MUST LISTEN: Lord Oxburgh speaks on climate and Climategate

Lord Ron Oxburgh

Lord Oxburgh is in Queensland for the 34th International Geological Congress and granted a 20 minute audience to ABC host Steve Austin. Oxburgh’s inquiry into the Climategate affair was superficial and failed to ask the right questions of the right people. It was also hopelessly biased, and allowed the “accused” to select the “evidence” on which the inquiry was based.

Andrew Montford’s review of the inquiries (PDF here) concluded:

The Scientific Assessment Panel headed by Lord Oxburgh was chosen so that only a minority of members could be expected to look at the evidence with ‘questioning objectivity’. Despite their claim to the contrary, the research papers the panel examined were not selected “on the advice of the Royal Society.” They were, in reality, selected by UEA itself and were apparently approved by its director, Professor Phil Jones. The papers examined avoided most of the key criticisms of CRU scientists’ published work and all of the criticisms relating to their involvement in IPCC report. No records were kept of interviews and important papers have been destroyed.

Oxburgh himself was compromised from the outset, being president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and chairman of a company involved in construction and operation of windfarms. This obvious conflict of interest didn’t trouble Oxburgh clearly. I wonder if the same blind eye would have been turned if he was chairman of a fossil fuel company.

That said, he had some interesting things to say on a variety of subjects and I highly recommend listening to the whole interview here. I have transcribed some key sections below.

On Climategate:

“Most of the allegations that had been made basically by bloggers and others against the UEA, certainly against their honesty and reputation, were really unfounded.”

“[Scientists] were like rabbits in the headlights and they did some stupid things, but they weren’t dishonest and really anything that happened then didn’t reflect on the fundamental science of climate change.”

On climate in general:

Austin: You are very worried about climate change – tell me why.

Oxburgh: Well the science is pretty clear, that the things that human beings are doing are likely to be having a big effect on the climate.”

“Doing things about climate change now is equivalent to taking out fire insurance on your house. You hope it’s not going to burn down but it’s smart to be provident.”

On climate models:

“As a modeller myself, the models are only as good as the numbers and the assumptions that you put into them. It isn’t as if there is just one set of models, there are a very very large number of models and they all point in the same direction… is a very strong indicator that they are right.”

Oxburgh and Shell:

Austin: Here you are, the former head of a major oil company and you’re one of the people most worried about climate change.

Oxburgh: Correct.”

On shale gas:

“Gas is the big new kid on the block. You have it in Queensland as coal-bed methane, other parts have it as shale gas. […] The attraction of gas is that it is far less environmentally damaging than coal.”

On fracking:

“Like almost any job it can be done badly or it can be done well and if it’s done badly it can have poor local environmental consequences, but I think done responsibly and sensibly it should be just fine.”

On carbon sequestration:

“There is no doubt that it will work. I can say that categorically. It can be done. […] All of the elements of the process have been established. What hasn’t been done, but which should not present a major problem, is doing these in sequence as a single coherent process. […] The doubts and the questions arise over cost. I think that what you’ve been doing here in Australia with the CCS Institute is a real lesson to the world.”

“Where we really want to see this deployed is in China and India because these are the big burners of coal and we’re talking about the global commons here, doing something for our grandchildren and their children and so on and we need to get the CCS process at a cost which can be afforded in these relatively poor countries.”

On China:

“I think China has as part of its strategy to become the clean tech capital of the world. China is a country with a lot of problems, a third of its population not on mains electricity and extreme poverty, so China is building power stations, dirty power stations by anyone’s standards, because they see this as the path to internal stability.

What they’re doing in parallel, they have the biggest wind turbine industry in the world, they have more wind turbines set up in China, perhaps not all connected to the grid, than any country in the world, obviously they’ve got the solar panel business and I think that they are really pushing to become the clean tech capital of the world. […]

They realise that if everything that the climate scientists predict happens, China will be one of the really big losers and they don’t want that.”

On Peak Oil:

“We’ve got oil around $100 a barrel at the moment, spiking up, spiking down and so on, but I think that the price of oil is likely to rise somewhat, but if the price of oil gets significantly above $100 and looks as if it’s going to stay there, other ways of making oil are going to cut in. For example, you can take natural gas, which is your coal seam gas or gas from any source, and you can actually make a very nice clean liquid from it. The economics of that are quite good – the implications for climate change are not good because it’s a fairly carbon intensive process. […] You may see synthetic oils coming in from other sources as well.


It looks as if we are going to run out [of oil] gradually, and I say ‘run out’, but perhaps your listeners should appreciate, when an oil company abandons an oil field, in many cases there can be 40 or 50% of the oil still there in place, because it wasn’t worth getting out for the price that they thought they would get for it, so if we become desperate for oil and we can’t find an alternative there are many places you can go back in and actually pull some more out, at enormous cost, but it’s there.”

On biodiesel:

Biodiesel is of local significance and where it’s sensible to produce it locally by all means use it. Crop fuels are not likely to be a global solution simply because plants are very inefficient at the way they use sunlight – about 2% efficiency – and really for this to be a global solution, to transport fuels would just be too area intensive – you just can’t spare the land.”

On ethanol:

It depends how you make ethanol. I said that plants have about 2% efficiency use of sunlight. Sugar cane has 8% and the Brazilians make ethanol from sugar cane and probably you can justify that on environmental grounds, but if you look at the other big source of ethanol, which is for example the United States, where it tends to be made from corn, and where farming subsidies have been used to do this and we have seen corn diverted from human consumption to the production of liquid fuels, I don’t think it makes common sense or environmental sense.”


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