Thursday, 3 October 2013

The future of climate change

Environmental science tends to be carried out within a regulatory regime which why it attracts funding. Once established, the regulatory regime is in the driving seat, not the science.

This is a fact of life for environmental scientists. The science is mostly about monitoring regulatory compliance and providing evidence for prosecution where such things as discharge licences, emission licences or environmental laws have been broken.

I must have signed many hundreds of witness statements in my role as an expert witness in cases of water pollution, although I hardly ever had to attend court as scientific evidence was challenged only rarely. The witness statement was almost always sufficient.

What we refer to as climate change with its associated treaties and laws is merely another regulatory regime but on a global scale. Climate science has a similar support role to other regulatory regimes, but the science is significantly less mature and dependable.

As well as having an enforcement role, the environmental scientist’s job may be to provide a scientific basis for new regulations. For example the quantification and regulation of dioxins and dioxin like substances in the environment.

It requires spending on advanced analytical technology and the development of reliable methods for the sampling and analysis of soil samples. This means reliable enough to go to court and give evidence about scientific results under oath.

Provision of funding and expertise for new environmental investigations is the positive side of regulatory regimes. Another example has been the identification and quantification of endocrine disruptors in the environment.

In this respect, climate change is a fairly typical if wildly controversial and ambitious regulatory regime. It has facilitated funding and expertise for the investigation of an alleged environmental problem due to human emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere supposedly causing a rise in global temperature.

As I see it, the problem with the regulatory regime for the global climate is a clumsy desire by UNEP to regulate combustion processes before the scientific rationale devised by the IPCC was known to be sound.

For me this has been one of the most startling aspects of climate change – the science is horrible and nowhere near reliable enough for regulatory purposes. I suppose one advantage of a carbon market is that m’learned friends are given no opportunity to pick apart the science in an enforcement process based on prosecution.

So what does the future have in store?

To my mind, the most interesting aspect is the future direction of global temperatures. The climate is in charge here, not UNEP or the IPCC. It’s as if Defra had no idea what the Thames might do next.

If a global warming trend sets in, then it will probably be business as usual and the regulatory regime will require climate scientists to carry on as if nothing untoward happened. They won’t spend much time on explaining the warming hiatus either.

If the warming hiatus continues or a global cooling trend sets in, then it may still be business as usual, but how they intend to carry it off I have no idea. There may be contingency plans spoken of in private, but you or I will never hear of them until the press releases pop up.

A much bigger problem is the obvious damage done to national energy policies as they become more and more absurd. Somehow the climate regime may have to compromise on this one.

Don’t bet on it though – regulatory regimes don’t care about a few thousand extra deaths each winter.

Also posted at Broad Oak Magazine


Demetrius said...

Climate change, sometimes quite radical has happened often in the past and will happen in the future. How, why, what and when are all interesting questions. Science enables us to make a few guesses but not a lot else. My money is on the ants.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes the best we can do is guess. Pity it isn't admitted.