Lord Lawson claims there is no evidence of any changes in extreme weather. Photo: Getty
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Lord Lawson's parallel world where global warming is not a concern

The former Chancellor is trying to turn science on its head to woo climate change "sceptics" from the Conservatives and Ukip.

Further glimpses emerged yesterday evening of the parallel universe that climate change ‘sceptics’ are attempting to create in order to further their cause.

In their alternative world, the laws of atmospheric physics do not apply and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases pose no threat to future prosperity and well-being.

At a debate organised by ‘Christians in Parliament’, Lord Lawson of Blaby, who is the ‘intelligent designer’ of this other universe, provided a masterclass in how to avoid an inconvenient dependence on evidence and reasoning when faced with the risks of climate change.

He started by claiming that most climate scientists now agree that the sensitivity of the climate to changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases is low. The only trouble is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most authoritative source of information on the subject, does not agree with him.

On 2 November, the IPCC published the Synthesis of its Fifth Assessment Report, concluding that the value of the long-term rise in global mean surface temperature in response to a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide is likely to lie between 1.5 and 4.5 centigrade degrees.

This means that, in the real world, the global average temperature could be 5 centigrade degrees or more above its pre-industrial level by the end of this century, if annual global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate.

However, Lord Lawson chose only to accept the low end of the range cited by the IPCC, warming that the report should not be considered “the last word” and instead should be treated as a scientific smorgasbord from which it is possible to pick and choose which facts to accept.

He argued that global temperature would therefore only rise by 2.5 degrees this century compared with pre-industrial, and went on to cite estimates by the IPCC that this would cause damage equivalent to between 0.2 and 2.0 per cent of global GDP.

Significantly, he neglected to mention that the IPCC is very cautious about the credibility of these figures, noting: “These impact estimates are incomplete and depend on a large number of assumptions, many of which are disputable. Many estimates do not account for the possibility of large-scale singular events and irreversibility, tipping points, and other important factors, especially those that are difficult to monetize, such as loss of biodiversity.”

Similarly, Lord Lawson told the audience that there was no evidence of any changes in extreme weather. But in the real world, the IPCC report found: “Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. Some of these changes have been linked to human influences, including a decrease in cold temperature extremes, an increase in warm temperature extremes, an increase in extreme high sea levels and an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events in a number of regions.”

Having declared that climate change could only lead to small risks in his parallel universe, Lord Lawson called for people and ecosystems to simply adapt to future impacts. He predicted that future generations would anyway be much richer than people are today by assuming that economic growth in his alternative world will continue largely unaffected by any impacts of climate change.

However, recent research has shown that climate change can undermine the drivers of economic growth and that unabated emissions could lead to a collapse on living standards.

From the audience, I asked Lord Lawson if he accepted or rejected the following conclusion about the real world from the new IPCC report:

“Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally.”

Lord Lawson remained silent.

But the construction of the parallel universe in which atmospheric physics does not apply allows Lord Lawson to justify his main objection to climate change policies. He is implacably opposed to the UK limiting its consumption of fossil fuels.

He attacked the Climate Change Act, which he wrongly attributed to Ed Miliband. In fact, the Bill was introduced into Parliament almost 12 months before Miliband became Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and was passed in 2008 with overwhelming cross-Party support, as only five Conservative MPs voted against it.

Lord Lawson declared that the UK is acting alone against climate change, and that countries such as India and China are not doing anything to switch away from fossil fuels. This also is not true, as China is already starting to abandon coal for cleaner sources of energy, and new Indian Prime Minister Modi has promised to bring electric lighting to 400 million people without power by 2019 through the installation of solar panels.

And predictably, he complained about wind farms, labelling them the biggest threat to birds in the UK. Many in the audience laughed at this obvious exaggeration. Cats kill more birds each year than wind turbines.

Lord Lawson has enjoyed extraordinary success in rallying climate change ‘sceptics’ since he set up the Global Warming Policy Foundation in November 2009 to campaign against Government policies.

Last month, he persuaded Owen Paterson, who was sacked as environment secretary earlier this year, to deliver a polemical speech on climate change in which he also denied the risks and attacked Government polices to reduce emissions.

However, with the accumulating evidence of the risks of climate change, Lord Lawson and his allies are having a tough time persuading MPs, except for a few Conservative backbenchers and UKIP, to enter a parallel universe where ideology trumps science.

Bob Ward is a Fellow of the Geological Society and policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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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What progressives can learn from Europe

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging.

The debate about the Labour party’s future has seldom been more parochial or inward-looking. Those who pass comment on Labour’s fate from the right and left of the party do so with an almost entirely British lens. In this insular universe, it is as if the world beyond the UK’s shores never existed. ‘Socialism in one country’ is back with a vengeance. Yet to recover politically and electorally, British Labour must learn from social democrats and progressive forces across Europe. There are three critical lessons from other countries that the centre-left ought to heed.  

The first is that centre-left parties have to resist being squeezed between neo-liberalism and the new social movements. Yes, social democrats should rebuild their economic credibility and espouse a responsible governing agenda. But that should not mean rejecting all ties to social and environmental activism. The networked civil society is where most political energy and vitality currently resides in western democracies. The lesson of Podemos in Spain and Greece’s Syriza is that people want to be agents of change themselves, whether saving local high streets from unscrupulous developers or working to build their own affordable housing. Casting a ballot every four or five years no longer constitutes meaningful political engagement. Across Europe, social democrats have to form new alliances in pursuit of a better society reaching beyond traditional party structures. 

A further object lesson is that opposition to austerity on its own is not enough to win power. Of course, premature cuts have weakened growth, jobs and living standards. In southern Europe, the masochistic pursuit of austerity threatens to unleash a social catastrophe. However, centre-left parties must show they would be competent managers of the economy articulating a coherent plan to deal with debt: not just net public sector debt over the economic cycle, but tackling unsustainable financial sector and household debt. Social democrats have to show how they would govern in a world where there is less money around for state spending after the great recession and the impending threat of secular stagnation. This demands a strategy for regulating financial markets that promotes the public good, tackles systemic risks and reforms banks that are ‘too big to fail’. An industrial modernisation plan would rebalance our economies away from their reliance on financial services towards knowledge-intensive sectors and manufacturing. In reforming the tax system, there ought to be a major clamp-down on cross-border tax evasion and fraud while restoring the progressivity of tax using redistribution to tackle new inequalities.

Finally, the left must not be distracted from confronting deeper underlying forces in politics. Centre-left parties are losing elections because voters don’t trust politicians to protect their way of life against the impersonal forces of global change. Europe has pitched dramatically to the right - not only towards Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, but new forces adept at exploiting voters’ fears about economic insecurity, immigration and hostility to the EU. In the UK, UKIP has now become the dominant challenger to Labour in northern England and the Midlands; last year, the Danish People’s party surged to power. In the heartlands of European social democracy, from the Nordic states to France and the Netherlands, right-wing populists are on the rise. In Austria this week, a hard right presidential candidate was in touching-distance of power.

The failure to counter the right isn’t just about poorly executed electoral strategies, weak leadership, or the price of incumbency in coalition governments: something more profound is going on. Regardless of national context, social democracy’s support base is being eaten away. The left is losing, not just on the conventional politics of economic competence, but increasingly on the vexed politics of national identity.

That said, the temptation to raise the drawbridge against immigration ought to be resisted. Flirting with a restrictive immigration policy is superficially tempting when the populist right is winning, but imposing arbitrary limits would be economically damaging as well as politically unprincipled. Instead, low wage and vulnerable workers across the EU ought to be better protected. Permitting the uncontrolled exploitation of low-cost labour in Eastern Europe has undermined the entire European project. More safeguards against agency working and zero-hours contracts are needed.             

Rather than pretending that government on its own can do everything to shield citizens and communities from global market forces, the priority should also be to encourage intermediate institutions located between the central state and the free market that rebuild a sense of local attachment, recreate respect for traditional jobs and civic identities, and encourage a spirit of mutual obligation embodied in organisations like mutual’s and co-op’s. The left must end its ambivalence about English identity in the aftermath of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Labour must not be afraid ‘to speak for England’.

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging. To navigate the hard road back to power, social democratic parties will have to acknowledge the communal attachments that give meaning to our lives in an era of unprecedented insecurity and upheaval. Only by securing the trust and allegiance of citizens within the nation-state can the centre-left win the argument for international engagement and co-operation: the cornerstone of a liberal world order. 

Patrick Diamond is Co-Chair of Policy Network. The Progressive Governance Conference takes place in Stockholm 26-7 May 2016