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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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