An Appeal to Reason Nigel Lawson

Duckworth, pp.149, 9.99

When there is so much data suggesting the world’s climate is heating up, some may find it presumptuous of Nigel Lawson, who is not a scientist and has undertaken no original research, to hope to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Would we take seriously an appraisal of his time as Chancellor of Exchequer written by someone whose only expertise was in oceanography?

When there is so much data suggesting the world’s climate is heating up, some may find it presumptuous of Nigel Lawson, who is not a scientist and has undertaken no original research, to hope to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Would we take seriously an appraisal of his time as Chancellor of Exchequer written by someone whose only expertise was in oceanography?

For some, this will be reason enough to rubbish his new book on global warming. Ironically those most keen to deride him may also be those who were first in the queue to embrace Al Gore, the Nobel prize-winning climate change campaigner. This would be the same Al Gore whose not very scientific qualifications amount to five F-grades from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Harvard thesis on the impact of television on the American presidency.

In truth, pugilists on both side of the argument need to recognise that while expertise is always paramount, it is not out of place for other leading public figures to pose intelligent questions. After all, scientists and activists are demanding a political, not an academic, response to their findings. In this short and tightly argued book, Nigel Lawson successfully unravels some of the lazy assumptions upon which the current debate has been framed.

Of course, for many there are no two sides of the argument. Not only is global warming established, its man-made cause is proven and unless we radically reverse carbon emission growth, we are all doomed. Lawson is not an outright denier of either the first or second of these propositions, although he does throw in some qualifications to the sweeping generalisations that are often made in establishing cause and effect. It is on the subject of how we respond to the climate challenge that his book really deserves attention.

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He has certainly seen enough Treasury computer modelling over the years to recognise the limits of long-term forecasting, especially, as in the case of the climate, where our knowledge is still so fragmentary. To demand a specific set of responses which have huge socio-economic consequences now on the basis of a possible extrapolation of one set of variables centuries hence is not necessarily the most responsible option.

For instance, having plotted soaring temperatures in the last quarter of the 20th century, the models anticipated further increases in the first years of this century. Instead, Britain’s leading climate research facility at Hadley has recorded that the temperature has actually stopped going up. Having got it wrong, the models have been duly tweaked and anticipate a resumption of the upward trend after 2009. We shall soon find out if this proves correct.

Certainly, informed guesswork is better than uninformed guesswork. But we do need to be careful about long-term extrapolation from what may be short-term phenomena. After all, a study of the Atlantic Gulf Stream created alarming headlines when it noted a sharp weakening in its current. Subsequent (less publicised) studies suggest the weakening was actually well within the bounds of natural variation and is not a consequence of global warming. As for rising sea levels, the rate of increase may actually have slowed in the second half of the 20th century, rather than accelerated.

At any rate, the complicated picture presented by a constantly changing climate appears all too simple for our politicians. In Lawson’s opinion, the Stern Report was commissioned to back-up the British government’s preconceptions rather than offer disinterested information. He dismisses the variety of responses currently in vogue, from the ‘scam’ of carbon offsetting to the wild commitment in the Climate Change Bill to impose a statutory 60 per cent cut in Britain’s CO2 emissions by 2050. A simple carbon tax would at least have the advantage of transparency.

Indeed, contrary to the Stern Report’s claims, Lawson argues that the current costs of the proposed actions may be greater than the notional savings centuries hence. Even the generally gloomy Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change extrapolates that the cost of global warming will mean that in 100 years’ time living standards in the developing world will be 8.5 times higher rather than 9.5 times higher than today. As doom-laden predictions go, this one leaves Lawson musing whether ‘Save the Planet’ might be ‘a strong contender for the most ludicrous slogan ever coined’.

Lawson’s case is not an appeal to do nothing, but to avoid doing something stupid. The giant leap towards subsidy-devouring and highly inefficient wind farms or the vast replanting of the Earth with biofuels are but two panic responses we may come to regret. From the threat to species diversity caused by deforestation to the clogging-up of landfill sites nearer to home, many of us are rightly fearful of the effects man is having on the environment. A focussed response to these and other crimes of our times may provide a better return on our investment rather than unilateral attempts to make the cost of energy prohibitive in Europe while China and India chug along the smoky path to prosperity. Hope of a binding worldwide agreement is a chimera.

Lawson asks us to accept that global warming will have positive as well as negative consequences for the planet and that a sensible response involves constant if piecemeal adaptation rather than prohibitively expensive and possibly futile grand gestures. Practical measures will involve improved flood defences in some areas and bringing new crops into cultivation in others. With vastly fewer resources, earlier generations of Europeans dealt with greater changes in climate than are predicted for our future.

The adaptation approach has generally been overlooked in the great panic. Outright mitigation, through carbon cutting, has been proclaimed, and those wishing to investigate alternative paths cannot expect funding. Bombarded with the zealous certainties of those deaf to reasoned argument on this most important of issues, it is intensely refreshing to find in Nigel Lawson someone who, without claiming to have all the answers, is at least brave enough to ask eminently sensible questions.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated