive rise.

The revelation came after official figures revealed immigrants are flocking to Britain at a rate of 1,500 every day. With only 1,000 leaving per day, it means our population is soaring by 500 daily and almost half are coming to find work or have already landed jobs here. Immigration minister Liam Byrne confirmed a new points-based system for immigrants will start next year but there are no guarantees it will reduce the inflow.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "This number of people migrating into this country shows why a points-based immigration system without a limit is pointless. "Liam Byrne this week acknowledged that there are limited amounts of schools, hospitals and houses in the country, therefore he must accept that there should be a limit to the amount of people who can come here."

Between June 2004 and June 2005, 246,200 more people came to the UK than left. That was up 42 per cent on the 173,600 during the previous 12 months, according to the Office for National Statistics.


NHS has billions for useless computer projects but not enough money for nurses

Nurses have voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action unless ministers improve a "miserly and insulting" pay deal for health workers. The Government has offered nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland a 1.5 per cent pay rise this month, with another 1 per cent to come in November, in defiance of the recommendations of an independent pay review board. But delegates at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) annual conference rejected the offer yesterday, and called on the Government to agree the recommended full 2.5 per cent pay rise immediately - as it already has in Scotland - or face the consequences.

Thousands of ambulance workers, porters and other NHS staff who are members of the GMB union have said that they are also prepared to take industrial action over a similar staged pay deal. If industrial action were taken it would be the first on a national scale by nurses. In an angry and passionate debate at the conference in Harrogate, delegates said that a strike was unlikely but that they would be prepared to take action such as working to rule, which would mean nurses working their contracted hours and no more.

Such measures are designed to minimise any impact on patients, but could mean longer waiting times for nonessential operations. The union's council will now seek an emergency meeting with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, to discuss the issue before deciding whether to ballot members next month.

Peter Carter, the RCN's general secretary, said that the staged offer was equivalent to a 1.9 per cent pay rise, which was "unacceptable and miserly", but that he did not want to proceed in a "ramshackle way". He added: "Let's be clear, we want to avoid strike action. We are hoping that Gordon Brown and Patricia Hewitt will wake up and take this seriously. But we are prepared to find ways to hurt the Government while trying to protect patients. We mean business."

Ministers at the Scottish Assembly, with elections looming next month, have agreed to award nurses a 2.5 per cent pay rise from this month. Ann Taylor-Griffiths, of the RCN's Welsh board, told the conference: "We are one nursing body, we are one NHS and deserve one nationally implemented pay award." David Harding-Price, a nurse from Nottingham, was given a standing ovation as he said: "Stand up now and tell the Government: no more rhetoric. Action, action, action now. Unison, the public sector union, is also expected to support industrial action by nurses when it meets at its conference in Brighton next week.

Ministers have defended the staged offer as fair for nurses and affordable for the economy. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "What we have suggested is a sensible increase that's fair for NHS staff and affordable for the economy. In fact we expect the overall average earnings of nurses to rise by 4.9 per cent next year, above the national average." Mothers and newborn babies are being put at risk because of a lack of specialist care for postnatal depression, the RCN says. The conference will be told today that suicide is the biggest killer of new mothers and that more resources are needed to support women who suffer mental illness during pregnancy or after childbirth. 6.5 hours of unpaid overtime worked on average by nurses every week Source: RCN estimate



The paper below was presented at the conference "Climate Change: Evaluating Appropriate Responses". Brussels, European Parliament, 18 April 2007 by Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, Faculty of Science, Liverpool L2 3ET, UK --

Two weeks ago, climate experts and government officials from 130 countries released the latest IPCC Summary for Policy Makers on the 'Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability of Climate Change'. The IPCC's predictions of the future were carefully scrutinised by governments and generally accepted. Despite attempts to tone down some of the more alarming language, the latest IPCC report predicts that unrestrained warming will cause mass extinctions, devastating floods, heatwaves, storms and droughts that may trigger economic disaster and social upheaval.

There can be little doubt that scientists, science organisations and the dominant science media have been instrumental in turning doom-laden computer models into an apocalyptic consensus. For the last 10 years or so, there has been a relentless outpouring of disaster predictions that have been published with little hesitation and rising alarm by the world's leading science journals. Any lingering reservation about looming catastrophe has been silenced by science editors and environmental journalists. Uncertainties have been conveniently disregarded and highly unlikely worst case scenarios exaggerated. Not since the apocalyptic consensus of the Middle Ages has the prognostication of impending doom and global catastrophe on the basis of mathematical modelling been as widely accepted as today. No question about it: The IPCC's disaster predictions have been converted into a general consensus among the world's political and academic elites.

Ironically, these apocalyptic predictions of the future are politically sanctioned at the same time as a growing number of scientists are recognising that environmental and economic computer modelling of an inherently unpredictable future is illogical and futile (see, O.H. Pilkey and L Pilkey-Jarvis: "Useless Arithmetic: Why environmental scientists can't predict the future", Columbia University Press, 2007). As the eminent mathematician David Orrell has pointed out persuasively: "The track record of any kind of long-distance prediction is really bad, but everyone's still really interested in it. It's sort of a way of picturing the future. But we can't make long-term predictions of the economy, and we can't make long-term predictions of the climate. Models will cheerfully boil away all the water in the oceans or cover the world in ice, even with pre-industrial levels of CO2 When models about the future climate are in agreement, it says more about the self-regulating group psychology of the modelling community than it does about global warming and the economy." (David Orrell, "Apollo's Arrow. The Science of Prediction and the Future of Everything", 2007)

Be that as it may, the reality of the IPCC consensus should not be underestimated. Its political weight and growing demands for drastic economic intervention is posing a serious political predicament for many governments, most of which find themselves unable to control let alone reduce CO2 emissions that are rising almost everywhere.

Paradigms, Consensus and Falsification

Science based on "consensus" is a tricky business. I am agnostic about it because the history of science tells us that today's consensus can, and quite frequently is, tomorrow's redundant theory. There are certain types of general agreements in science that are more compelling and more durable than others. In some areas of empirical science, like solar system astronomy, there is more agreement because the data is more robust and the methods less complex. The more complex the science and the less reliable the data, the more scientific controversy you should expect to find.

On the other hand we also know that science tends to produce - and in fact needs - scientific paradigms -- which is perhaps a better word than consensus. So I have really no problem with the fact of a majority consensus on climate change. But science would quickly come to a dead end without the constant and necessary attempts to falsify the leading paradigm of the day, particularly those that are weak and based on contentious data, dodgy methodologies and flawed computer models.

Indeed, some critics argue that climate science has almost reached such a cul-de-sac. The scientific endeavour involves both the protectors and challengers of each and every paradigm. Both are essential to the health and dynamic of a highly competitive enterprise that is science. No consensus is sacrosanct. And it is in the very nature of science and science communication that all reasonable positions and counter-arguments should be heard. The ongoing controversy about hurricanes and global warming is a perfect example of the predicaments of consensus science. It also demonstrates that advocates who exploit the consensus argument against climate sceptics are more than happy to oppose the consensus - if it helps to further an alarmist agenda.

For a long time, and until fairly recently, natural variability was the lead paradigm underlying the dynamic changes in hurricane frequency and intensity. In the last two years or so, a small number of papers published in the world's leading academic journals Science and Nature have cast doubt over this long-established paradigm. Climate campaigners and science journalists jumped to conclusions and claimed: "The old paradigm is dead - long live the new paradigm!" It is noteworthy, however, that both the recent consensus statements by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as well as the latest IPCC statements on hurricanes and global warming maintain rather than overturn the old paradigm. At the same time, they caution us about the weight of the new papers.

I believe this is an encouraging development because it would appear to raise the requirements for overthrowing old paradigms. Let me also remind you about the dodgy process that removed from the old IPCC consensus the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age and replaced it with the notorious Hockey Stick consensus. A few enthusiastically received papers were able to overturn the old consensus - mainly because they undermined the important argument by climate sceptics about the degree of Holocene climate variability. Science journalists bought into the new Hockey Stick "consensus" sink line, and hooker [Good one!]. However, their prejudice was evidently laid bare by the extraordinary reluctance to report or report impartially about its flaws and the controversy it generated.

Similar problems can be observed regarding the thorny issue of sea level rise: is it more or less steady (as the IPCC claims) or is it accelerating, as climate alarmists claim? The mainstream science media have no qualms in hyping up new papers that go against the IPCC consensus. At the same time, the same outlets ignore other studies that confirm an inconvenient consensus that climate alarmist regard as too conservative and thus pose an impediment for political action.

I could go on and on: while alarmist claims and predictions are routinely puffed up by the science media and environmental journalists, studies that come to more moderate and less alarmist conclusions are habitually ignored or discredited for being too cautious.

From editorial bias to confirmation bias

Over the last 10 years or so, the editors of the world's leading science journals such as Science and Nature as well as popular science magazines such as Scientific American and New Scientist have publicly advocated drastic policies to curb CO2 emissions. At the same time, they have publicly attacked scientists sceptical of the climate consensus. The key message science editors have thus been sending out is brazen and simple: "The science of climate change is settled. The scientific debate is over. It's time to take political action."

Instead of serving as an honest and open-minded broker of scientific controversy, science editors have opted to take a rigid stance on the science and politics of climate change. In so doing, they have in effect sealed the doors for any critical assessment of the prevailing consensus which their journals officially sponsor. Consequently, their public endorsement undoubtedly deters critics from submitting falsification attempts for publication. Such critiques, not surprisingly, are simply non-existing in the mainstream science media.

But there is more to the problem than just editorial promoting of the scientific consensus. After all, such behaviour is not restricted to the issue of climate change. Editorial bias is often found among other science journals on many other controversies. Much more problematic is the reality of a strong confirmation bias among science editors. While the phenomenon of confirmation bias is an intensely researched and well established form of selective thinking among medical and economic researchers, this methodological impediment is completely ignored in climate science.

Any careful examination of the publishing record of leading science journals will show that science editors too tend to favour the publication of papers that confirm their publicly stated beliefs rather than question them. That is why science editors habitually ignore or treat with contempt any evidence that contradicts their core beliefs. Many critical scientists can confirm that prominent science editors have turned down their papers and have become reluctant to the point of refusal to publish any evidence that attempts to refute their favoured theory.

Of course, climate scientist themselves are routinely accused of confirmation bias for running statistical models and framing their data in such a way that it predictably confirms their hypothesis. After all, research into confirmation and other biases has shown that the scientific method incorporates an inherent tension between hard data and their interpretation by scientists with deeply held convictions. Good science journals critically evaluated and peer review the quality of data and the likelihood of error.

This deceptively reliable process of scrutiny and quality control, however, is itself prone to confirmation bias: peer reviewers selected by biased editors are more likely to accept evidence that supports their own prior belief while rejecting arguments and data that may challenge these convictions (Kaptchuk, 2003). Any science medium that ignores or fail to appreciate these inherent pitfalls of climate science can no longer be regarded as trustworthy.

The end of fair and objective science journalism

For the last few years, a number of influential climate scientists and science writers have conducted a campaign against the principles of fair and balanced journalism that epitomize open and pluralistic societies. The main accusation against impartial reporting on climate change is quite simple: An article in the Boston Globe on climate change journalism sums up the key argument: "More and more environmentalists and climate scientists have been making the point that ''objective" journalists are doing as much as anyone (except maybe Hummer enthusiasts) to forestall action on global warming." (Christopher Shea, Boston Globe, 9 April 2006) Or, in the words of media analysts Boykoff and Boykoff: "A more subtle factor that helps explain US inaction (sic) also exists: journalists' faithful adherence to their professional norms (like objectivity, fairness, accuracy, balance)... (Boykoff and Boykoff, Geoforum 2007, in press)

In short, climate campaigners and science activists are concerned that any doubts or uncertainties expressed in the media may hinder the political objective for drastic action. No wonder then that science editors and campaigners have employed strategies to discourage or intimidate reporters from even asking climate sceptics about their assessment. Michael Mann (Penn State University), for instance, has warned science writers that even to quote a climate sceptic would be regarded as if they had granted ''the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite." (Boston Globe, 9 April 2006). The editor of Scientific American, John Rennie, publicly refers to dissenters as ''denialists" and said that "to give them even one paragraph in a 10-paragraph article would be to exaggerate their importance." (Boston Globe, 9 April 2006)

Occasionally, a probing science reporter dares to challenge these forms of coercion despite the threats of mockery and intimidation. In such cases, a whole army of climate campaigners and bloggers will rush to assail the insubordinate journalist, as science writers such as Bill Broad and John Tierney of the New York Times can attest.

In Britain, it has become routine for leading science organisations such as the Royal Society to press-gang the media against publishing critical reporting on climate change. Lord May, the former, president of the Royal Society publicly censured newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for publishing sceptical articles and comments. May also tried to silence respected writers such as David Bellamy, Melanie Phillips and Michael Hanlon by intimidating them personally. In 2005, the then vice-president of the Royal Society, Sir David Wallace, warned the British media not to publish anything that distorted the official view of climate science: "We are appealing to all parts of the UK media to be vigilant against attempts to present a distorted view of the scientific evidence about climate change and its potential effects on people and their environments around the world. I hope that we can count on your support." (The Daily Telegraph, 16 May 2005)

The attacks by science editors and campaigners on critical scientists are not only fuelled by political considerations. Sometimes they are due to blind faith in an apocalyptic future, as a recent editorial in New Scientist reveals: "One of the most corrosive contributions of climate sceptics has been to promote any uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. In truth, the remaining uncertainties should be making us redouble our efforts to mitigate climate change. It's a fair bet that much of what we do not yet know for sure will turn out to be scarier than most of us like to imagine." In other words, the editors of New Scientist are certain that what we do not know today will, upon knowing it in the future, prove to be even worse than they fear. Evidently, such hyperbole has nothing to do with science but belongs to the realm of superstitious divination.

While climate campaigners are trying to frame even the political and economic debate in the traditional fashion of a conflict between consensus and dissent, the political debate is no longer about action versus inaction. The real issue today is about the most cost-effective ways of dealing with climate change: revolutionary transformation of the global economy, as advocated by climate alarmists, or gradual adaptation and adjustment as proposed by climate moderates.

The role of the science media as the maid of government policy

Climate campaigners and environmental media analysts have become convinced that their crusade against impartial science reporting has been won comprehensively. According to this view, the neo-catastrophist framing of climate change has been generally accepted by most science journalists and is now consistently communicated by most news media outlets.

Yet campaigners worry that the political battle is far from won. Thus, in a recent article published by the British Journalism Review, media researchers Eleni Andreadis and Joe Smith warn that the next contest poses an ever greater challenge to science journalism: "We are entering a period when careful interpretation and communication of the economic, political and social dimensions of climate change will be vital. Failure to tell these aspects of the story could be of even greater significance than the painfully slow arrival at the basics of the science. The media will offer the context within which we decide the If, How and When of transforming energy-hungry lifestyles and economies... The open terrain of these questions presents media decision-makers with a new set of challenges, and the way they handle scepticism will again be central to their performance." (British Journalism Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, February 2007).

Andreadis and Smith underscore the role of journalists in framing the climate change debates and assisting governments to enforce drastic policies: "Their principal question should be: Will this help to reduce emissions dramatically, or is it a way of only denting the status quo?". Andreadis and Smith have delineated the science media's political role in no uncertain terms. In a illuminating paragraph, they outline new programme of salvationist campaign journalism: "In dealing with these [climate change] stories the media will also need to marry their critical faculties to a commitment to enable debate about action and change. You can barely fill a taxi with senior mainstream politicians from Western Europe who do not believe action to mitigate and adapt to climate change is necessary. But most are frightened of sticking their necks out. They need to be given the space to think and experiment and lead public debate on action." (British Journalism Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2007).

In other words, the role of science and environmental journalists is to provide governments with media support that will enable reluctant decision makers to enforce unpopular policies.

The crisis of science communication

Despite the majority consensus among climate scientists, science organisations and governments, there is a sizeable minority of researchers, economists and political observers who are concerned about the apocalyptic nature of climate hype and the potential risk it poses for political and economic stability. Sceptical researchers have and will continue to publish critical papers that question important parts of even some fundaments of the current climate consensus. Will the science media provide a platform for these critiques? Will they discuss the weight of their evidence and the validity of their arguments? Or will the science media continue to ignore challenges to the status quo?

The absurdity of the science media's handling of climate science is well illuminated in this week's issue of New Scientist. In an editorial, the editors try to square the principle of falsification (which they claim is vital for science to progress) with their belief that any such attempt would undermine political attempts to mitigate climate disaster: "Some scientists are challenging our ideas on climate change, which is vital if we are to progress. But to overturn present thinking will need very strong evidence because, as the IPCC states, confidence in the idea that anthropogenic warming is changing our world has never been higher." (New Scientist, 14 April 2007).

Yet, at the same time, the editor's zealous defence of the apocalyptic climate consensus and their fierce resistance to provide critical researchers a forum for rebuttals or falsification attempts undermines their own integrity.

Let me conclude: The integrity of the science media will depend on whether it will encourage critique and fault-finding analysis by consensus sceptics - or whether they will continue its course towards unbalanced campaign journalism. Given the well-documented reluctance of mainstream science media to accept submissions by critical scientists and the aversion to report on critical papers published elsewhere, I remain unconvinced that science journalism will moderate its blinkered attitudes in the near future.

The diverse groups of critical analysts and researchers will need to develop alternative infrastructures and media outlets if they wish to provide open-minded science writers with judicious evaluations of disaster predictions and a genuinely impartial assessment of evidence. Given the evident biases mainstream science media and environmental journalism has chosen to adopt, there is a growing demand for more balanced and even-handed coverage of climate change science and debates. Scientists and science writers who are concerned about the integrity and openness of the scientific process should turn the current crisis of science communication into an opportunity by setting up more critical, even-handed and reliable science media.


By David Henderson of the Westminster Business School. The text that follows formed the basis for a presentation to a meeting in Brussels on 18 April 2007, organised by Roger Helmer MEP, on the subject of 'Climate Change: Evaluating Appropriate Responses'


I am not a climate scientist. I am an economist, and I became involved with climate change issues, more by accident than design, some four and a half years ago. To start with, I was chiefly involved with some economic and statistical aspects. Over time my interests and concerns have broadened, though I do not at all claim to have become an all-round expert on this vast array of topics.

Increasingly, I have become critical of the way in which issues relating to climate change are viewed and treated by governments across the world. This is my theme today. I believe that governments, and with them the European Commission, need to think again. My concerns are of two kinds. They relate, first, to the basis for official thinking and policies in this area, and second, to the actual content of policies in many countries, including my own, and in the European Union. In my talk today I will focus almost entirely on the first concern, with only a few concluding words about the second. Under both headings, there is much more that could be said.

A tale of three documents

Climate change issues are especially topical right now, because of the publication of two weighty, officially-commissioned and potentially very influential reports. The larger of these two official publications, scheduled to appear in full in the course of this year, is the IPCC's AR4 - in other words, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. All told, the whole set of documents making up AR4 may well run to 3,000 pages of text, and some 2,500 experts from around the world have been involved in its preparation.

The second report is already in the public domain. It is the Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change. The Review was set in motion by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in July 2005. A text was posted at the end of October last year, and this has now been published in book form, with some extra material added.

The Stern Review is not on the titanic scale of AR4. All the same, it is a weighty document. The main text comprises some 550 pages, and covers a very wide range of issues including both ethical and scientific aspects. Besides these two major officially-sponsored reports, a third contribution should also be noted. In July 2005, the month in which the Stern Review was commissioned, the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs issued a report on precisely the same subject as that of the Review: it too is entitled 'The Economics of Climate Change'. The Select Committee was a notably high-powered body, and its Special Adviser was the leading British environmental economist. Its report was unanimous.

The rest of my remarks fall under three headings:

* First, I comment on the Stern Review and the debate that it has given rise to.

* Second, I place these comments in the wider context of the IPCC's AR4. In doing so, I will raise questions about the role of the Panel and the professional credibility of the IPCC process.

* Third, I offer some brief conclusions and recommendations.

The Stern Review: debate has been joined

The Stern Review paints a dark and dramatic picture of the risks and threats that could arise, over the next two centuries and after, if anthropogenic emissions of (so-called) 'greenhouse gases' are not brought under control in the near future and then progressively and substantially reduced. The Executive Summary begins with the statement that 'The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change presents very serious global risks and it demands an urgent global response'.

The Review has been widely hailed, across the world, as an authoritative guide to thinking and policy. At its launch in October, our Prime Minister asserted that:: '... what is not in doubt is that the scientific evidence of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is now overwhelming... [and] ... that if the science is right, the consequences for our planet are literally disastrous... what the Stern Review shows is how the economic benefits of strong early action easily outweigh any costs.' Her Majesty's Opposition have reacted in precisely the same way, while the only comments on the Review from the British business world that I have seen have likewise been uncritically favourable.

A widely accepted view in Britain is that 'the science' was settled already, well before the appearance of the Stern Review, and that now, thanks to Stern, 'the economics' is also settled: the basis for immediate and far-reaching action has thus been firmly established. To quote the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a recent speech, 'The Stern report [sic] has given us the economic evidence on which to act'

Unusually for a document prepared under official auspices, the Review incorporates in the text a number of high level outside endorsements. Among these, four come from Nobel prizewinners in economics, one from the Head of the International Energy Agency, and another from the President of the World Bank.

However, there are dissenting voices. I am one of an international group of dissenters, and we are by no means alone. Well before the Review saw the light of day, it seemed to a number of us, including both scientists and economists, that we would find much to query in its arguments and conclusions; and when the text appeared, our expectation was fully borne out.

I conceived the idea of a dual critique: we would combine to prepare twin review articles, one authored by a group of scientists (actually, in the event, two of them are engineers), and the other by a team of economists, each covering its own set of issues but linked together. I managed to sell this project to a journal editor, and the result was published in January. Volume 7 Number 4 of World Economics carries both of our texts.

Our main verdict on the Review, in a word, is that it is a biased, a heavily biased, exercise in speculative alarmism. Other commentators, including some leading environmental economists, have also voiced criticisms of the Review; and in the forthcoming issue of World Economics Sir Nicholas and others associated with the Review will be replying at length to us and other critics. Debate has been well and truly joined.

The shadow of AR4

A surprising feature of the Stern Review is that it seems to pay little attention to the argument and evidence presented in AR4 - even though successive complete draft texts of AR4 were made available to member governments and participants in the IPCC process from about the time that the Review was commissioned. Sharp-eyed journalists in Britain have noted that in some respects the Report is less tilted towards alarming possibilities than the Review. In the light of these apparent differences, an obvious question arises. How far does this latest IPCC report lend support to the Stern Review case for 'an urgent global response'?

Clear answers to that question have recently been given, in the context of the first volume of AR4, the report of the Panel's Working Group I, by high level official persons closely involved in, or connected with, the IPCC process.

* Dr Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC: 'I hope this report will shock people [and] governments into taking more serious action'.

* Achim Steiner, the Director-General of the UNEP: 'in the light of the report's findings, it would be "irresponsible" to resist or seek to delay actions on mandatory emissions cuts'.[1].

* Yvo de Boer, Secretary-General of the UNFCCC: 'the findings ... leave no doubt as to the dangers that mankind is facing and must be acted on without delay'.

* Stavros Dimas, the EU's Commissioner for the environment: 'a grim report'.

In interpreting such statements, it is worth bearing in mind that in none of them is the wording directly drawn from the Report. These eminent persons were not actually quoting AR4 text: they were putting their own personal gloss on it, and giving their own views as to its implications for policy, as they were fully entitled to do.

Even aside from such high-level pronouncements, however, it could be argued - I might have made the argument myself, had I not been drawn into these issues - that just how much weight should be placed on the Stern Review is a minor matter. It could be said that even if the Review represents an extreme position - which is of course debatable - and even if economists continue to wage their own inconclusive private wars, the case for immediate and far-reaching global action to contain emissions has been made, independently and authoritatively, in the past and current work of the IPCC. Let me tell you why I am personally not convinced by this very reasonable-sounding argument, because of the doubts that I have come to hold in relation to the IPCC process.

The wider context: the IPCC and the problem of unwarranted trust

Since its creation in 1988, the IPCC has come a long way, and has achieved a great deal. As a result, it has established itself, in the eyes of most if not all its member governments, as their sole authoritative and continuing source of information, evidence, analysis, interpretation and advice on the whole range of issues relating to climate change, including economic issues. It has acquired what is effectively a monopoly position.

While recognising its achievements, I believe that there are good reasons to query the claims to authority and representative status that are made by and on behalf of the Panel, and hence to question the effective monopoly that it now holds. To begin with, the very idea of creating a single would-be authoritative fount of wisdom is itself open to doubt. Even if the IPCC process were indisputably and consistently rigorous, objective and professionally watertight, it is imprudent for governments to place virtually exclusive reliance, in matters of extraordinary complexity where huge uncertainties prevail, on a single source of analysis and advice and a single process of inquiry. Viewed in this light, the very notion of setting consensus as an aim appears as questionable if not ill-judged.

In any case, the ideal conditions have not been realised. In my opinion, the IPCC process is far from being a model of rigour, inclusiveness and impartiality. In this connection, there are several related aspects that I would emphasise.

* Its treatment of economic issues has been flawed. Writings that feature in the Third Assessment Report contain what many economists and economic statisticians would regard as basic errors, showing a lack of awareness of relevant published sources; and the same is true of more recent IPCC-related writings, as also of material published by the UNEP. In this area, the IPCC milieu is neither fully competent nor adequately representative.[2]

* The Panel's emphasis on peer-reviewed published work, though understandable, takes too much for granted. Standard peer-reviewing processes do not necessarily serve as a guarantee of quality, reliability and objectivity.

* In peer-reviewed work that the IPCC has drawn on, the authors concerned have failed to make due disclosure of data, sources and procedures, and the IPCC has not required them to do so.

* The response of the IPCC milieu to informed criticism has typically been inadequate or dismissive. A conspicuous example was the British government's official response to the report from the House of Lords Select Committee.[3]

* Both the Panel's directing circle and the IPCC milieu more generally have an endemic bias towards alarmist assessments and conclusions. Note that, in speaking of the Panel's 'directing circle' I refer, not to the 2,500 or so experts who have contributed to the preparation of AR4, but to a more restricted, higher-level and more influential set of participants. These are the people who run the show.

Let me bring in here the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs. That report deals with many subjects, but for me its most striking feature, and a welcome one, was the concerns that it expressed about the IPCC. Given the credibility which the IPCC has acquired, it is truly remarkable that a group of eminent, experienced and responsible persons, drawn from a national legislative body and spanning the political spectrum, with the help of an internationally recognised expert adviser, and after taking and weighing evidence, should have published a considered and unanimous report in which the work and role of the Panel are put in question.

How (you may ask) has the Stern Review treated the questions raised about the IPCC process by various writers and by the Select Committee in particular? The answer is surprising. Although the Review is long and wide-ranging, the text makes no mention of any of the criticisms that have been directed towards the IPCC process. Moreover, although the lists of references in the Review extend to around 1,100 papers and studies, that inventory of 1,100 does not include the report from the Select Committee. There are other significant omissions, but this one is the most striking and the least excusable.

To sum up under this heading, I believe that there is a problem of unwarranted trust in the IPCC process and in the role of the Panel itself, a problem which the Stern Review shows no awareness of.

Policy aspects

Finally, a word on policy aspects. Here I offer two conclusions relating to the basis of policy, followed by a brief post-script on the content of policies to limit CO2 emissions. The first of my conclusions is simple. Policymakers, officials and commentators should not join our Prime Minister, Her Majesty's Opposition and leading British business firms and organisations, by endorsing, uncritically and without qualification, the arguments, findings and recommendations of the Stern Review. Contrary to what these and other eminent persons have presumed, the Review does not 'show' what is the case, and the debate on the economics of climate change remains open and unsettled.

My second conclusion, which is more fundamental, is this. In relation to climate change, a clear present need is to build up a sounder basis than now exists for reviewing and assessing the issues. Governments should think again. Rather than pursuing as a matter of urgency ambitious and costly targets for curbing CO2 emissions, they should take prompt steps to ensure that they and their citizens are more fully and more objectively informed and advised. A process of review and inquiry needs to be established, which is more impartial, more representative and more balanced than that which the IPCC and its controlling departments and agencies have built up and shown themselves unwilling to change. I have made specific proposals, so far to no effect, as to the kinds of action that might be taken to secure this result.

Last of all, a word on the choice of policies designed to limit and reduce emissions. Here the main point was well made last month by Martin Wolf in his Financial Times column, where he wrote that: '...any workable policy system must be global; it must create stable incentives; it must be administratively simple; it must include investment in creation and dissemination of new technologies; and, not least, it must allow people to get on with their lives with as much freedom as possible. Uniform prices on emissions - ideally, through taxation - will do most of this job. Almost everything else is unnecessary or counterproductive.'[4]

Current official policies, actual and prospective, have many features that come under the heading of 'unnecessary or counterproductive': Wolf's article refers, appropriately to 'a host of interventionist gimmickry' Not only is there good reason to query the officially approved basis for climate change policies, but many of the specific policy initiatives that have been taken are open to serious question. This is my second reason for believing that governments should think again.

[1] This and the following quotation are than from a report (3 February) in the Financial Times.

[2] Ian Castles and I have jointly put forward a critique of some leading aspects of the IPCC's economic work, while authors involved in that work have contested our criticisms. The debate was reviewed and carried further in a recent article of mine entitled 'SRES, IPCC, and the Treatment of Economic Issues: What Has Emerged?' (Energy and Environment, Volume 16 No. 3 & 4, 2005). It is too early to rate the treatment of economic issues in AR4, but we were critical of the decision to use the SRES - i.e., the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, published in 2000 - as the point of departure for it.

[3] I commented on this document in an article entitled 'Report, Response and Review', published in Energy and Environment, Vol 17, No 1, 2006.

[4] Martin Wolf, 'Why emissions curbs must be simple', Financial Times, 16 March 2007.

No comments: