Why is Boris Johnson promoting climate change "sceptics"?

The Mayor of London's championing of Matt Ridley raises questions over his commitment to science.

On Thursday, Boris Johnson will host the second of the Mayor of London 2012 Debates, which he claims are "London’s intellectual contribution to the [Olympic] Games", and "will help define London’s vision for the next 15-20 years".

The title of the second debate is The Environment Imperative, and the Mayor’s website introduces it with the question: "How can London develop approaches to climate mitigation [sic] either as an economic response or in shaping the climate for investment in technological responses?" This is an important question. But the Mayor has made a bizarre choice of individual to answer it. The keynote speaker is Dr Matt Ridley, whom the website describes as “a renowned science writer, journalist, biologist, and businessman”.

Dr Ridley is all of these, but the website neglects to mention a few other important attributes of the speaker. The first is that his primary experience as a businessman was acquired as Chairman of Northern Rock bank, until his resignation in October 2007 in the wake of its catastrophic failure.

In its report on the bank, the House of Commons Treasury committee concluded: "The high-risk, reckless business strategy of Northern Rock, with its reliance on short- and medium-term wholesale funding and an absence of sufficient insurance and a failure to arrange standby facility or cover that risk, meant that it was unable to cope with the liquidity pressures placed upon it by the freezing of international capital markets in August 2007....The non-executive members of the Board, and in particular the Chairman of the Board, the Chairman of the Risk Committee and the senior non-executive director, failed in the case of Northern Rock to ensure that it remained liquid as well as solvent, to provide against the risks that it was taking and to act as an effective restraining force on the strategy of the executive members."

So Dr Ridley’s track record of dealing with the risks facing a business hardly gives cause for confidence in his expert advice about managing the global threat of climate change. Even more disconcerting is Dr Ridley’s affiliation to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the pressure group set up by Nigel Lawson to campaign against the government’s climate and energy policies. Dr Ridley is a member of the Foundation’s Academic Advisory Committee, and wrote a report for it which hyped the potential of shale gas.

Dr Ridley has been a very enthusiastic promoter of shale gas, but has been prone to exaggerating its contribution to recent falls in greenhouse gas emissions by the United States. He also hates wind power with a passion. In a recent polemic for the Spectator, Boris Johnson’s former stomping ground, Dr Ridley falsely alleged that wind farms may increase greenhouse gas emissions. He then went on to announce that he was offering £8,500 a year from his personal wealth, not to compensate those who were left out of pocket by the Northern Rock fiasco, but instead to sponsor a new award, administered by the magazine, for "environmental heresy".

Not only is Dr Ridley profoundly opposed to some, if not all, of the renewable technologies that might help London reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, but he also plays down the risks that climate change poses. For instance, in a Times column (£) last month, he suggested that global warming has so far had relatively little impact on the UK. But he failed to acknowledge that seven of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 2001, or that by the time we can statistically detect the effect on extreme weather, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to reduce the elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are responsible. It seems Dr Ridley does not realise that a responsible and effective approach to managing risks requires action in advance to avoid the most damaging consequences.

At the very least, Johnson is missing a massive opportunity to stimulate public debate about how London might lead on climate change, which his strategy seeks to deliver. At the worst, it is a sign that the Mayor is in thrall to a very small band of climate change "sceptics", who could fill his head with inaccurate and misleading nonsense. Dr Ridley’s recruitment as a keynote speaker is not the only sign of this. Last month, the Mayor used his Telegraph column to promote the views of his friend Piers Corbyn, who has a small business offering weather forecasts. Corbyn is also a staunch climate change "sceptic", who denies that greenhouse gases are causing global warming.

London is home to many businesses and academic institutions that host genuinely world-class experts on climate change. Why is the Mayor not seeking their counsel instead of a fringe group of "sceptics"?

Boris Johnson: in thrall to a very small band of climate change "sceptics"? Photograph: Getty Images.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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