Boris Johnson's climate change "scepticism" is an embarrassment to London's scientists

The Mayor's suggestion that we are heading for a "mini Ice Age"shows that he does not understand the basic science behind global warming.

Boris Johnson has become a real embarrassment to London's scientific community after his latest outburst of climate change ‘scepticism’, which exposes not just a glaring weakness in his own knowledge but also within his team of advisers.

On Monday, Johnson used his Telegraph column to muse on the global climatic implications of a few days of wintry weather in the UK in January. He concluded that it might be time for policy-makers to consider whether the earth is heading for a "mini Ice Age".

This is complete rubbish, of course, and shows not only that Johnson does not understand the basic science behind global warming but also that he cannot distinguish between anecdote and evidence, or between weather and climate.

Claiming to be "an empiricist", Johnson suggested that this is "the fifth year in a row that we have had an unusual amount of snow" and that "I don’t remember winters like this". Unfortunately, his commitment to observational analysis apparently does not extend to consulting the Met Office’s records, which would have shown him that although the average temperatures in the UK during winters 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 were below average, last winter was actually warmer than average, as were most winters since 2000.

Furthermore, he would have discovered that the UK’s climate bears the unmistakeable footprint of global warming, with the seven warmest years on record all occurring since 2000. So why does the Mayor claim we are experiencing global cooling?

Well, it seems that the only person Johnson consults on this issue is his friend Piers Corbyn, who rejects the overwhelming evidence that rising atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases is driving the unambiguous rise in global average temperatures, and instead holds the sun directly responsible for trends in the Earth’s climate.

The trouble with Dr Corbyn’s theory, which he has not published in any peer-reviewed scientific journal, is that it is not supported by evidence. He does not even believe that the earth’s climate is controlled by the amount of energy radiated from the sun, but instead blames its magnetic activity, which increases and decreases cyclically about every 11 years and so clearly cannot be the main driver of global warming.

Johnson’s description of Dr Corbyn’s theory is an almost verbatim reproduction from one of his earlier columns last July (clearly the £250,000 he is allegedly paid each year is not high enough to guarantee original content for its readers), and is punctuated with references to JMW Turner, Shakespeare and the Aztecs, but largely devoid of scientific insight.

This latest gaffe follows his decision last year to invite Matt Ridley, a prominent climate change ‘sceptic’ and former chairman of Northern Rock, to speak at City Hall about how environmental risks are overblown, as part of the cultural celebration that accompanied the Olympics.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by all this given the complete lack of scientific education that Johnson has received. However, the Mayor has to take scientific evidence and expert knowledge into account when making many important decisions, not the least of which is how to adapt the capital’s transport system and infrastructure to withstand the impacts of global warming. He should not be relying on the fanciful theories of friends when it comes to issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of Londoners.

Johnson should make better use of the fact that the capital is home to many world class universities and scientific societies where he could consult genuine experts, most of whom now cringe every time he holds forth about climate change. But it is also time that the Mayor of London followed the example of central government departments by adding a professional and credible chief scientific adviser to his team.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson gestures as he addresses students at The Indian School of Business (ISB) campus in Hyderabad on November 28, 2012. 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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