Climate urgency denial in UK Government scientists

UK Government scientist were found to be contradicting the IPCC at a high profile climate conference.

There is great concern that the warnings from the IPCC about the need for urgent radical climate action are not being translated into appropriate government policies, with total global emissions still rising and a large gap between government pledges for action and the actions needed to keep global warming below 1.5°C.

Scientists working for the government have a key role in assessing the degree of urgency for climate action and conveying this urgency to civil servants, politicians, industry and wider society. This study looked at how well UK government scientists are performing this role by assessing the contributions from four scientists close to the centre of the UK government at a high profile climate conference.

The findings were that rather than accurately conveying the level of urgency, the UK Government scientists were contradicting the IPCC. It seems unlikely that appropriate action will by taken by the UK Government and wider society if government scientists are not telling the truth. Many will see this as an unacceptable state of affairs that needs to be corrected.


Why is there such a gap between, on the one hand, the warnings of the UN and IPCC with their "code red" and "every tonne matters" messaging , and on the other hand, the lack of effective action by governments, resulting in global total emissions continuing to rise and even high-poluting countries still expanding roads and airports? What is going wrong? Government policies should be in accord with the Paris and other agreements to limit global warming to 1.5°C, but this is not happening.

Government scientists
Scientists at the heart of government have a key role in accurately explaining the science, particularly the degree of urgency to government civil servants, politicians, industry and wider society, so it is worth assessing how well they are performing this role.

This study
The study reported here is a small scale study following the publication of the latest set of three IPCC reports between August 2021 and April 2022 [1]. It compared the messaging from the IPCC on the urgency of action with the messaging that UK government scientists conveyed at a high profile conference at the Royal Society. It assesses the messaging in the presentations from four scientists close to the heart of UK Government.

It was an opportunity for the scientist to distill the reports and what they mean for UK policy making.


Messaging assessed
The scientist assessed were speakers at the Royal Society conference titled Climate change: science, responses and research needs held on 11-12 April 2022. They were the speakers in Day 1, Session 3 titled What do the IPCC findings mean for UK policy?. Earlier in the day, in Session 1, three IPCC Working Group Co-Chairs had summarised the findings in their reports.

The four scientists studied were the two Chief Scientific Advisors at the UK Government departments for business and the environment, a member of the UK Government's Climate Change Committee, and a professor of environmenal policy. All four are currently professors at UK universites or have held a comparable post in the past. Two are Fellows of the Royal Society.

Assessment system
In advance of the meeting, five points were selected that are essential steps in the process of translating the IPCC reports into the UK context, and reviewing UK policies with regard to the scale and timeframe of action needed. These were

Scores were awarded on each of these five points using
With a score of -1 to +1 on each of the five points, the overall total score would be in the range of -5 to +5.

The score indicates whether the degree of urgency stated by the iPCC was accurately conveyed. It could be termed a Climate Urgency Realism/Denial score.


The results are shown in the table.
IndividualLimit further global CO2 to budget for 1.5°CLimit UK CO2 to fair share of global budgetUK's per capita share CO2 runs out in 3 yearsUK Gov. 2050 plan would take 3x per capita shareInstead, cuts of c. 25% per year are neededScore
C -1-1-1-1-1-5
Individual A is the Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
B is the Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.
C is a member of the UK Government's Climate Change Committee (UKCCC), and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.
D is a Professor of Environmenal Policy, who does not have a UK Government appointment, and so does not have the same obligations as the three UK Government scientists.

In summary none of the five points were covered adequately by any of the speakers, and all scored the worst possible score of -5. Several mentioned limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and one talked of a limit of "just above 1.5° or so", but there was no discussion that to do this we must focus on carbon budgets. There were several mentions of halving emissions by 2030, but no mention of the Paris Agreement's provision to equity between nations and the need for developed countries to reduce emissions faster than developing countries. There was no mention in the presentations of when the UK's per capita "fair share" carbon budget will run out, and no mention of the percentage annual cuts needed. The Government's timescale for emission cuts was portrayed as consistent with international obligations, with no need for significant policy change. A video of the meeting is available online [7].


All three government scientists failed to mention carbon budget calculations, and yet they have been carried out for years and are an essential part of policy making, e.g. they are the basis of the much-quoted need to halve global emissions by 2030.

All three government scientists failed to mention the implication for the UK of equity between nations that is written in to the Paris Agreement, with the need for faster emission cuts in developed countries. Put simply, the UK's current CO2 emissions are about double the global per capita average, and so cuts need to be made twice as fast as the average. So talking of halving emissions by 2030 in a UK context is seriously misleading since the halving in the UK needs to be done twice as fast, i.e. by 2025 (or now earlier due to lack of action). This is not an esoteric point; developing countries are acutely aware that the pledges for action of the developed countries would mean them taking more than their "fair share" of the residual carbon budget [8].

All three government scientists failed to mention that the timescale of the UK's Government's emission cuts would result in emissions of three times the UK's per capita share of the residual global CO2 budget for 1.5°C and would lead to global warming of over 2°C if repeated around the world, and yet this gap between pledges made and action needed is well-established and deserves discussion.

The overall impression given (subjectively) was that everything is in hand.
Overall, there was no mention of a need for any change in the UK government timescale of action, or of a need for a change in policy, and so contradicts the IPCC reports.

Obligations of government scientists
Governments have a social contract with their citizens to tell them the truth and act in their interests. In the UK, government employees have to comply with Nolan's Seven Principles of Public Life [9], which includes Objectivity and Honesty. So this study shows evidence that UK government scientists are seriously in breach of their obligations .

How realistic are emission cuts of 25% per year?
Of course, emission cuts of 25% per year are very different from what most people are discussing. How realistic are they?

If the UK had to make emission cuts of 25% per year, e.g. due to war and interruption of fossil fuel supplies, then of course it would.

Personal experience is that cuts of 10% per year by individual action are not difficult. If individual action were to be combined with appropriate government action, cuts of 25% do not seem out of reach.

If the UK does not make emission cuts in line with its commitments to the Paris and subsequent agreements, it is because it is making a choice that e.g. continued fossil fuel use for non-essential purposes such as flying on holidays is more important than stopping the emissions that are leading to climate deaths and climate refugees. This choice is currently being hidden, but it is something that the UK population should be facing up to.


[1]The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
[2]IPCC (Aug 2021) AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis (The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.)
[3]The Paris Agreement (2015)
[4] Jackson T (2021) Zero Carbon Sooner—Revised case for an early zero carbon target for the UK. CUSP Working Paper No 29. Guildford: University of Surrey.
[7]YouTube video of Day 1 of the Royal Society conference (11 Apr 2022). Session 3 is from 4:27:00.
[8]India raises alarm over depletion of carbon budget (Oct 2021)
[9]Committee on Standards in Public Life (2016) Striking the Balance: Upholding the Seven Principles of Public Life in Regulation

First published: 14 Apr 2022
Last updated: 24 Apr 2022