SKETCH: Peter Lilley v Tim Yeo

That was a first. Not even Ellis vs Vaz has produced a moment like Peter Lilley flying at Tim Yeo in committee this morning.

”That is disgraceful!” Lilley spat out as Yeo took the questioning away from him. “Absolutely disgraceful! You have protected a witness who cannot answer a question.”

Would not, rather than could not. We had a masterclass in passive aggressive responses from Emily Shuckburgh of the Royal Meteorological Society. Her winsome smile, her quiet, disbelieving giggle, her cosy chuckling with allies in the room, her manner of explaining something really, really difficult to a seven-year-old. And almost effortlessly constructing answers just wide enough of the question to confuse the issue, the audience and the questioners.

Peter Lilley asked: “Since 1997, the amount of CO2 emitted by mankind is a third of all CO2 that mankind has emitted. And there has been no statistically significant rise in the surface temperature. Does that increase, decrease or leave unchanged your confidence that the scale of warming will be as high as previously thought?”

She didn’t say, “Slightly decreased.” They only use short answers when they want to be understood. Such as: “Do you think there’s anything in the latest climate report to justify a change of policy? “No.”

The weather chief used the ever-suspicious beginning: “I think the first thing that’s important to note is”. . . Sceptic-sounding facts or questions always have to be contextualised.

Lilley: “First of all, answer the question. Increase, decrease or leave unchanged your confidence in the projections.”

Shuckburgh: (Smiling winsomely) “Mr Lilley, I’m going to answer your question, don’t worry.”

But to answer a question from Lilley directly is a loss. A defeat. An acknowledgement he has a right to an opinion.

Had she been among friends, and in private, and not-to-be-quoted, she might have said: “We have significantly decreased confidence in short-term warming as rapid as previously thought. The IPCC has, in fact, reduced its forecast accordingly.”

But no. She was dealing with a Lilley and she wasn’t giving him a single bone to chew on. When he repeated his question – increased, decreased, unchanged? – she looked cornered for a moment. Struggled for an answer and then inspiration struck:

“Your question in itself is not well-formed. You ask whether it leaves unchanged future projections of temperature change, but in order for your question to be well-defined you need to articulate over what time period.”

That’s passive aggressive fighting talk.

She gave her answer in such a way as to satisfy her allies and infuriate her opponents.

Lilley: “Witness refused to answer the question.”

Shuckburgh: (Always accuse your opponent of your own most obvious fault) “Oh no, come on, you’re playing politics.

Yeo: (Smoothly) Rather a comprehensive answer.

Shortly after this, Lilley’s burst of anger made his opponents purr with satisfaction. It was a small but significant climate change victory. A sceptic had been made to lose his temper.

As far as I could follow it, Lilley wanted to know why the model projections differed from the expert judgements. Whether the projections had been fudged to make the models produce the desired answers.

Ms Shuckburgh’s explanation was that the models were constructed for 100-year predictions and were no good for predicting climate over the next couple of decades.

And then, by way of finesse, she also said that you could feed other data in and the models could be used to predict the next 10 or 20 years.

The difficulty with – and brilliance of – passive aggressive confrontations is that you can’t quite follow what’s going on. And usually, it’s not worth finding out. But climate change is a multi-trillion dollar issue and deserves better.



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