Greg Barker keynote speech at the launch of the new Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme

I am delighted to be able to address you at the launch of the new Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme. At about the same time that the Met Office Hadley Centre was opened by Prime Minister Tha...

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The Rt Hon Gregory Barker

I am delighted to be able to address you at the launch of the new Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme.

At about the same time that the Met Office Hadley Centre was opened by Prime Minister Thatcher in 1990, the IPCC was meeting close by, in Egham, to approve its very first Assessment Report.

Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative by conviction and a scientist by training, understood the importance of science-based evidence and was one of the very first world leaders to go to the UN and call for concerted international action to tackle climate change.

These events demonstrated both the rapid rise in awareness of climate change and the leadership of the UK in promoting scientific understanding and the need for an ambitious response to its unprecedented challenge.

Since those early days, scientific understanding of climate change has grown enormously, in terms of the observations available, our understanding of the workings of the climate system and the capability and sophistication of models.

And, since then, the Met Office Hadley Centre has become arguably (personally, I don’t think that there is much argument) the foremost climate research centre in the world, building an unrivalled reputation for scientific excellence and delivering policy relevance. On my travels I have seen for myself the high international standing of UK climate science.

And I understand that there were more Hadley Centre authors of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report on the Physical Science than from any other institution in the world.

My ministerial colleague from BIS, Norman Lamb, has already noted the international reputation of the Hadley Centre and stressed the importance of its scientific collaborations within the UK and worldwide.

I would like to add my own endorsement - now that the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment is being drafted and as the warning messages to humanity get ever stronger and more urgent, you, the Hadley Centre, in partnership and collaboration with UK science, continue to provide the quality scientific evidence we need here in the UK and crucially, deliver world-leading science to strengthen the UK’s international voice.

International scientific assessments have confirmed that climate change is already happening - unequivocally - and I saw for myself when I visited the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge last autumn, ice core evidence that you’d have to go back in time at least 800,000 years and probably much further, to find an atmosphere with as much carbon dioxide in it as we breathe today.

There is 40% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than before the industrial revolution, just 250 years ago. And over the past 100 or so years, global average temperatures have risen by about 0.8 degrees.

Global Warming and its consequences, including sea level rise and the acidification of our oceans, will continue and won’t be slowed without urgent action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, right round the world.

But, we often hear in the media that scientists disagree about climate change - that many reputable scientists consider that climate change is not caused by human activities. That’s not how I see it.

It’s clear that the vast majority of climate experts agree on the fundamentals: climate change is happening and is mainly, not exclusively but mainly, due to human activities. The basic physics is incontrovertible and the future risks demand that we act; act now; and act decisively.

We need to act, not because we are certain of the future. Of course we aren’t. But because of the huge and increasing risks.

I for one, would not advise that we wait for scientific certainty - that will never happen and even if it did it would likely be too late. We must act to reduce the risks of disaster while we still have time.

Climate change presents us with a unique set of policy challenges because of its global reach, long term implications and yes, scientific uncertainty (an important part of your work) over its future scale and its impacts on communities and societies.

The Government accepts that we must work to do two things:

  • reduce emissions globally; and
  • develop adaptation strategies to deal with the climate changes already built into the system.

So, the foremost challenge is to agree international actions that will reduce future emissions enough to avoid really dangerous change. That means reducing emissions by at least 50% globally by 2050, with greater cuts for the developed world whose emissions are, on a per capita basis, higher than those in the developing world.

But, to make the case for action we continue to need sound scientific evidence and advice. Indeed, the 2010 UNFCCC Cancun agreement demanded the best possible scientific knowledge, research, systematic observation and modelling, to give decision makers better data and information.

Of course there are uncertainties but no-one should doubt - we have already established, based on your work and that of your peers - that the essential message is clear: the risks of inaction are huge and very long term, for the natural environment, society and the economy. We still need much more robust evidence about possible future climate change and its implications.

On the second action - developing adaptation strategies - again the UK led the way with the 2008 Climate Change Act. This requires government to report regularly on the risks of climate change, publish a programme setting out how these will be addressed, and put in train actions to meet UK and EU targets, through a transition to a low carbon economy by 2050. Last December, we published our Carbon Plan which set out how we will achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 2050.

As Norman Lamb noted, some level of UK climate change is unavoidable and the Climate Change Risk Assessment, set out the range of risks and opportunities that the UK faces. The risks significantly outweigh possible opportunities - yes, there are opportunities…. including market opportunities in tourism and leisure and increases in agricultural yields where water or nutrients are not limiting factors.

But the main threats that the CCRA found were an increased risk of flooding, hotter summers and impaired water resources. We have already seen in the last few years - indeed just the last couple of months - the effects of drought and major floods; and that these can come in quick succession. One of the opportunities of better climate change adaptation will be to help us improve resilience to such extreme weather events.

Government wants to ensure that UK society makes timely and well informed decisions to address increasingly likely climate change risks and opportunities. So Defra is leading the development of a National Adaptation Plan, which will be published next year. This will build on available evidence, not least, from you, the Hadley Centre.

All sectors of society and economy need to think about what these risks and opportunities mean for them. To do business in future we need to be ‘climate ready’ and ask questions now like how extreme weather will affect our buildings, infrastructure and supply chains? The Environment Agency will be supporting sectors with information for decision-making through its Climate Ready Service.

Overall then, it seems to me that our investment in your science since 1990 has really paid off. It has put the UK at the forefront of the international stage and underpinned our policies, both domestically and internationally.

In 2010, Government Chief Science Advisor, John Beddington reported on the UK Government’s needs for climate science and advice. He concluded that the Hadley Centre provides essential services to government and is indeed, a critical national capability.

Sir John’s report asked sponsoring departments to continue to fund Met Office Hadley Centre key science. It also asked for increased funding for supercomputing, essential for delivering further model improvements.

We have delivered on these requests. Both DECC and Defra have funded extra supercomputing to help run more sophisticated models; and we are here today to launch the second component - a new, policy-informing Climate Programme, founded on your strengths: scientific rigour, impartiality, and intellectual independence.

I would stress the importance of excellent communication and transparency about scientific uncertainties - difficult science put across in ways that engage numerous stakeholders and the public - and I am encouraged by the emphasis placed on clear communication and knowledge transfer in the new programme.

UK science must continue to be world-class and I am certain that your scientific partnerships and collaborations here and across the world will go on building stronger international capability in climate science, crucial for informing negotiations, which I take part in - for example, your work on understanding and attributing the risk of extreme climate events.

The primary use of climate science and advice by DECC has been to inform mitigation actions at home and abroad. But now there is a growing recognition that climate and weather information is also needed to ensure a resilient low carbon energy system. This is a new area of work that we want you to develop strongly in the next few years, for example, to inform resource mapping, and performance and load balancing of energy systems.

In partnership with the UK academic community and others, you will develop a new Earth System Model which will be used to improve advice around mitigation pathways and the risks of sudden and dangerous climate change, including the role of land use change on emissions budgets.

Finally, some have proposed direct intervention in the climate system to counter climate change - so called geo-engineering. Whilst we don’t believe this is a ‘Plan B’, we do need to understand the potential implications of such approaches, so I am pleased to encourage more research and modelling from you and your partners to address the science behind geo-engineering.

To conclude, I am delighted to speak for DECC and Defra, both to celebrate the past successes of the Hadley Centre and to look forward to the world-class science your new Climate Programme will deliver, in support of our two departments’, and the UK’s policy needs at home and abroad. I wish you every success. We are relying on you. Thank you.

Published 20 June 2012