Sound science is not enough

The fight against climate change demands leadership and fresh thinking from politicians

The dinosaurs have woken. After an easy start, David Cameron is facing a challenge from the Tory old guard in one of his most prized policy areas: the environment. While enlightened Tories such as Tim Yeo call for cross-party action, the Conservative Party's inherent distrust of science and environmentalism has surfaced in an extraordinary article by Nigel Lawson in the Spectator. In an argument riddled with dodgy science, the former chancellor attempted to make the economic case against the Kyoto accords and against doing anything about greenhouse gases. In doing so, he lined up with his former cabinet colleague, the one-time Enron director John Wakeham.

From the comfort of their City boardrooms, these two misinterpret the work of climate specialists and claim understanding of complex meteorological systems. It wouldn't matter, except that they muddy the water for everyone else, while giving the impression to the world that the

British parliament, scientifically, is as backward as the Bush White House.

Their interventions, however, have one positive effect: they remind us that we must think about how societies can deal with climate change. Where Lawson, Wakeham and the US energy industry argue that we should simply carry on as usual, the usual environmental response has been the precautionary principle - in essence, do the safe thing. But this position has its drawbacks, not least that it has allowed corporate apologists and conservatives to make the running. We need something more. We need to move towards a strategy that combines three essential elements: rigorous science, practical solutions and social engagement. The unifying theme should be "environmental validity".

For 20 years our approach to environmental dangers has been shaped by the precautionary principle, aiming to preserve the natural world and minimise the risks of adverse changes. It has brought successes, for example in restoring ozone in the polar stratosphere and cleaning up acid rain in Europe and North America, but on other issues, such as preserving fisheries and saving wildlife habitats, it has been less effective. Scientists have recommended feasible solutions, but the political and social dimensions have proved too demanding.

Tackling global climate change is another area where it is not working.

The Exeter scientific conference last year agreed that the human-induced rise in global temperatures over land might reach 4°C by 2100, a rise very likely to cause irreversible damage to natural life and human society. But this consensus on the need for action stood in sharp contrast to the political failure to confront climate change at Gleneagles.

A basis for progress exists, however, and it was evident at the UN climate-change conference in Montreal last year. Leading countries are starting to formulate policies for the long term. Governments are mindful of their obligation to minimise damage to the environment for future generations, and they are accepting the objective of sustainable development as the guiding principle for environmental policy. This brings us to the need for social engagement.

The framework for our policies must be seen by the public to have environmental validity and social relevance. Some City and industry leaders have already put this into practice, adopting programmes of sustainable development that have been clearly explained and which command popular understanding and support - for example, with traffic control measures such as congestion charging which both improve traffic flow and reduce emissions.

The quality of public involvement is improving, too. As a Bangladeshi politician observed at Montreal, the public becomes really engaged when it is informed about the local implications of global and long-term issues. We must avoid the abstract and the hypothetical. Environmental campaigners must show that concepts and data are real by relating them to each other and by testing them against practical experience.

Finally, there is uncertainty about how these strategies should be implemented. Can we go on as before, treating the environment, the economy and social problems as distinct, each competing for resources? That seems to be the approach advocated by some Tory peers and by social scientists such as the Danish economist Bjørn Lomborg, who believe climate change will not have to be addressed until 2100. Or do we need an integrated strategy of sustainable development?

Global environmental change overrides all else, making the integrated response essential. It requires not just joined-up thinking by government departments, but joined-up action. This is an enormous management challenge, and one approach might be for apolitical, independent agencies (perhaps modelled on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee) to advise governments and international bodies about the best ways to proceed.

However the challenge is met, public engagement is essential. Although there are examples around the world of successful programmes initiated by outstanding local or national leadership, to work in the long term they always need to bring people with them. Politicians must persuade and convince, employing sound science as they do. The ignorant and misleading comments of Wakeham, Lawson and their ilk can only obstruct that process.

Lord Hunt is professor of climate modelling at University College London and a former director general of the Meteorological Office