Julia Slingo speaks at Rice University

In October 2010, the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein noted British Foreign Secretary (and former Conservative Party leader) William Hague’s “strong words” on the looming dangers of manmade climate change to draw a sharp contrast with the staunch skepticism about climate science and climate action that had come to dominate the Republican Party.

Hague, Brownstein wrote, had called climate change “perhaps the 21st century’s biggest foreign policy challenge,” adding that the British official’s appraisal:

… make[s] it easier to recognize that Republicans in this country are coalescing around a uniquely dismissive position on climate change. The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones. … Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here.

A recent talk at Houston’s Rice University by the chief scientist of the Met Office, Britain’s national weather service – considered against the backdrop of recent pronouncements by leading Republican presidential candidates – underscored the fact that the dramatic contrast with other conservative parties that Brownstein described a year and a half ago still exists.

Julia Slingo, the Met Office chief scientist, told an audience at Rice’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy that over the next few decades, a certain amount of human-caused climate change will happen, regardless of current and future reductions in heat-trapping greenhouse gases, because of past emissions.

“It’s not just the absolute temperature [changes that will result], but the rapidity of change” that worries her most as a climate scientist, Slingo said.

Temperature fluctuations have occurred through the earth’s history, she added, but the average warming that is occurring now and is likely to continue over the next 100 years is probably ten times as rapid as anything observed in the past, which carries serious implications for the ability of the planet’s physical and biological systems to adjust.

Reflecting that conclusion, the policy agenda of the U.K. government – a coalition administration, led by the Conservatives with some ministerial posts held by Liberal Democrats – has been changing along with the scientific research agenda to emphasize not just steps to mitigate and adapt to manmade climate change, but also how to boost “resilience and preparedness” – now and in decades to come.

“It’s quite clear,” Slingo said, “that as a society, we are far more vulnerable to hazardous weather and natural climate variability than we were 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

To illustrate British officials’ new focus, she cited the release in September 2010 of a study described at the time as “the first national assessment of how well prepared the U.K. is for climate change.”

A news release from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that Caroline Spelman, the Conservative minister who heads the agency, said at the House of Commons that the study shows “people must start preparing now for the ‘unavoidable’ impacts of climate change, to protect our economy, infrastructure and way of life.”

She said: “Today’s report provides a wake-up call. It recognizes that there is no part of our society which is immune from the effects of climate change. Which means that every part of our society must think about its resilience.

“This Government is pushing ahead with measures to ensure that climate change adaptation becomes an ingrained part of how we manage our natural environment – particularly in critical areas such as water efficiency, biodiversity and food production.

“Adapting to climate change may also offer some major opportunities. The transition to a low carbon, well-adapted global economy could create hundreds of thousands of sustainable green jobs. But we must – all of us – take steps now to recognize the problem, analyze the risk and plan ahead.”

Such statements stand in stark contrast to campaign remarks over the past several months by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, now the two leading contestants for the GOP presidential nomination.

Romney has shifted his language on climate change toward the skeptical views that polls show are held by many conservatives.

In a 2011 campaign book, he declared: “I believe that climate change is occurring – the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor.” He added, however, than he wasn’t sure how much of the change was human-caused and opposed “radical feel-good policies” such as a U.S. law to cap carbon dioxide emissions.

Last October, however, seeming to reverse the view that “human activity is a contributing factor,” Romney asserted: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

In November, Romney had picked up something of the mocking tone long displayed toward mainstream climate science by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, briefly a candidate for the GOP nomination himself.

“I exhale carbon dioxide,” he added. “I don’t want those guys [Environmental Protection Agency officials moving to regulate that greenhouse gas] following me around with a meter to see if I’m breathing too hard.”

Santorum, speaking to a conservative audience at an energy conference in Colorado, in February dismissed the conclusion of human causation behind climate change – a view supported by the vast majority of scientists – as a “hoax” that he “never bought.”

On March 10, writing a column for the conservative RedState website, he took a swipe at Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, another Republican presidential hopeful, for turning away from their former support of action against climate change:

“Of all the GOP candidates, I am the only one who has not bowed, and will never bow, to this liberal orthodoxy. … The apostles of this pseudo-religion believe that America and its people are the source of the earth’s temperature. I do not.”

Campaigning in Mississippi, where he later won the Republican primary, Santorum “ridiculed the science behind global warming,” the Associated Press reported, quoting the former senator: “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.”

Slingo, a civil servant, was careful in her Rice remarks not to utter even remotely partisan-seeming observations. Twice, in a question-answer session, she declined to reveal her personal views on policy and politics.

Without singling out a specific American political party or specific politicians, she noted that while the economic downturn of recent years has meant research funding has been hit hard in the U.S., “science has been very strongly defended by our [Conservative-Liberal Democrat] government.”

Leaders of the British administration see funding for science as crucial for much of the government’s decision-making – a small investment in light of the costs that weather and climate can have, she said.

Much of her talk at Rice was devoted to the increasing development of “climate services” at the Met Office over the last three to four years, with the agency taking on a lead role internationally in the areas of adaptation for climate change, as well as preparedness and resilience for climate variability.

As an example of these services, she cited her agency’s work toward the integration of climate information with rail-network maintenance to help assess factors such as heat-related rail stress and buckling, plus associated risks for passengers and freight.

The Met Office is pioneering “natural hazards warning services” to help decision makers manage responses, she said. Providing a local example of such services for her Houston audience, Slingo asked hypothetically whether “a detailed risk assessment” could have helped Texans avoid some of the more serious impacts of last summer’s severe heat and drought.

The Obama administration’s basic position on climate change is close to the Conservative-led British government’s – accepting the conclusions of mainstream climate science and calling climate change a serious threat – though its policies have received strong criticism from different sides.

Environmentalists and other climate-action advocates say the administration hasn’t been nearly forceful enough in pursuing actions to reduction climate-altering pollution. Conservatives such as Perry and other Texas officials have said the administration’s pollution-reducing initiatives will be economically devastating.

One administration proposal that drew strong support from climate-action proponents and others would have consolidated climate-monitoring activities in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a new National Climate Service. The administration and its backers said this would have enhanced the federal government’s ability to provide climate-related services without adding any net cost. The consolidation idea had been supported previously by the George W. Bush administration.

Two staff members at Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, listed some of the arguments for the idea in a blog post that were closely similar to British officials’ descriptions of their enhanced climate services:

The [National Climate Service] would help businesses and communities become more prepared and resilient. Climate change will occur whether we track it or not. Without an NCS, the federal government, states and cities will lack an authoritative, single source of information on the likelihood of extreme weather, sea level rise, and temperature shifts, to help address long-term vulnerabilities, plan infrastructure development, and establish adaptation plans.

The proposal failed to win congressional approval last fall, however, after it ran into strong opposition from conservatives led by House science committee chair Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican.

Hall and other opponents made clear that they were suspicious of the motives behind the consolidation move and that this position was intimately tied to their intense skepticism about the science behind conclusions that manmade climate change is a hazardous reality.

For instance, one foe of the proposal, Repubican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, told the NOAA administrator at a hearing last summer that “our hesitation is that the climate services could become little propaganda sources instead of a science source.”

Hall, speaking last fall after the House killed the National Climate Service proposal, told National Journal with regard to human influence on the earth’s climate system that he doesn’t think “we can control what God controls.”

In the same interview, he said his view of the science of manmade climate change was “pretty close” to Perry’s stated view that climate scientists have “manipulated” data to keep “dollars rolling into their projects.”

The National Journal reporter pointed out that a survey by the National Academies of Science found that 97 percent of scientists agree human activities are causing global warming. Hall replied that scientists “each get $5,000 for every report like that they give out.”

He amended this accusation in a later statement to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science’s ScienceInsider website to say that “$5000 appears to have been a low estimate of what many climate researchers actually receive.”

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: Baker Institute via YouTube