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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.