UCL News


Comment: Sound science is not enough

3 April 2006

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. …

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 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. …

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. …

Professor Lord Julian Hunt (UCL Earth Sciences and UCL Mathematics), 'New Statesman'