‘The only certain thing is that the science is uncertain’

Lord Lawson on the difficulty of publishing a contrarian book on global warming and why huge cuts in CO2 emissions would be ‘madness’.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

‘This is my fourth book. I’ve never had any difficulty getting a publisher. In fact, I’ve got the contracts before the books were written. But this one – I couldn’t get a publisher anywhere in this country… it shows the unhelpful and unhealthy climate, in a different sense, there is over this issue.’

Nigel Lawson, former UK chancellor of the exchequer and energy secretary in the 1980s Conservative government, has become a high-profile critic of current orthodoxies on climate change. In a week when the legitimacy of criticising the mainstream view has been called into question following the UK television regulator’s censuring of the Channel 4 documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, a debate featuring Lawson looked likely to be lively. And so it proved.

Lawson was speaking on Tuesday evening at the latest Bookshop Barnie, a series of rowdy discussions organised by the Future Cities Project at the Waterstones store next to the London School of Economics (LSE). It’s not exactly one of those Borders monsters, over four floors with a Starbucks in the middle. The LSE store is a much smaller affair, with the walls lined with serious tomes about economics and social science. But it does make an excellent and intimate venue if you want to have a well-informed row – which is what followed.

The subject of the discussion was Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming. In a cheeky introduction, the chairman of the discussion, Austin Williams, told the audience: ‘Nigel Lawson, Lord Lawson of Blaby, speaks from a position of eminent authority on the issue of carbon reduction. He was responsible for the biggest reduction in carbon emissions in this country when he presided over the slashing of the coal mining industry.’ Apart from raising laughter, the introduction was a pointed nod to the fact that the old lines of left and right in society have disappeared today, replaced by new divisions over climate change and the environment more broadly.

As a former finance minister, Lawson does not pretend to be an expert on the details of atmospheric physics. But, as he pointed out, many scientists and noisy commentators on the subject have no special expertise in the particular disciplines required to understand climate, either. More importantly, the politicians charged with making the big policy decisions on the subject must do so on the basis of limited knowledge, too.

‘The one thing that is absolutely clear about the science is that it isn’t certain, far from it’, began Lawson. That is not to say that there isn’t plenty of common ground between sceptics and mainstream views of the science, as Lawson pointed out. ‘Most people would agree there have been huge increases in concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere’; ‘there is no real argument that the major contributor to that has been man, through the burning of carbon’; and ‘there is no doubt there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect or that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas’.

For Lawson, the real uncertainty is around how big the effect of carbon dioxide will be on temperatures. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that most of the warming over the past 100 years has been due to human activity, Lawson argued that the consensus isn’t as complete as is usually suggested. He pointed to a survey conducted by the German climate scientist, Hans von Storch – someone who has supported the mainstream view of the science while being critical of much of the presentation of it in the media. The survey asked 500 climate scientists, under strict promise of anonymity, for their view on the debate. Of those surveyed, 70 per cent supported the view that global warming was mostly caused by humans; 30 per cent did not. While science should never be ‘conducted by a head count’, said Lawson, it is clear that the much-vaunted unanimity is absent.

But Lawson’s real beef is with the other aspects of the IPCC’s report. Moving on to the effects of climate change, Lawson noted that in many respects, the IPCC’s forecasts are not that scary. ‘Even if you look at the IPCC’s own estimates you find, both in the particular and the general, it really is much less alarming than the flesh-creeping things that are written in the Independent newspaper or by the people who run the IPCC, as opposed to the scientists and economists who produce the reports.’

Lawson pointed out that ‘there are many benefits as well as harms from global warming. So, what is the net effect?’ On health, the only thing that the IPCC is ‘virtually certain’ of, said Lawson, is that there will be fewer deaths from cold-related diseases if the planet gets warmer; a rise in temperatures of up to 2.8 degrees would, says the IPCC, be beneficial for food production. These net benefits are declared despite what Lawson called the IPCC’s ‘very curious treatment of adaptation’ – in other words, the assumption that people would behave pretty much as they do now as temperatures rise, rather than changing the way they live and the crops they grow to suit climatic conditions.

The bottom line for Lawson, drawing out the IPCC’s own conclusions, is that even at the worst end of the projections the IPCC posits as reasonably likely, those who might suffer the most – people in the developing world – would be 8.5 times better off than they are now rather than 9.5 times better off if warming were more limited. There were, concluded Lawson with understatement, worse catastrophes imaginable.

Lawson’s critics in the audience were quick to question him. James Garvey, author of The Ethics of Climate Change, accused Lawson of misrepresenting the science; Garvey said the beneficial scenarios Lawson had put forward were at best only one side of the story and that more substantial warming was a very serious problem. Lawson said he agreed with Garvey’s reading of the IPCC reports – but that did not mean that the policy prescriptions proposed were the best way forward, even if you accept the IPCC’s analysis.

Bob Ward, a former spokesperson of the Royal Society, who now works for a company called Risk Management Solutions, said: ‘I probably disagree with everything you’ve written about the science.’ He dismissed Lawson’s ‘rather noddy’ presentation. He asked what Lawson would suggest is the cause of global warming, if not human activity; he also queried how well we adapt to our current environment, given the effect of the Burma cyclone and the Chinese earthquake – how would we adapt to the potentially greater problems caused by climate change?

Ward also suggested that scientists were ‘scrupulous’ in stating the uncertainties in current knowledge. ‘It’s the lobbyists who try to make it seem more certain because time after time, politicians show that they wait until it’s too late to make decisions.’ One wonders if ‘lobbyists’ includes people like Ward himself. In 2006, while at the Royal Society, he wrote to ExxonMobil demanding that it stop funding organisations that ‘misinformed the public about climate change’, on the basis that their statements were contrary to the findings of the IPCC.

Others criticised Lawson for a failure to engage, properly, in a political debate. Why not simply accept the IPCC science and move on to the real argument – the future direction of society? Lawson argued that, in many respects, that’s exactly what he had done. While drawing attention to some criticisms of the IPCC’s climate science, his book then asks what the outcome would be if the IPCC’s scientific analysis proved to be right. Do the policy solutions put forward on the basis of this analysis – in particular, a large reduction in CO2 emissions – make sense? Even if the worst-case scenarios about climate were to come about, said Lawson, such policies are ‘madness’.

A wide range of topics were thrown up as the discussion continued: the way that capitalist society seems devoid of a sense of mission and hence is open to green ideas; the need for a sceptical outlook to any scientific finding; and the proper way to understand risk. With every contribution, there were noises of agreement and dissent from others, sometimes boiling over into direct arguments.

One revealing contribution came from an atmospheric scientist. Her experience was that the IPCC had been too conservative in its conclusions. Because member governments have a veto on everything in the document, countries like China and Saudi Arabia could protect their interests by watering down the report’s conclusions. But if, as she reveals, the IPCC reports are ultimately political documents – it is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after all – then it can hardly be the disinterested, end-all-arguments document it is often claimed to be.

Ultimately, arguments about climate science are almost impossible for lay people to engage with. If even the scientists are learning all the time, it’s safer to let them get on with it – at least, as long as there is a reasonably level playing field for ideas that have merit but don’t fit with mainstream thought.

What needs to be criticised is ‘The Science’ – the trump card that will end all debate. The problem is that The Science is not really scientific – it is a set of moral and political ideas, about how society is organised and how we must all rein in our consumption, which would not be acceptable without the threat of damnation to back them up.

Lawson attempted to explain the success of environmentalism – an explanation he confessed was ‘speculative’ – and referred to the way that the obsession with climate change has ‘become a quasi-religion. How is that this has this extraordinary salience throughout the Western world?’ For Lawson, two things have come together: the ‘virtual collapse of Marxism’, which he described as a ‘kind of secular religion’, alongside the decline of religion in many countries, particularly Christianity. Environmentalism appeals to people who ‘want to believe there is more to life than everyday getting and spending’.

There’s some truth in Lawson’s explanation, yet it seems wrong in two particular ways. First, it seems to psychologise and eternalise the problem, that there is somehow a natural hunger for religious meaning rather than one derived from how society is at a particular time in history. After all, twentieth-century religion was a very different thing from the beliefs of 500 years ago, for example.

Secondly, Lawson misses the much broader collapse in belief in society at large. It’s not just that people don’t believe in ‘religion’, in Lawson’s expanded understanding of it; there seems to be little belief in any grand explanation of what makes the world work. Environmentalism, which in its popular form focuses on individual behaviour tied up with an apocalyptic view of the future where there is no ultimate salvation, seems a rather feeble replacement for such fervent belief. Yet, in the absence of anything better, it seems to generate powerful emotions.

At the end, Lawson appeared to be doing a good trade on signed copies of the book, while the audience mingled over wine. Lawson’s contribution to the debate over climate change is a very useful one. The real pity is that there seems to be so little interest in having that debate more often.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tony Gilland reviewed Nigel Lawson’s An Appeal to Reason and David King’s The Hot Topic, calling its author the King of climate porn. Brendan O’Neill showed how climate change is the new blasphemy. Frank Furedi questioned whether floods are punishments for our eco-sins. Rob Lyons looked at how polar bears are the poster animals of climate change. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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