- The Guardian,
- Saturday May 3 2008
Nigel Lawson winces when he hears me talk of climate change: "It is a propagandist's term, it trips off the tongue nicely," he says. He will only refer to global warming, and even then with big qualifications. Almost 20 years after Margaret Thatcher's chancellor walked out of government, Lawson is back, defying scientists and politicians in a punchy book challenging what he calls "the global warming nonsense".
He makes an unlikely Dr Strangelove: a slimmed-down, pachyderm-skinned version of the face of Thatcherism, after a diet that he turned into a bestselling book. But like Peter Sellers' nuclear scientist, Lawson has learned to stop worrying and love a warmer world.
His argument boils down to two parts: climate change is not the threat we believe and efforts to stop it are doomed and dangerous. Everyone who says otherwise is either lying or ill-informed.
The book's title is moderate, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, but reaction to it has been anything but. Mention of Lawson's name provokes contempt among climate professionals, who say his views are ignorant and dangerous. Bob Watson, the former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a particular Lawson hate figure, accuses him of selective quotation and not understanding "the current scientific and economic debate".
Sipping coffee in the House of Lords, Lawson bristles at the charge that his book is nothing more than an upmarket green ink letter from an ill-informed retiree. He may be famous now as Nigella Lawson's dad and for his diet tips (cut out dairy and alcohol and eat less - he lost five stone as a result) but he is still a sharp debater.
At times, though, the mask of rationalism slips. "I think that the ordinary bloke has an instinctive sense that it wouldn't be too bad if the weather warmed up," he says, when I question his repeated claim that "gentle and moderate" warming could turn out to be good for the planet.
There are moments when talking to Lawson is like being trapped in a Bird and Fortune comic routine: all assertions and sweeping statements and a stubborn and rather engaging refusal to bow to conventional wisdom.
He is very drawn to what he says is the underrated upside of climate change. In his book, he says the hot summer of 2003, which killed 15,000 elderly people in France, was "perfectly tolerable" at his own house in Armagnac. "If you look around the world today there are countries that are very cold and countries that are very hot and you adapt," he says. "I do think it is slightly implausible to think that somehow we have arrived by some miraculous process at some optimum temperature."
Adaptation is at the heart of Lawson's case. He does not question the existence of the greenhouse effect, or of man-made climate change, only its extent and the balance between human and natural factors. But he thinks trying to limit carbon emissions is a fool's errand. If the world gets warmer, we will have to take off our jackets and trust in technical adaptation.
He makes much of his decision to accept the upper end of the IPCC's predictions for temperature rises as the basis for his argument. He says he accepts that over the next century the world average temperatures may rise by as much as 4C. His dispute, he claims, is with the lessons economists draw from that. He reserves particular ire for Sir Nicholas Stern's report, which he compares to the Iraq "dodgy dossier": "It was essentially a propaganda exercise".
For someone who makes so much of logic Lawson has an acidic tongue. The IPCC, the UN body whose work represents the synthesis of present scientific understanding, is "something like a politically correct alarmist pressure group". And "Al Gore is obviously just a propagandist". If Lawson really accepted the science of climate change - and simply disputed the practical and economic logic of tackling it - it is odd that he would talk like this. He has a chancellor's quick grasp of data which makes picking apart his argument like analysing one of Gordon Brown's budgets. It takes time to see all the tricks.
Prominent among these is to take a swift sidekick at the figures produced for global warming, but, rather than stand his ground, slide away to doubt whether it would matter even if they were accurate. Confronted on his rejection of both the evidence for and the unacceptability of global warming, he sidesteps again and questions whether it is possible to stop the process.
To dance from one to the other suggests a lawyer's concern to win the case rather than establish the truth. His skeleton courtroom argument for the defence seems to be that his client isn't doing it, but even if he is doing it's harming nobody, and even if it is harming anyone it cannot be stopped.
He asserts that "global warming ... is not at the present time happening", basing his claim on evidence from Britain's Hadley centre, which he says shows temperatures have ceased to climb since the millennium. He brushes aside my attempt to point out that the Hadley does not agree with such a sweeping claim or that scientists say no set of data over such a short time can be meaningful.
When I read a quote from Nasa - "the year 2007 tied for second warmest in the period of instrumental data behind the record warmth of 2005" - he gets cross. "They cheat ... I tell you how they cheat."
"The prevailing orthodoxy can be both stifling and intolerant," he says. But the reality is that climate change sceptics get a hearing out of all proportion to their scientific support.
His book has become a small bestseller, which he takes as a vindication of his struggle to get it published. It was rejected by every British publisher he approached. He is convinced climate change is as much a matter of faith as of science. "Global warming is a new religion and blasphemy against that religion is not a laughing matter," he claims. "There is a great gap in Europe with the decline in any real belief in Marxism and any real belief in Christianity. This has filled that vacuum." Perhaps it has. But does that make the science wrong?
Talking on polling day for the local elections, I ask whether he had been out, as the Tory slogan had it, to "vote blue to go green". Lawson - who commutes from southern France each week by easyJet with the assurance of someone not worried about aviation emissions - said he had voted by post.
But what about David Cameron's environmentalism: is it real? "He sees it as an important part of the rebranding exercise but I also think he believes it," Lawson says, rather sadly.
He is polite about the generation in charge of the Conservatives and expects to see them in power. But he thinks they have fallen for a fashionable consensus. "No doubt they have focus groups which indicate this strikes a chord".
Would he ever fit a wind turbine to his roof, like Cameron? "No, I'm not into political gestures." Has he ever done anything green at home - fitting low-energy lightbulbs perhaps? He looks appalled. "No, no, I don't do any of that. Most people don't."
Large parts of Lawson's well-written book suggest the world-weary views of an experienced man. He is a dust-dry intellectual, wary of any claim that idealism is enough to solve global problems. "Even Kyoto, which is trivial, hasn't been implemented," he says. It is hard not to share his view that even if the Bali talks are followed by a new treaty, it will be broken.
Nor does he find big business's new-found environmentalism convincing. "There are enormous business opportunities if you give huge subsidies to people to build wind farms. If you create a carbon trading scheme then banks will make a lot of money."
Such contrarianism is ever present: "Turn the conversation the other way around: do you think global cooling would be beneficial?" he asks me. But of course science does not predict global cooling, only global warming - and the IPCC scientists are clear that the impact will be something much worse than the warmer summers and snow-free winters that Lawson is prepared to tolerate.
What about energy security surely that is a reason to move to renewables? Isn't oil about to run out? "No." What happens when it does? "Obviously the answer is to develop our indigenous coal resources." I point out the irony of the chancellor who took on the miners with Thatcher backing King Coal but he barely pauses to smile.
He has sent his book to MPs and claims that many have replied supporting him. But he will not name names. When I ask if Cameron has discussed the issue with him, he fails to answer.
Some of the attacks on Lawson are unfair. He has every right to assert his opinions. He is right that scientific predictions of future climate change from computer models are inherently unreliable and right to warn that Stern's market-led solution to climate change may not work. But neither of these is to be celebrated. The triumphal note with which he drives home his points is odd: "The high tide of unthinking adherence to this new religion has been reached and I think it may well be in the coming years the tide will gradually recede but it will be a very glacial progress."
He does not appear troubled by the thought that he might just be wrong, and everyone else right, and that the consequences of following his advice would be global humanitarian disaster.
· An Appeal to Reason, by Nigel Lawson, is published by Gerald Duckworth & Co, priced £9.99