The Trouble With Climate Change Denial

Bob Ward

Policy and Communications Director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment

Huffington Post 4 July 2014 11:57


Over the past few months, the Global Warming Policy Foundation has been strongly pushing a campaign pamphlet on ‘The trouble with climate change’, written by its founder and chair, Lord Lawson of Blaby. It provides a fascinating demonstration of the trouble with climate change denial.

The pamphlet is a grumpy polemic by Lord Lawson in which he complains bitterly about being subjected to “extremes of personal hostility, vituperation and vilification” because of his views on climate change, while also condemning “climate scientists and their hangers-on who have become the high priests of a new age of unreason”.

It shows that he is still filled with the same intense dislike of climate scientists that he felt when he first produced an essay on the issue for the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing lobby group, in 2006.

That essay, which provided the basis for his book ‘An Appeal to Reason’, suggested that “the new religion is eco-fundamentalism”, which he compared with “the supreme intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism”, and “the new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants for their pains) rather than clerics of the established religions”.

Like his first contribution, Lord Lawson’s latest pamphlet is imbued with contempt for climate scientists, and depends on denying their findings about the scale of the risks that are being created by unmanaged climate change.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has no scientific training or qualifications, accepts the undeniable fact that “by burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – we are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus, other things being equal, increasing the earth’s temperature”. But beyond this, he presents a distorted account of the science, apparently based on whether it is in line with his ideological opposition to climate change policies.

For instance, Lord Lawson claims that “the effect of carbon dioxide on the earth’s temperature is probably less than was previously thought”. This is simply false. The most authoritative review of the scientific evidence, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in September 2013, found that the long-term sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was likely (66 per cent chance) to cause global average surface temperature to rise by between 1.5 and 4.5 centigrade degrees.

This compares with the previous assessment in 2007 which concluded that the value of the long-term climate sensitivity is between 2.0 and 4.5 centigrade degrees. So although the lower bound is slightly lower in the new assessment, it is not true that the value is “probably less than previously thought”.

And as the new report shows, if atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to grow at the current rate, even assuming a low value of climate sensitivity, global warming will substantially exceed two degrees by the end of this century, resulting in a global average surface temperature that, as the IPCC points out, has not been experienced for a sustained period on Earth since the Pliocene Epoch about 3 million years ago, when the polar ice caps were much smaller and global sea level was up to 20 metres higher than it is today.

However, 82-year-old Lord Lawson seems unperturbed by the prospect of creating a prehistoric climate for future generations to deal with. He argues that “over millennia, the temperature of the earth has varied a great deal”. That may be so, but human civilisation has developed over the past 12,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age during a period when global average temperature has only varied by a couple of centigrade degrees at most.

Lord Lawson offers proof of our resilience against climate change by citing the Little Ice Age in the 17th century, “when the Thames frequently froze in winter and substantial ice fairs were held on it”. This is a ‘sceptic’ canard. The River Thames froze over only 23 times between 1408 and 1814, and was due to the old London Bridge restricting tidal flows. After the Bridge was replaced in the 1830, the river did not freeze over even though London experienced many colder winters.

Finally Lord Lawson argues that even if the Earth is warming, the consequences are nothing to worry about. He claims that it is “still uncertain whether there is any impact on extreme weather events as a result of warming”, yet the IPCC concluded that “changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950”, and, for instance, “the frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation events has likely increased in North America and Europe”.

Lord Lawson also denies any link between climate change and the floods that hit the UK earlier this year during the wettest winter on record, even though the Met Office has laid out the evidence for a connection. Instead, he accuses the Met Office of “weasel words” and accuses its chief scientist, Professor Julia Slingo, of being “publicity-hungry”.

The pamphlet provides stunning proof that the arguments put forward by Lord Lawson and other climate change ‘sceptics’ require not just a dogmatic rejection of the expert views of climate scientists, but also a denigration of their professional competence and integrity.

That is the trouble with climate change denial.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC 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.



One comment on “The Trouble With Climate Change Denial

  1. Before I make a comment on this posting I would just like to say that I have been preaching climate change to UK politicians since the mid 1980’s. I am a firm believer in rising atmospheric CO2 levels causing a warming of the atmosphere! BUT I have grave concerns about the ability of climate change scientists to accurately predict the amount of change in average temperatures across the Earth, in fact I believe that they may be seriously underestimating them.

    The Earth relies on a large number of negative feedback systems to stabilise the climate and many of these are being stretched to the limit, If they break or worse still, start acting as positive feedback loops then things could get very bad very quickly. I don’t think our climatologists can claim to have included all potential climate forcing mechanisms and I know that the UK Met Office refused to believe that space weather can affect our climate as late as 2009.

    Changes in the solar wind and coronal mass ejections definitely have an impact on the Earth as witnessed by the Auroras Borealis and Australis but there is also evidence to suggest that subtle long term changes in the solar magnetic flux can bring about 22 – 66 year changes in northern latitude climate especially. What causes this is still open to debate but a shifting of the Jet Stream as witnessed over the US this last year, causing extremely cold weather, could be one factor.

    The Sun is currently going through a period of low solar magnetic activity as evidenced by the much lower than normal daily sunspot number, refer If this does cause lower global temperatures here on Earth, as thought to have caused the Maunder (Little Ice Age) and Dalton (early 1800s) minima then it might be already offsetting temperature rises due to atmospheric CO2 levels and continue to do so over the next 22 – 44 years.

    If as a result, global temperatures don’t rise as fast as is currently predicted, then the climate change sceptics will have a field day. If that then slows down our attempts to decarbonise power and energy generation and deflects political policy, then we will be in real trouble when the Sun comes back to full magnetic strength in the next 40 years or so.

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