Nigel Lawson, Baron Lawson of Blaby, a British Tory politician who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet during the 1980s, is visiting New Zealand as a guest of the Business Roundtable to give this year’s Sir Ronald Trotter memorial lecture. Lawson withdrew from the mainstream of Conservative politics in 1992 “to spend more time with his family” (coining that phrase as he did so), but in recent years he has reinvented himself as a climate sceptic, a vociferous opponent of the Kyoto protocol and a scourge of what he terms “eco-fundamentalists”. Clearly, the Business Roundtable has brought in a wise elder statesman to provide much needed context to the climate debate, to better inform its members about the need for emissions reductions. Sadly, Lawson is far more likely to serve up a rousing speech packed with half-truths, distortions, and advice so bad it amounts to dangerous folly, if reports in the Sunday Star Times and Dominion Post are to be believed.
Lawson’s scepticism seems to run in the family. Son Dominic, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, is a vociferous denier who happens to be married to Rosa Monckton, sister of incorrigible sceptic Christopher, Lord Monckton. They make a uniquely British nexus of establishment and lunatic fringe. Lawson’s daughter Nigella’s views on global warming are not known. She would be well advised to stick to her cakes, and avoid her family’s latest enthusiasm.
Over the last few years, the blue Baron has been a very active and high profile climate sceptic. Wikipedia notes:
In 2004, along with six others, Lawson wrote a letter to The Times criticising the Kyoto Protocol and claiming that there were substantial scientific uncertainties surrounding climate change, he also wrote on the same subject in the November 2005 issue of Prospect magazine. Shortly afterwards, the House of Lords Economics Committee of which Lawson was a member, undertook an inquiry into the topic, which produced a report consistent with the arguments of Lawson’s letter.
The Economics Committee report [PDF] attracted a robust rebuttal from the British government [PDF], and provided at least some of the inspiration for Stern’s investigation of the economics of climate change, published last year (see Notes & Sources). A year ago, Lawson gave a lecture at the Centre For Policy Studies (a free-market think tank) which rather handily sums up his position. From the lecture:
Essentially, I have sought to argue three key propositions. First, the relatively new and highly complex science of climatology is an uncertain one, and neither scientists nor politicians serve either the truth or the people by pretending to know more than they do. Second, far and away the most rational response to such climate change as, for any reason, may occur, is to adapt to it. And third, the rich countries of the temperate world have an obligation to assist the poor countries of the tropical world to undertake whatever adaptation may be needed.
His reasons for rejecting the IPCC view (he has advocated disbanding the IPCC) may have moved on a little since the publication of this year’s Fourth Assessment Report, but within the last year he has used many of the sceptic tropes usefully debunked this week by the BBC. I doubt that he will be breaking new ground on that front tonight, and so I will not trouble to address his position on the science. Suffice to say it’s neither original nor supported by the facts.
I’m very happy to agree with his third point. The developed world is going to have to help poor nations to adapt to climate change – and to develop in a responsible, low carbon manner. That’s morally and ethically necessary – and highly important if we don’t want the world destabilised by climate’s effects on the societies least able to cope.
Lawson’s main argument is that climate change is going to be a minor issue, and is therefore best addressed by letting the market drive a process of adaptation. From the CPS address:
It is important to bear in mind that, whatever climate alarmists like to make out, what we are confronted with, even on the Hadley Centre/IPCC hypothesis, is the probability of very gradual change over a large number of years. And this is something to which it is eminently practicable to adapt.
Here’s Lawson’s first bit of sleight of hand. He assumes that change will be so gradual that it will be easy to adapt to its consequences. This requires warming to be slow, with no sudden changes, and that the total change must be small. In other words, he dons rose-tinted spectacles and disavows the work of thousands of scientists. In common with many who think global warming might not be too bad, he effectively ignores the “impacts” part of the IPCC report. He portrays anything but the most optimistic scenario as “alarmist” and then discovers good arguments why adaptation is all that’s necessary.
There are at least three reasons why adaptation is far and away the most cost- effective approach. The first is that many of the feared harmful consequences of climate change, such as coastal flooding in low-lying areas, are not new problems, but simply the exacerbation of existing ones; so that addressing these will bring benefits even if there is no further global warming at all.
How many of the “feared harmful consequences” can we cope with, Nigel? If sea level rise is modest and slow we should be able to adapt, but as I’ve posted recently, the uncertainties here are large, and getting larger by the day. No room for complacency there. He continues:
The second reason is that, unlike curbing carbon dioxide emissions, this approach will bring benefits whatever the cause of the warming, whether man-made or natural. And the third reason why adaptation â€“ most of which, incidentally, will happen naturally, that is to say it will be market-driven, without much need for government intervention â€“ is the most cost-effective approach is that all serious studies show that, not surprisingly, there are benefits as well as costs from global warming. Adaptation enables us to pocket the benefits while diminishing the costs.
If you wear rose-tinted glasses, you see a rose-tinted world. Lawson is living on a Lomborgian planet (perhaps not coincidentally, the “skeptical environmentalist” gave a previous Trotter lecture) where you are free to pick your own facts and look only at best cases. He supposes that there’s doubt about the causes of climate change. There isn’t, only about the extent of future change. The key phrase here is “market driven”. If you don’t have to do much, you don’t have to govern much. The market will provide. If the sea is rising, you will be free to hire a dike building company to prevent the waves lapping at your door. Ideology is conditioning this logic, not a realistic assessment of the facts.
Earlier I described this advice – do nothing but adapt – as dangerous folly, and here’s two reasons why we must ignore Lawson. The first is that he is avoiding one simple but inconvenient truth about the nature of climate change – the climate commitment. Even if we could somehow cap the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at today’s levels, the planet would continue to warm for up to 30 years. It takes that long for the earth to get back into energy equilibrium, because it takes a long time for the oceans (70% of the earth’s surface) to warm up (see HT, p36). There’s about 0.6Â°C warming in the pipeline, and to that we can only adapt. But – and it’s a big but – if we take no action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we will be adding to the future warming. Every year that we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere is another year to add at the end of the current climate commitment. If we do manage to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases in the future, it will not happen overnight. It will take time to gear up for a low carbon economy – decades, probably. That means we have to add decades on to the end of the current climate commitment, and add more warmth to the world in the meantime. If we follow Lawson’s advice and he turns out to be wrong, then we will face a much bigger problem than we do now. It will cost more, in money and lives, to recover from his mistake, and the absolute amount of damage we suffer will be greater.
The second reason why Lawson’s approach is spectacularly unwise is straightforward – and was a crucial feature of the Stern Report (the Baron is not much enamoured of Stern). Responsible governments cannot afford to ignore low probability, high impact events. The risk of worst case warming may be small, but it cannot be ruled out. We build important structures to withstand big earthquakes and large floods because we know they can happen. There is a trade-off between cost and strength, but engineers building something to last 50 years don’t just consider a flood that’s expected once in every fifty years. They look to much larger, less frequent events, because there’s a risk they will happen. To ignore mitigation – the things we do now to reduce future damage – is to ignore the risk of things going badly wrong. And if things are worse than expected, we are gambling with the whole of our industrial civilisation. Of course, in Lawson’s world – and, one must infer, in the world of the Business Roundtable – just pointing that out makes me an “alarmist”. But I’m not expecting the worst case – I just consider it prudent to do something about limiting the risk. The difference is in our definition of prudent.
And here we get to the nub of the issue. There is a strand of right wing ideology that conflates concern for the environment with tree-hugging, centralist, big government socialism. Once you adopt that world view, you become suspicious of those advocating for the environment. Global warming is an environmental issue, therefore those warning of its dangers must be wrong, because my ideology does not allow it to be true. This is where Lawson starts his analysis, and that is why he is so wrong. His politics do not allow him to acknowledge the facts.
Fortunately, this view is on its last legs. Reality bites, and it is no longer credible for mainstream politicians of any persuasion to deny the fact of climate change and ignore its very real dangers. The Conservatives in the UK have put green policies at the heart of their strategy for defeating Labour at the next election. John Key and the National Party have committed to 50% cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Democrats in the US control Congress and Senate, and have set about legislating for action. John Howard has made reluctant concessions to climate policy in his bid to retain the Australian premiership.
Lawson, and his hosts at the Business Roundtable, represent the last gasp of an ideology doomed by onrushing reality. The world has left them behind politically and scientifically. It is now both possible and necessary for conservatives to be environmentalists, and the world will be a better place for it.
(*) The title of this post, like many on HT, comes from a song title or lyric. In this case, I’ll give a free copy of the PDF edition of Hot Topic to the first person who can identify the song, by which influential British group with Python links, that contains the line “blah, blah, blab, blab”.