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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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