It was a summit of sorts, but certainly not a meeting of minds: at 10am on 19 November, six of Britain’s most eminent climate change scientists entered a wood-panelled committee room in the House of Lords to face the country’s most prominent climate change sceptic, Lord Lawson.
The scientists had originally understood the meeting to be a private briefing for the former chancellor, following a spat between the peer and Professor Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize-winning biologist and president of the UK’s elite science academy, the Royal Society.
But in the splendour of the Lords committee room, where each of the red leather chairs is embossed with a golden portcullis, it emerged that Lawson had brought nine representatives of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), including five professors, a knight and a viscount, the latter being the science journalist Matt Ridley.
Over the past year, Nurse has accused Lawson of cherrypicking global temperature data to claim that climate change has stopped over the last 15 years. The peer called the charge “a lie”.
Nurse then offered to put Lawson in touch with “distinguished” scientists who could provide the “highest quality” climate science and the meeting was arranged.
The meeting, or rather its aftermath, did little to cool temperatures: the row between the sides surfaced again after Lawson wrote about the “secret” meeting in the Spectator, with Lawson now talking of “disreputable accusations” and Nurse of “extremist minorities”.
In Lawson’s article, he wrote: “Nurse’s team were able to tell me little I did not already know. But what did emerge was that, if anyone needed educating, it was them … They had no understanding of, or interest in, the massive human and economic costs involved in the policies they so glibly endorse.”
But despite the hostile rhetoric, the meeting was rather more polite, according to others present. Both sides had agreed an agenda in advance, covering the climate history of the planet, changes at the poles, computer modelling and climate projections, and how science is used to inform policy – though, crucially, not the policies themselves.
Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, of Imperial College London, said: “There was not any major disagreement on the science we presented, which is an interesting thing.”
In particular, Hoskins debunked the so-called warming “pause”, describing how excess heat has continued to be trapped by greenhouse gases for the past 15 years, showing that global warming is continuing.
He said air temperature alone is a very limited view of climate change, given that 93% of all trapped heat enters the oceans.
“I can’t remember any challenge of that in the meeting,” he said.
Hoskins, like his five colleagues, is a fellow of the Royal Society, the highest honour conferred on scientists in the UK, and all are active in climate change research.
The GWPF’s 10 representatives included only one climate scientist – Professor Richard Lindzen, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology – who Lawson describes as “arguably the world’s most eminent climate scientist”.
A recent peer-reviewed study placed Lindzen’s published work in the 3% of climate studies from the past 20 years that do not endorse human activity as the cause of global warming.
The consensus at the meeting, at which the guests were offered no refreshments, frayed rapidly as it entered the last hour. “The discussion moved to policy, in particular for the developing world and for the UK,” said Hoskins.
“But this was not the topic of the meeting. If we had been discussing policy, then we would have brought a different group. It was not fruitful.”
Hoskins, who is a member of the Committee on Climate Change that advises the UK government on policy, said: “It upset me, the suggestion I couldn’t care less about the policy implications. I am very concerned by these issues.”
Lawson told the Guardian he had “betrayed no confidences” in writing about the meeting and that the agenda “explicitly included the connection between science and policy”.