The Far Side

Coffee with Nigel Lawson

‘I am not a climate change denier’ claims Nigel Lawson. He is opposite me at a small table in an elegant café in the House of Lords. The question of his position on climate change hangs in the air. I ask what he would say to those that call him a climate change denier or climate sceptic?

‘The term denier is used as a term of abuse, meant to evoke the connotation of holocaust denial, and these sort of fanatics can be extremely unpleasant’ he says. To a man born into a Jewish family I can see why he might be sensitive about the word, but it seems to me a little far-fetched. 

The idea of a meeting with ex-chancellor Nigel Lawson, developed after reading his book, and being both intrigued and bewildered that the conclusions he draws around climate change are at odds with pretty much everything else I have read on the subject. Without much thought I sent off an email to ‘Lord Lawson of Blaby’ never expecting a reply. But several weeks later, an invitation to interview him appears in my inbox. 

Now I am curious to meet the man who is famous as Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer for 9 years, infamous for his controversial and outspoken attitudes on climate change and who happens to be the father of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. 

Getting into the House of Lords by the ‘peers entrance’ is surprisingly easy. Armed police at the front gate point me to a door marked ‘private’ and as I emerge through revolving doors I find myself in a lobby where jovial police officers scan my bag and my person, and succeed in making me feel welcome in this peculiar place. It’s no doubt part of the job description. No one asks for ID. 

It is like a Hogwarts school cloakroom. Hundreds of hooks on brass plaques adorn the benches, and above each hook the name of a peer is set in a decorative brass frame. The old school effect is completed by the odd assortment of clutter that hangs from the hooks – empty coat hangers, bags and packs of various kinds, coats, scarves and bobble hats, some of them seem to have been there a long time. Oddly enough there are no cloaks. 

Then Lord Lawson appears, and leads me through a maze of corridors, past the ‘Bishops Robing Room’, the ‘Peers Private Lift’, through lobbies washed by stained glass light, dark panelled walls, and finally to the cafeteria, where my host offers me a coffee. 

Nigel Lawson is a pleasant enough man who maintains eye contact, is polite, a little bit formal for my taste, but can be engaged in conversation without much difficulty. He speaks with a fluency that is only interrupted occasionally when he needs to pause to keep up with his own thoughts. Not bad for 83. 

How then would he like his views on the topic of climate change to be described? 

He stares at me. 

‘My position is extremely clear’, he tells me,’ I set it out some years back and have made it clear on subsequent occasions’. 

Lawson’s ‘position’ as far as I can gather from his book ‘An appeal to Reason – a cool look at global warming’ is that while he does not deny the ‘idea’ of climate change, neither does he think it is happening, nor is it particularly important, and that we should not be doing anything to stop it happening in the future, especially as the science is unsettled, according to him, and mitigating action is costly. Rather, we should adapt if and when we need to. And he hasn’t got much time for what he calls climate change ‘alarmists’ – basically anyone who calls for taking preventative action, and who believes ‘myths’, like ‘global warming is happening now’. 

‘It is perfectly true’, he tells me ‘that, there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect, which other things being equal tends to warm the planet and it is also perfectly true that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, not the most important greenhouse gas, that’s water vapour, but is the second most important’. 

This is no great surprise. Scientists have understood this well for more than 150 years and it has never been in dispute. 

But he goes on to explain to me that there are things that are not clear, and are not understood by the scientists themselves. ‘The honest scientists will tell you that the climate, and the temperature of the planet is affected by all sorts of natural variation, as they call it, and this natural variation is poorly understood’. 

“I don’t blame the climate scientists for not understanding, it is extremely complex and difficult. But the fact is that too many of them say that we don’t understand these factors so we can disregard them altogether, and just focus on CO2, which is clearly illogical and invalid.”

But far from not understanding how climate variations work, scientists know a great deal about the carbon cycle and the effects that solar activity, volcanic activity, oceans and currents, winds and other natural elements have on climate and the weather. What they have to speculate about is what is likely to happen when the temperature of the planet rises, as they fear it will, beyond anything that we humans have experienced before. Oh yes, and that we are heading that way. 

‘I don’t blame the climate scientists for not understanding’, he continues, ‘it is extremely complex and difficult. But the fact is that too many of them say that we don’t understand these factors so we can disregard them altogether, and just focus on CO2, which is clearly illogical and invalid’. 

But scientists understand the factors pretty well. For example they can determine if temperature rise is caused by solar activity or by human emissions – if it’s solar activity the difference between daytime temperatures and nighttime temperatures would increase. They can even tell if a mass of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere is from a fossil fuel source or not. There are many ‘fingerprints’ pointing to human activity increasing the greenhouse effect. 

According to climate scientist Ben Santer, ‘scientists have interrogated many, many different aspects of the climate system, not just looking at one number – the average temperature or average moisture, or average pressure – but looking at complex patterns of change in hard observations: the latest, greatest satellite observations, the latest climate model simulations. And the red thread running through all of this fingerprinting work is that natural causation alone doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t explain the changes in all of these things that we’ve actually observed’ (1). 

Back at the table my coffee arrives and I put my next question. What about the idea or ‘myth’ as he calls it, that we are already seeing the effects of global warming? 

‘It’s very difficult to measure global temperature,’ he tells me, ‘to say what is the temperature of the earth, of the planet as a whole, including the oceans, over the ocean surface as well as over land – you’d be hard put to see how you would do it.‘ 

But he says he is prepared to ‘give them the benefit of the doubt and to say that there is a huge margin of error. The Met Office – to take one reputable body – are doing the best they can’. he says. ‘They produce a global temperature series that shows that the temperature has been basically flat within a margin of error for the whole of this century’. 

He is referring to what some have called ‘the pause’ in the recorded land temperatures of the planet. ‘And of course’, he continues, ‘this is slightly surprising, or was surprising to the majority of climate scientists because during that period carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations in the atmosphere have increased faster than ever’. 

The so-called ‘pause’, or ‘haitus’ is a fifteen year period where land temperatures appeared to have stabilised. Earlier models did not predict this, and it led some people to argue that global warming is not happening. He is right that climate scientists were surprised by the numbers they were getting, but for the last decade or so they have been busy looking into it.

A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) in the USA suggests that the pause does not exist at all when variations in methods of measuring temperature are accounted for – in fact it suggests a slight increase in the rate of warming. The study reveals that ‘global trends are higher than those reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, especially in recent decades, and that the central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a “slowdown” in the increase of global surface temperature’ (2). 

The Met Office themselves have published three papers on this topic which are available on the Met Office website. Between them they state that ‘a wide range of observed climate indicators continue to show changes that are consistent with a globally warming world; that it is not possible to explain the recent lack of surface warming solely by reductions in the total energy received by the planet’; and that ‘the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of substantial warming of the Earth by the end of this century. Nor does it invalidate the fundamental physics of global warming, the scientific basis of climate models and their estimates of climate sensitivity’ (3). 

Climate Scientist Michael Mann calls it the ‘faux pause’. ‘The misunderstanding stems from data showing that during the past decade there was a slowing in the rate at which the earth’s average surface temperature had been increasing. The event is commonly referred to as ‘the pause,’ but that is a misnomer’. Mann says, ‘Temperatures still rose, just not as fast as during the prior decade’ (4). 

So actually it is looking more like the idea of a pause in global warming is itself a myth. 

In any case, if there is any doubt at all wouldn’t it, as Lawson himself has suggested, be prudent to act as if it is real? And if so, what kinds of actions does he propose? 

‘The problems which will arise as a result of global warming are not new problems’, he says, ‘they are merely a slight exacerbation of existing problems’.He reels off things like tropical diseases, hurricanes, storms. ‘They’ve always occurred, they’re not new, they may get slightly worse or more frequent, although studies have shown that this hasn’t happened’…. ‘You can’t eliminate tropical storms, they’ll always be with us, but you can construct buildings in a way so they are resistant to tropical storms, and you can build levees and you can very importantly have a system of storm warnings, because they don’t come completely unexpected… and that’s a sensible way to deal with these things’ 

So no action then. At least not now. I put it to him that global warming may actually be one of the biggest threats facing us. 

 ‘Well that’s crazy… absolutely crazy. If you think about the terrible civil war in Syria, and there is Isis, and quite apart from terrorism and fanaticism there is poverty still in all parts of the world. These are the real threats, the real dangers, and these are things that ought to be addressed’. 

But surely it is true that these are some of the ‘existing problems’ he is talking about – problems that can only be exacerbated by global warming. And won’t global warming present huge challenges for our children, grandchildren and beyond? 

‘The whole global warming thing’, he continues, ‘is that you should sacrifice those alive today in order to provide a better future for people as yet unborn. And these people as yet unborn are going to be very much wealthier, better off than people today, as a result of continuing economic growth’. 

Lawson believes that the consequence of world economic growth is that living standards are going to get higher and better. ‘So these generations yet unborn are considerably wealthier,’ he says. ‘It does seem a very odd thing to say that you should redistribute income from the poor to the rich, because that’s what you’re doing if you’re making people pay more for their energy in order to help people as yet unborn. 

Except that the ‘global warming thing’ is much more than that. Most climate scientists belive that the trajectory we are on now is going to lead to uncertain consequences. We are already likely to overshoot a 2 degree rise since pre-industrial levels, and many think it’s more likely to be 4 degrees or more, depending on how quickly we can cut emissions over the next few decades. If this is the case it will be too late to adapt as we go. And it is likely to be the poor of the world that will suffer the most, as they will have the least resources and wealth to deal with the possible crop failures, flooding, severe weather events, and so on that have been predicted as possible scenarios.

Pope Francis speaks in his recent encyclical on the environment about how it is our greed economy that is driving climate change and environmental degradation, and of the need to consider the poor. 

Has he read it, I wonder, and what does he think? 

‘He is really inveighing against the capitalist system in general, it’s a very curious mixture of the Latin American left, and a reactionary approach.’ 

I wonder if Lawson thinks this is part of the ‘eco-fundamentalism’ that he has been critical of. He has talked about how ‘the need to save the planet from the disaster of global warming’ is like a kind of new religion. I ask him to explain what he means by this. 

‘It’s become a religious dogma, in the sense that any view that is critical of it is not considered, as in science, where you know that this is a good scientific discussion, a scientific debate with scientists on both sides with different theories that have to be tested. This is considered to be not merely unassailable but it is improper to suggest that it might be mistaken, and you see this zealotry on the part of the global warming alarmists’. 

Alarmists? 

‘Yes, alarmists. There you detect a zealotry which is not usual in science but which is alas too often in religion.’  

“To Lawson, those who call for action are alarmists, with a religious zealotry that should be mistrusted. Even the pope is looking like a revolutionary.” 

So despite the fact that over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that we have anthropomorphic climate change, and that we are seeing warming now with human fingerprints all over the climate, there remain a few people who do not accept it. Perhaps we’d better not call them climate change deniers, and sceptics does an injustice to scientists who are appropriately sceptical as part of the scientific method. Maybe contrarian is a term we could agree on. This particular contrarian does not reject the ‘theory’ of climate change. He is too clever for that, and the science is firmly against that idea, but he rejects the notion that anything should be done about it. To Lawson, those who call for action are alarmists, with a religious zealotry that should be mistrusted. Even the pope is looking like a revolutionary.

Suddenly he is up from the table. The interview is over. 

As we retrace our steps through the maze that is the House of Lords and back to the lobby I ask if he has ever worked out his carbon footprint, or if he knows what that means? 

‘I know what it means’, he says, ‘but I haven’t the slightest interest in doing it. And nor do most people. I fly backwards and forwards to France every weekend because I live there, but I work here, so I commute’. 

You never take the train? 

‘No it takes too long. I’m right down south’. 

Very nice. 

‘And I can tell you that none of my fellow passengers are interested in their carbon footprint either’. 

Now I am at the lobby. I say goodbye to my host, thank the friendly police officers, spin through the revolving doors and find myself suddenly back on the street. 

And back in reality. 

But something is bothering me. This man may be old, and has been out of office for many years, but he still has influence, and is close to many at the heart of government. 

Should we be worried? 

…………………………………………..

1. Ben Santer, in ‘Denial 101x – Making sense of climate change denial’,
University of Queensland,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOrUYQhGzT8 

2. Thomas R. Karl, Anthony Arguez, Boyin Huang, Jay H. Lawrimore, James R. McMahon, Matthew J. Menne, Thomas C. Peterson, Russell S. Vose, Huai-Min Zhang: Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6242/1469 

3. Met Office report: The recent pause
in warming
http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/news/recent-pause-in-warming 

4. Byron A. Steinman, Michael E. Mann, Sonya K. Miller: Atlantic and Pacific multidecadal oscillations and Northern Hemisphere temperatures
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6225/988  

…………………………………………..

Neil Baird, July 2015

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