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.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.