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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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.