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Factcheck: Lord Lawson’s inaccurate claims about climate change on BBC Radio 4

Presenters in the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme studio, London, UK. Credit: Roger Hutchings / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs breakfast show, featured a prominent five-minute interview this morning with the climate sceptic Conservative peer Lord Lawson.

Lawson was asked by the presenter Justin Webb to respond to Webb’s earlier interview with Al Gore. The former US vice president is in the UK promoting his new documentary, The Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, a follow-up to his Oscar-winning film released a decade ago.

Lawson, who has a history of controversial appearances on the Today programme, made a number of inaccurate claims throughout his interview. It has already attracted widespread criticism from scientists.

Carbon Brief has transcribed and annotated the interview to highlight and contextualise the errors.

Transcript

Justin Webb: We heard earlier in the programme from Al Gore, who’s in Britain plugging his latest climate change film. One of the points he makes, in that film, and made to us, is that the economics of climate change are changing. Never mind how convinced you are about the need for altered behaviour and reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, actually it just makes sense to be on the front edge of solar power, he was claiming in particular. Lord Lawson is on the line, Conservative former chancellor of course, and chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Lord Lawson, good morning.

Webb, who has his own history of conducting controversial climate-related interviews, fails to properly introduce the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) to his listeners. The GWPF is a UK-based climate sceptic lobby group set up in 2009, which, to date, has refused to reveal its funders. In 2014, it split into two entities – a charity and a separate lobbying arm – following complaints to the Charity Commission that it was not acting in the spirit of an “educational” charity.

Energy costs

Lord Lawson: Good morning.

Webb: What do you make of that point? That people like you, who have been saying the costs are too great, are now on the back foot, because the costs of doing what Al Gore wants us to do are fast reducing.

Lawson: Well, look, the point is not, just the costs – although we do have in this country, in England, one of the highest energy costs in the world, which is very hard on the poor and hard on business and industry, which is because of our absurd climate-driven energy policy. The energy in – renewable energy, so-called – is heavily subsidised, and, if they say it’s economic, well then, let’s get rid of the subsidies…[crosstalk]

The UK enjoys some of the lowest gas prices in the EU, both for homes and for businesses, according to data presented by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Domestic electricity prices are also well below the EU average.

Not only this, domestic energy bills in the UK were lower in 2016 than they were in 2008, when serious efforts to tackle climate change began. This is because climate policies have helped cut demand, in addition to raising prices. The net impact has been to cut bills: energy bills are a function of volume, as well as prices.

Only for industrial electricity prices does Lawson come close to having a point. These are among the highest in the world, though industry still pays much less for its power than homes do.

Note that the CCC says the UK’s higher industrial power prices are due to wholesale and network costs, not because of climate policies. Note also that heavy industry is already exempted from almost all climate policy costs.

Subsidies

Webb: But the point Al Gore makes is that we subsidise all energy, including fossil fuels…[crosstalk]

Lawson: No, we don’t. That’s not true. We tax fossil fuel energy. Anyway, we subsidise renewable energy. But the main point is that the conventional energy is reliable and cheaper, and that is important. What is the reason for Al Gore, I listened to the interview you had with him, and he was talking complete nonsense. I’m not surprised that his new film bombed completely, it’s a complete fiasco…

As Carbon Brief explained earlier this year, calculations by the International Energy Agency and OECD have valued annual global fossil fuel subsidies at $325bn and $160bn-$200bn, respectively. These sums largely cover different countries and types of subsidy, so can be added to give an approximation of the global total.

A 2015 working paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) counted externalities, such as air pollution, as subsidies, calculating a price tag around ten times this amount. The IMF said energy subsidies cost the world $5.3tn in 2015, with most going to support fossil fuels.

There remains debate over exactly what should be counted as a fossil fuel subsidy, though as Carbon Brief found, semantic arguments of this type may be missing the point.

Meanwhile, Carbon Brief analysis published in April showed that the UK’s North Sea oil-and-gas sector became a net drain on public finances for the first time last year.

The sector received £396m in 2016, net of tax payments, as a result of claiming rebates for investment against tax paid in previous years. These rebates are set to soar as the sector starts to decommission ageing oil platforms and pipelines.

It is true that An Inconvenient Sequel has not matched the box-office success of the 2006 original. However, it had grossed $1.1m by its second weekend of release – a “respectable, solid” sum for a documentary, according to film trade magazine Variety. The film is set for release in the UK on 18 August.

Extreme Weather

Webb: Which bit of [Gore’s interview] was nonsense?

Lawson: What?

Webb: Which bit…

Lawson: For example, he said that, er, there had been a growing increase, which had been continuing, in the extreme weather events. There hasn’t been. All the experts say there haven’t been. The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is sort of the voice of the consensus, concedes that there has been no increase in extreme weather events. Extreme weather events have always happened. They come and go. And some kinds of extreme weather events of a particular time increase, whereas others, like tropical storms, diminish…

In its latest assessment report (pdf) (AR5), published in 2013, the IPCC’s Working Group I (WG1) on the physical science of climate change makes clear that many types of weather extreme have increased in frequency since 1950.

This is particularly true of heat extremes and heavy rainfall events. However, the picture is much more nuanced than implied by Lawson, or indeed by Gore (see transcript below).

The table below summarises all the evidence then available to the IPCC on weather extremes. It shows the range of confidence that increases have occurred (first column), the assessment of human activity has contributed to observed changes (second column) and the likelihood of further change in future (third and fourth columns).

Extreme weather and climate events: Assessment of recent observed changes, human contributions to change and the likelihood of further changes. Source: AR5 summary for Policymakers (pdf), IPCC Working Group I.

Since AR5 was published, new evidence has been building on the links between extremes and climate change, in the relatively young scientific field of extreme weather attribution.

Earlier this year, Carbon Brief collated more than 140 studies looking at weather extremes around the world. This analysis showed that 63% of all extreme weather events studied to date were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change.

The majority of these events have been heatwaves, but the “fingerprint” of climate change has also been felt on drought, heavy rain, wildfires and even tropical cyclones.

Webb: Yes, [Gore] was interesting on that, because I challenged him on that and he said, no, actually, the thinking now among scientists who look at this – and he uses the phrase in the film, “join the dots” – that, actually, when we look at, I don’t know, Hurricane Sandy, when we look at the terrible hurricane that there was in the Philippines, when we look at other individual world events, we are simply kidding ourselves if we don’t join them together and say what is causing it.

See below for a transcript of the relevant part of Gore’s interview. Carbon Brief published a 10-year retrospective on Hurricane Katrina in 2015. This looked at the challenge of identifying trends in hurricane activity, as well as the question of whether climate change has been a factor.

For Hurricane Sandy, “scientists found little contribution [from human activity] to the storm itself, but the main role of climate change was through the higher sea levels,” Dr Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford told Carbon Brief at the time.

Taking a wider view, the IPCC’s AR5 (pdf) says: “It is virtually certain that the frequency and intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic has increased since the 1970s,” though there are complications when it comes to hurricanes that make landfall.

Rising temperatures

Lawson: No, it’s not happening. The reputable scientists, reputable experts, like Professor Pielke [Jr] and, as I’ve said, the IPCC, has confirmed that there has been no increase in extreme weather events. And as for the temperature itself, it is striking, he made his previous film 10 years ago, and according – again – to the official figures, during this past 10 years, if anything, mean global temperature, average world temperature, has slightly declined.

A number of climate scientists have been quick to point out that Lawson is completely wrong to claim that the average global temperature has “slightly declined” since 2007. In stark contrast to Lawson’s claim, the global surface temperature over this period has risen, with the three hottest years on record occurring in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Last month, Carbon Brief published the interactive chart, below, showing how the main global temperature datasets compare. (The satellite record also shows a rising trend in tropospheric temperature over this period, while 2016 remains the hottest year on record even after the effects of the natural El Niño phenomenon are removed.)

Global mean surface temperatures from NASA, NOAA, Hadley/UEA, Berkeley Earth, and Cowtan and Way. Anomalies plotted with respect to a 1961-1990 baseline. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

US climate action

Webb: Yeah, well, which is an argument on both sides, but I just want to stick on his general advice and, in a sense, get back to this point about the economics of it. He makes a particular point about solar power and he talks in the film about battery technology, the ability – our ability – and he goes to a conservative Republican in a place in Georgia, I think it is, in the United States. And the conservative [Republican] says, “well, why wouldn’t we do this: it’s becoming cheaper, if we’re not putting stuff into the atmosphere that probably isn’t good for it, why not do it?”

Donald Trump’s stance on climate change means little federal action is expected over the next few years. However, Carbon Brief analysis has found US states have the powers to collectively meet the country’s commitment under the Paris Agreement, if they choose to act.

Wind and solar were the fastest-growing source of energy in 2016 and their costs are falling rapidly. They can now compete on price with conventional sources of energy in many parts of the world. In the UK, the CCC says wind and solar will be cheaper than gas by 2020.

Renewables do present challenges for current electricity systems, including how to accommodate their variable output. However, evidence for the UK suggests the costs of this integration will be relatively low.

Lawson: Look, two things, first of all, of course Al Gore has substantial commercial interests in renewable energy. But, secondly, if it is for the economics, why on earth do we subsidise it and support it via all sorts of government policies, which are driving up the costs of energy, particularly in the United Kingdom.

As noted above, UK domestic energy bills were lower in 2016 than they were in 2008, when serious efforts to address climate change began. Subsidies for low-carbon electricity are adding increasing sums to bills, but so far, other climate policies have helped cut bills overall.

It is common for Lawson and others to focus on prices, rather than bills, and to misleadingly attribute earlier price rises – from the early 2000s to 2008 – to renewables, rather than their real cause, rising global gas prices.

It’s worth adding that, at present, no new electricity generation capacity is being built in the UK without some form of government support. New gas-fired power stations are among those benefitting from support under the government’s capacity market.

Webb: Are you going to go and see the film?

Lawson: Uh, I don’t think so. I’ve heard what Al Gore has to say and it’s the same old claptrap. People often fail to change, and he certainly hasn’t changed. He’s like the man who goes around saying the end of the world is nigh with a big placard. To begin with you might be a little bit scared, but after 10 years of him doing that and the end of the world isn’t nigh, and you think, well, maybe we should forget that and concentrate on real problems, like North Korea, which you’ve been talking about, like world poverty, like disease, and all these other issues which we should be diverting our attention to, and international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism. These are real problems. The world is not short of problems, and to divert resources and energy to non-problems is really ridiculous.

Webb: Lord Lawson, thank you.

Lawson’s claim that climate change is a “non-problem” is countered by the canon of climate science published over the past century, which includes recent studies examining the range of impacts rising temperatures and sea-levels are already having and how these impacts are likely to intensify if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are not urgently curtailed.

Al Gore transcript

Below is the transcript of the section of Webb’s interview with Al Gore which focused on extreme weather:

Al Gore: There are two big changes since the first movie came out a decade ago. One is the solutions are here now, but they need to be implemented more quickly. The second big change is that the climate-related extreme weather events have grown far more numerous and far more destructive. Mother Nature is the chief advocate for fighting the climate…

Webb: …Yes, but that’s another problem, isn’t it. You make the case that they’re climate related. I mean, if I said to you, “It’s a cold day in London today so there’s no such thing as climate change,” you would say, “You’re a moron, it’s an idiotic thing to say”. And, yet, in your film you have repeated shots of storms and you, as you put it, joined the dots, and suggest that they have to because of manmade climate change. Are you going a little bit further than all the scientists would?

Gore: Oh, no, of course, the Royal Academy of Science [Royal Society] here in the United Kingdom, and all of the academies of science throughout the world are virtually unanimous on this and have been for decades. You’ve had clear evidence here in the UK, just in the last couple of years, the all-time record downpours – and the high temperatures – and just this past week, in southern Europe, the record high temperatures and fires. All of these things are consistent with what the scientific community has been saying for decades. But, again, Mother Nature is a more persuasive advocate.

Categories: FactchecksGlobal temperatureIn FocusPolicyScienceUK policy
Tags: Al GoreAn Inconvenient Sequalclimate change attributionExtreme weatherGWPFNigel LawsonThe Today Programme

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