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Lord Lawson: not entitled to his own facts

  • 18 Oct 2011, 16:35
  • Tim Holmes

Nigel Lawson's climate skeptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation have been getting a fair bit of air-time recently. This morning, for example, its founder Nigel Lawson was quoted on page four of the Daily Mail labeling green targets "absurd commitments" and calling on the government to abandon them. He was also featured in a prominent slot on the Today Programme arguing for investment in shale gas.

This last appearance was somewhat ironic, given that just two days ago Lawson penned a lengthy opinion piece in the Sunday Times in which he attacked the BBC's position on climate change and complained that invitations for the "authoritative" GWPF or "its excellent director, Dr Benny Peiser" to appear on the BBC are "almost as rare as hen's teeth".

Apparently hen's teeth are more common than previously thought. A Google search of the BBC website (including the terms "climate change" or "warming") reveals about 83 results for " Benny Peiser"; 214 results for the " Global Warming Policy Foundation"; and around 527 results for " Nigel Lawson". The latter includes a lengthy Newsnight feature  on Lawson's thoughts, after which he is pitched against Director of the Science Museum and former director of the British Antarctic Survey Chris Rapley; a Daily Politics segment during which Lawson is placed alongside Defra's scientific advisor Bob Watson; and (via Youtube) another interview alongside former shadow Environment Minister and leader of the opposition Ed Miliband. Not bad for an organization that was founded a year and a half ago.

Such is Lawson's prominence that the BBC Trust's recent review of the Corporation's science coverage, published in June, specifically name-checked the GWPF, criticizing the BBC for "false balance" in according significant time to climate skeptics alongside mainstream scientific opinion. The report drew on a content analysis by the Science Communication Group of Imperial College London, whose study period included the release of the Muir Russell report. They found not only that one third of total airtime discussing climate change was accorded to 'skeptics', but that:

"With the exception of Radio 4's PM, all news outlets included comment from climate sceptics -in most cases either former Conservative Chancellor, Lord Lawson, or Dr Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University who is Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank founded by Lawson."

The analysis also drew attention to presenters' introductions that are "somewhat misleading in failing to elaborate the precise nature of Peiser's expertise and his connection with a think tank with an established agenda." This point was exemplified in the Today Programme segment this morning, where Lawson described his position as "not at all" ideologically driven. On BBC North-West a couple of weeks ago, the GWPF was described as an "independent charitable think-tank".

But why does this all matter? The question is whether the media debate is a fair representation of the scientific debate on climate science. The BBC Trust review suggests that it is not. Its original version discussed "prominent individuals such as Lord Monckton and Lord Lawson" who make statements that are "not supported by the facts". The report implied that Lawson had made specific statements which he had not, and following a complaint by Lawson was withdrawn by the BBC. However, Lord Lawson is angry because the author of the BBC report Professor Steve Jones still maintains that he

"promotes the impression of active scientific debate on the issue of global warming when in fact there is clear consensus to the contrary".

Lord Lawson defends himself and the GWPF against this accusation, writing that

"We are, of course, interested in the views of well-qualified scientists. It was for this reason that we recently published The Truth about Greenhouse Gases, a briefing paper by William Happer, an eminent professor of physics at Princeton University…"

William Happer, a Professor of Physics, is chair of the board of directors at the US-based Marshall Institute, which lobbies against climate legislation. The Institute in the past has been funded by Exxon.

Lawson cites Happer's guess that temperature rise is likely to be "something like 1C over the next 200 years", ignoring evidence which shows average global temperature could increase by as much as 4°C over the next century. Such increases are projected for atmospheric concentrations roughly equivalent to around 650 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. Yet extraordinarily, "to avoid harming people" Happer recommends an upper limit of 5,000ppm - calling climate change a "supposed threat".

Happer also refers to the IPCC as the "organization charged with producing scientific support for the climate crusade" (though in fact it is "charged" only with providing evidence for Government that is " policy relevant but policy-neutral") and suggests that "the models have failed the simple scientific test of prediction" (relying on the same "meaningless" comparison for which John Beddington took Nigel Lawson to task: a single decade is too short to provide a reliable test, as the global climate system is riddled with short-term fluctuations).

Reading this material, the question arises as to whether the GWPF really are "interested in the views of well-qualified scientists" or genuinely "authoritative" on this issue. In May, the GWPF published a report by Lord Turnbull, The Real Inconvenient Truth, or "It Ain't Necessarily So". The report was demonstrated, among other things, to have repeatedly misrepresented mainstream scientific opinion; misrepresented the contents of the IPCC reports; and espoused a fabricated conspiracy theory.

And just last month, the Daily Mail printed a correction after reporting a GWPF claim that green measures would add 15-20% to energy bills. The correction recognized that "According to Ofgem, the correct figure for environmental costs is currently no more than 9%" of energy bills.

Lawson describes the BBC's position as "characterised chiefly by ignorance and intolerance" and calls on the broadcaster to ensure that "adequate airtime is given to informed dissent". As Jones puts it in his review however,

"All of us involved in this debate need to remember that we are entitled to our own opinions but none of us are entitled to our own facts."

UPDATE: 21st Oct 9am: some minor revisions were made to the paragraph about Ofgem's figures above in response to comments made below.

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