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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.