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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.