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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.