UK’s Royal Society wastes everyone’s time with bland, pointless, and confused ‘summary’ of climate science

If you didn’t read the 2007 IPCC report — and won’t read the scientific literature since then — there might be a microscopic chance you would gain some value from skimming the Royal Society’s “new short guide to the science of climate change.”

The headline over at the mostly widely read — and most widely discredited — website for spreading pro-pollution, anti-science disinformation, WattsUpWithThat, tells you all you need to know, “The Royal Society’s Toned Down Climate Stance.” The Brits own anti-sciencer disinformers, Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, brag, “Royal Society Bows To Climate Change Sceptics.”

A long, long time ago on planet Earth, June 2007, to be exact, the UK’s Royal Society (the UK’s national academy of science, “the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence,” founded in 1660), had something called a Royal Society Climate Change Advisory Group, which released a “simple guide” to climate controversies. It was “an overview of the scientific understanding of climate change aimed at helping non-experts to better understand some of the debates in this complex area of science. It debunked several standard pieces of disinformation and concluded:

Our scientific understanding of climate change is sufficiently sound to make us highly confident that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. Science moves forward by challenge and debate and this will continue. However, none of the current criticisms of climate science, nor the alternative explanations of global warming are well enough founded to make not taking any action the wise choice. The science clearly points to the need for nations to take urgent steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, as much and as fast as possible, to reduce the more severe aspects of climate change. We must also prepare for the impacts of climate change, some of which are already inevitable.

This document was compiled with the help of the Royal Society Climate Change Advisory Group and other leading experts.

Based on such science-based judgments, the Royal Society would routinely join the other national academies of sciences in calling for deep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gases (see “National Academies call for 50% CO2 cut”).


Heck, as recently as November 2009, the Society signed on to a clear statement of the increasingly dire nature of the science like this:

“The 2007 IPCC Assessment, the most comprehensive and respected analysis of climate change to date, states clearly that without substantial global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions we can likely expect a world of increasing droughts, floods and species loss, of rising seas and displaced human populations. However even since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened. The scientific evidence which underpins calls for action at Copenhagen is very strong. Without co-ordinated international action on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on climate and civilisation could be severe.


But now leap to 2010 and the climate-ravaged planet Eaarth.

Some Royal Society Fellows who apparently don’t know much about climate science objected to these science-based conclusions. So it decided to review and update its guide.


Now you might think that its new guide would have stronger conclusions, because, as recently as November, the Society itself acknowledged, “since the 2007 IPCC Assessment the evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened.” Indeed, William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge”: New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected.”

You’d be wrong.

The new report divides climate science into three areas:

  1. Aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement
  2. Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion
  3. Aspects that are not well understood.

To give you an idea of how confused this guide is, how confusing this division is, here’s a quiz. Guess which of the three areas this paragraph comes in:

Volcanic eruptions are examples of a natural climate forcing mechanism. An individual volcanic eruption has its largest effects on the climate for only a few years after the eruption; these effects are dependent on the location, size and type of the eruption.

Yes, the Royal Society asserts that there is a “wide consensus” but not “wide agreement” on volcanoes as a natural climate forcing mechanism with its largest effects lasting only a few years. I hope that cleared up the tripartite structure for you.


The volcano point is just a trivial matter, but it goes to the heart of this dumbed-down, report-by-committee whose aim isn’t informing the public but seems to be instead not annoying the least common denominator, the anti-science disinformers.

There is some basic science reporting in this paper. The introduction states plainly:

There is strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, including agriculture and deforestation.

The “wide agreement” part makes clear:

When these surface temperatures are averaged over periods of a decade, to removesome of the year-to-year variability, each decade since the 1970s has been clearly warmer (given known uncertainties) than the one immediately preceding it. The decade 2000–2009 was, globally, around 0.15oC warmer than the decade 1990–1999.

But the Royal Society can’t really get past Working Group One of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment, and decides to make the exact same two mistakes for which the IPCC has been widely criticized: It doesn’t spell out simply and clearly what will happen if we don’t take action to reduce emissions nor does it spell out the plausible worst-case scenario (which is crucial to how individuals and societies actually make major decisions).

And so in the “wide consensus” but not “wide agreement” part, here is all they can bring themselves to say in the “Future climate change” section on sea level rise:

45. Because of the thermal expansion of the ocean, it is very likely that for many centuries the rate of global sea-level rise will be at least as large as the rate of 20 cm per century that has been observed over the past century. Paragraph 49 discusses the additional, but more uncertain, contribution to sea-level rise from the melting of land ice.


The Royal Society one-ups the IPCC decision to punt on SLR by ignoring the entire scientific literature on sea level rise of the past three years, a literature that has created a wide consensus (but continuing debate and discussion) around a SLR estimate this century of 3 to 5 feet (see “Scientists withdraw low-ball estimate of sea level rise “” media are confused and anti-science crowd pounces”).

And so the “Aspects that are not well understood” section merely adds this in paragraph 49:

49. There is currently insufficient understanding of the enhanced melting and retreat of the ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica to predict exactly how much the rate of sea level rise will increase above that observed in the past century (see paragraph 45) for a given temperature increase.

What precisely is the point of writing this “guide to the science of climate change” if that is all you are going to tell the British public about the threat unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases poses to the country’s vast shorelines?

Based on this report, I doubt that many of the panel members follow the scientific literature in climate science very closely. Indeed, probably the most embarrassing thing about this report is its essentially non-existent bibliography. The news release says, “The guide has been prepared by leading international scientists, mostly drawn from the Fellowship of the Society, and it is based on very extensive published scientific work.”

But in place of any footnotes or an actual bibliography, the report has a short page titled “Background reading,” which states in its entirety:

Extensive background references to the scientific literature, and summaries thereof, can be found in the following two documents.

Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007, Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Advancing the Science of Climate Change, National Research Council,

That toss off to two other reports’ bibliographies would get your literature review thrown out of any graduate school or science journal. How are you supposed to have any idea what scientific papers they actually reviewed and base their conclusions on?

The NRC report itself doesn’t draw any final conclusions on SLR by 2100 — see U.S. National Academy of Sciences labels as “settled facts” that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.” But the NRC makes up for that by simply summarizing the post-IPCC science (click here). And then it reproduces this figure (see “Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100”):

It labels this figure “projection of sea level rise from 1990 to 2100, based on IPCC temperature projections for three different GHG scenarios” noting that “these projections are considerably larger than the sea level rise estimates for IPCC AR4, which did not account for potential changes in ice sheet dynamics and are considered conservative.”

So we have the Royal Society citing as one of its two primary sources a report that it basically ignores. That, of course, is precisely why you would flunk any graduate science paper with such a non-bibliography — it allows you to pretend that you are drawing on a large literature, without actually doing it.

Confusingly, the Introduction says, “The impacts of climate change, as distinct from the causes, are not considered here.” Huh? Not quite. What they mean is that the impacts on humans aren’t considered here — but sea level rise is by any definition of the phrase one of the main impacts of climate change. If they didn’t want to discuss climate change impacts at all, then they should have dropped the entire section on “future climate change.”

The Society is equally unable to explain in simple language what happens to temperatures if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path. In the wide-consensus-but-not-wide-agreement part, here is all they can bring themselves to say in the “Future climate change” section:

As with almost any attempts to forecast future conditions, projections of future climate change depend on a number of factors. Future emissions due to human activity will depend on social, technological and population changes which cannot be known with confidence. The underlying uncertainties in climate science and the inability to predict precisely the size of future natural climate forcing mechanisms mean that projections must be made which take into account the range of uncertainties across these different areas.

The 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made projections of future changes using a number of possible scenarios of future emissions, based on a diverse range of assumptions. The IPCC’s best estimate was that globally averaged surface temperatures would be between 2.5–4.7o C higher by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. The full range of projected temperature increases by 2100 was found to be 1.8–7.1oC based on the various scenarios and uncertainties in climate sensitivity.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that there is no further increase in climate forcing, a further warming would be expected to occur as the oceans slowly respond to the existing climate forcing, amounting to a further few tenths of a degree centigrade by the year 2100.

The uncertainty in the predicted warming as a result of human activity over the next twodecades is smaller, the range being 0.2 to 0.4oC per decade.

Are you informed yet?

You’d never know from this report that the British have one of the top climate centers in the world, which has done a much better job of spelling out what’s to come — see Hadley Center: “Catastrophic” 9–13°F warming by 2100 on current emissions path. Dr. Vicky Pope, head of climate change predictions at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, wrote in the UK Times in December 2008 that

In a worst-case scenario, where no action is taken to check the rise in Greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures would most likely rise by more than 5°C by the end of the century.

It may be “a worst-case scenario” in a world that listens to scientists and makes mitigation a priority, but on planet Eaarth, even the Met[eorological] Office (part of the Defence Ministry) understands it is better described as the “business-as-usual” case.

You could replace the entire Royal Society guide with that one chart and it would be a net improvement in useful information delivered to the public

Their findings match recent work from MIT (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).

Again, this isn’t even the worst-case according to the Met Office (see UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13–18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon”).

UPDATE: In rereading the guide, I notice that this climate science summary does not see fit to devote a single sentence to one of the best pieces of evidence that humans are changing the climate now and are poised to utterly devastate it in the future — the consequences of pouring an endless stream of carbon dioxide into the oceans (see Nature Geoscience: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred and Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”).

You won’t be surprised that this bland, pointless report has a bland, pointless set of “Concluding Remarks”:

There is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the dominant cause of the global warming that has taken place over the last half century. This warming trend is expected to continue as are changes in precipitation over the long term in many regions. Further and more rapid increases in sea level are likely which will have profound implications for coastal communities and ecosystems.

It is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future, but careful estimates of potential changes and associated uncertainties have been made. Scientists continue to work to narrow these areas of uncertainty. Uncertainty can work both ways, since the changes and their impacts may be either smaller or larger than those projected.

Like many important decisions, policy choices about climate change have to be made in the absence of perfect knowledge. Even if the remaining uncertainties were substantially resolved, the wide variety of interests, cultures and beliefs in society would make consensus about such choices difficult to achieve. However, the potential impacts of climate change are sufficiently serious that important decisions will need to be made. Climate science — including the substantial body of knowledge that is already well established, and the results of future research — is the essential basis for future climate projections and planning, and must be a vital component of public reasoning in this complex and challenging area.


Thankfully, even leading conservative politicians in the UK appear more informed on the science — and more blunt about the dangers of inaction — than the Royal Society, so this report is as irrelevant as it is pointless (see UK’s conservative Foreign Secretary: “You cannot have food, water, or energy security without climate security…. The time to act is now”).

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