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The NS Interview: Bjørn Lomborg

“I didn’t want to be the gay guy who talks about the environment”.

You started life as a statistician. What sparked your interest in the environment?
I found university a little dispiriting. I thought I would enter the great halls of Plato, but instead I entered the halls of an intellectual sausage factory. I wanted to do something not on the main course, and chose the environment.

What is your position on global warming?
Global warming is real - it is man-made and it is an important problem. But it is not the end of the world.

You have been branded a climate-change denier. Have you changed your mind?
No, I haven't changed my mind, but the global warming debate is so polarised that there is space for only two possible viewpoints: either it's the end of the world, or you think it is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated. Because I dared to be sceptical, a lot of people pushed me into the deniers' camp.

Are you still sceptical?
I have been sceptical all along, but about the ­solution. Our current solution - the Kyoto approach - doesn't work.

What's not working?
The UN summits are PR vehicles for politicians so they can all get together and look like they're doing something.

What's your view of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
I would say 90 per cent of what the panel tells us is right, which is pretty good for a very complex subject. But the UN-led policy solutions are incredibly poor.

So what's your solution?
We need to invest dramatically in green energy, making solar panels so cheap that everybody wants them. Nobody wanted to buy a computer in 1950, but once they got cheap, everyone bought them.

How did it feel when critics accused you of being scientifically dishonest in your book The Sceptical Environmentalist?
I always felt, when people were attacking me, that they were attacking the idea. When the dishonesty decision got reviewed by the Danish ministry of science, they found that it was factually vacuous, so it was overturned.

Do you enjoy provoking controversy?
No. A lot of people think I do, but I would love the day when we don't need my voice in the debate any more.

What was your view of the Climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia?
There was poor intent and bad will involved on the part of the researchers, but I also think it was vastly overplayed.

Do you think it had a damaging effect? Fewer people now believe in climate change.
Climategate was only a touch point for that; it is not the main reason. We have been scared silly for a number of years and eventually you tire of being scared silly.

Do you blame the activists for that?
It's not just activists; there's Al Gore, for example. We shouldn't base policy decisions on fear.

Are you involved in politics?
No. I have great respect for politicians; they do a difficult and often thankless job. But I'm not politically active.

Do you believe David Cameron will deliver the "greenest government ever"?
I'm not surprised that's a quotation from him, but that doesn't seem to be where they're putting their money. In Britain, I see an incredible split between stating what you'd like to see and making the policies for that to happen.

Do you have religious faith of any kind?
I tentatively believe in a God. I was brought up in a fairly religious home. I think the world is compatible with reincarnation, karma, all that stuff. But fundamentally, you have to do good in this life towards your fellow man, so I guess I'm a humanist with the potential of [believing in] a God.

You've said that being openly gay is a civic responsibility. What do you mean?
When I grew up, I didn't see many likeable role models. You could either be a ballet dancer or someone extreme whom people would snigger at. I'd like to show the next generation that you can be regular, ordinary and successful.

How has your sexuality affected your career?
I didn't want to be the gay guy who talks about the environment. I wanted to be the guy who talks about the environment who happens to be gay. I think that has turned out pretty well.

Is there a plan?
In the larger scheme, no. There have been meso plans, but not meta plans.

Are we all doomed?
No. If you look across the centuries, we have created problems, but we've solved more. Our ingenuity seems to be an unlimited resource.

Defining Moments

1965 Born on 6 January
1994 Receives PhD from the University of Copenhagen
1998 Publishes his first articles on the environment, causing media furore
2001 Publishes his book The Sceptical Environmentalist
2003 Cleared of "scientific dishonesty"
2004 Launches Copenhagen Consensus
2010 Calls for $100bn to be invested each year to fight climate change

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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