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ABC Interview With Nigel Lawson

Between the Lines, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

With six months to go until the next global climate treaty talks in Paris, environmentalist and former US vice president Al Gore has declared that ‘the future of the world depends’ on their outcome. Lord Nigel Lawson, former energy secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government, delivers his assessment of the prospects of the world reaching a new climate deal.

Previous climate conferences, including Copenhagen in 2009, Durban in 2011 and Doha in 2012, failed to reach binding, enforceable and verifiable deals.

Will Paris be different? And if not, what do we do about climate change?

Tom Switzer: Will the UN reach a genuinely global and legally binding deal at Paris later this year?

Lord Lawson: Not a legally binding deal at all, though they’ll no doubt be a wishy washy agreement that everybody’s going to do their best. But nothing will be legally binding. It’s going to basically be a sham.

Tom Switzer: Many climate enthusiasts point to that China/US deal that was reached last November as the way forward. President Obama at Brisbane’s G20 said that ‘if China and the US can agree on this then the world can get this done.’ Is this deal a climate change game changer?

Lawson: No, it was a phoney deal in the first place. There was nothing really agreed. And indeed they were talking about different things. President Obama was talking about CO2, which is a concern for him. I’m not quite clear why, but it is. And the Chinese people were talking about pollution, which has got nothing to do with CO2, and pollution is a problem in Beijing and many other cities, but it’s got nothing to do with CO2. So, they are talking at cross purposes, but it suited both of them to pretend there was an agreement because Obama wanted to present it as a triumph and the Chinese wanted to get the Americans off their backs. So, it suited both sides to pretend there was an agreement, but there wasn’t an agreement at all, and China is still building new coal fired power stations. It’s still overwhelmingly a coal fired electricity producer and using fossil fuels, and intends to continue to do so for the foreseeable future for obvious reasons – in order to power their growth.

Switzer: And the Chinese simply volunteering their vague, detail free, unenforceable promises that its emissions maybe would stop growing after 2030.

Lawson: That’s right, maybe after 2030. It’s their best guess. That’s all they’re saying. Their best guess is that their CO2 emissions will peak at around 2030. Well, that’s not an agreement, that’s not enforceable. That’s absolutely nothing. It is true – and the Chinese make a lot of this – that their carbon intensity is reducing, but their carbon intensity is reducing for two reasons, which all happens for economic development through-out the world.

First of all, you become more efficient in the use of your energy – just as you become more efficient in the use of man power. It’s what we call productivity. The other thing is that, of course, as you develop you tend to shift – and the Chinese are beginning to do this – from an overwhelmingly manufacturing economy to more of a service economy. Of course, the service industries are much less energy intensive than manufacturing. That is something that happens inevitably and there is no overall reduction in the amount of energy use as the economy expands.

Switzer: So, net emissions are escalating in China?

Lawson: That’s right.

Switzer: We know that they supply more than a quarter of the annual global carbon output. But your critics, Nigel, would say that Beijing is in the process of developing emissions trading schemes in certain regions [and] that China is on the cusp of a green leap forward. How would you respond to that?

Lawson: Well you just look at the figures. I mean if you look at how much they generate from renewables – how much they generate from wind power and solar – it’s negligible. It’s about 1% of their total requirements and it’s not growing.

 They have been anxious to try and produce solar panels for export. That’s true. But that’s nothing to do with the Chinese economy. And if you look at India, the other great large major developing country,India – who’ve been slightly more straight forward than China – have said absolutely clearly that the West built their economy up on the basis of relatively cheap fossil fuel power and they’re going to do the same.

Switzer: That’s right. So the priority of the Indians – much like the developing world generally – is to grow their economies and reduce poverty, and the cheapest way of doing that, as you say, is on the back of carbon based energy.

Lawson: That’s right, and that is why I think it is not only ridiculous for us to try and stop them doing that, but it’s also immoral because this is the way they get their people out of poverty at the fastest practical rate, and that is what we should all want to see – people taken out of poverty, malnutrition and preventable disease. So, to say that you’ve got to slow this process down I think is wicked.

Switzer: Well, I once made that point on the ABC’s Q&A – it’s a bit like the BBC’s Question Time – to which the studio audience responded with not just hostility but with open mouthed incredulity. But it’s a perfectly reasonable observation because, as you say, the non-OECD share of emissions continues to escalate steadily.

Lawson: That’s right. That’ll continue to happen so long as fossil fuels are far and away the cheapest source of energy. That may not continue forever – science and technology are wonderful – but it will certainly continue for the foreseeable future.

Switzer: Well, let’s turn to the United States. President Obama, as you know, has failed to legislate for a cap and trade carbon tax despite the fact that he had democratic supermajorities in Congress during his first two years in power, yet his administration has regulated coal fired power plants. To what extent do you think this policy is a global trend setter? Is it reducing carbon emissions, Nigel?

Lawson: Carbon emissions are not going to reduce globally, as we were talking about earlier, because of the huge growth in the emerging world. China and India, in particular, but also in many other parts of Asia and Latin America and maybe to some extent in Africa as well. So, they’re not going to stop growing. Therefore I think it is very foolish of the West, and some Western countries – and the United Kingdom is one of them – to cut back on their use of fossil fuels in order to set an example to the rest of the World. The rest of the World are not going to follow their example. All you’re doing is crippling your own economy and also damaging the poor in your own country. So, it doesn’t seem to me to be a very sensible way forward.

And, of course, another thing that has happened is that the idea was that, maybe in the not so distant future, all these other hopelessly uneconomic sources of power like wind power would become economic because the fossil fuel prices would rise. In fact, fossil fuel prices have fallen largely as a result of the shale revolution – the development of shale gas and shale oil around the world. I think that many countries are going to be reluctant – given the lower prices for fossil fuels –in dishing out these huge subsidies, which the wind energy industry and the solar power industry requires. So, it doesn’t add up.

Switzer: That’s an intriguing point you make because you very rarely hear this. So, your point is that, in the United States at least, is that the shale/fracking revolution – and not carbon regulation under Obama – but the fracking revolution, the shale revolution – that’s the most efficient way to cut emissions. In other words, allow the private drillers to expand natural gas production?

Lawson: Yes, and America has been very successful. America, which was not a signatory to the Kyoto agreement, is in fact of all the countries in the world the one that has cut its emissions most. It’s cut its emissions most thanks to the massive use of shale gas in place of coal, and that’s because of this technological revolution in the hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which enabled shale gas to be developed economically. The reserves are huge. Everybody always knew the reserves were huge, but they didn’t know how to extract them economically. Now they do. And, of course, gas produces roughly half the emissions per Kwh of electricity than coal does. 

Switzer: Now, what about Britain? Many climate enthusiasts here in Australia, most notably Malcolm Turnbull – who you remember well from the Thatcher Spycatcher casein the 80s – they pointed to David Cameron’s Conservative government as the trend setters on climate policy, and that you, Nigel Lawson, are out of touch with your own Party’s leadership, and that the UK carbon reduction policies have strong support from the British industry?

Lawson: No, they don’t. But the big thing that the Cameron government has said, and has now been re-elected with an overall majority – it no longer has to govern in a coalition – it has said that it wants to push ahead with the development of shale as quickly as possible. That’s a number one priority.

Switzer: And, of course, the Climate Minister in the previous government lost his seat. He was a Lib Dem, wasn’t he?

Lawson: That’s right, and the Liberal Democrats were dragging their feet on shale. The Conservatives are always very clear, both David Cameron and my successor by about five Chancellor George Osborne, that their number one priority on the energy front is to develop the UK’s indigenous shale resources, which the geologists say are huge.

Switzer: Meanwhile, in Australia Tony Abbott, as you are no doubt well aware, is all too often denounced as a denier for repealing the Gillard Labour government’s carbon tax legislation –something that the broadcross of the Australian population wanted at the last election. But the consensus among a lot of the climate enthusiasts here is that Abbott is isolating Australia from the global community on climate change – he’s emerged as some sort of world pariah. Is that how you read Tony Abbott, Nigel? 

Lawson: No, I think that the new ‘Church of Climate Change,’ which has got the opinion formers and the intellectual classes over a large swath of the world and the UN leadership are committed to it and so on, they are totally out of step – both with reality and with public opinion. I believe that Tony Abbott is absolutely right to pay more attention to the facts and more attention to public opinion than to this new religion.

Switzer: Nigel, recently the UN’s top climate negotiator, Christina Figurez, she paid a visit to Australia to warn us that we must step away from our alliance on coal exports. Here she is recently responding to the ABC’s Emma Alberici– it’s a question about our Prime Minister. 

*Christina Figurez Interview*

Switzer: Nigel Lawson?

Lawson: No, she is completely wrong. There are some institutions divesting themselves of their coal shares, but for everyone that does that there are others that are anxious to buy them. So, there’s no running away globally from shares in coal mining companies.

It is perfectly true that the Americans have leant on the World Bank and its affiliates not to finance the development of coal fired power stations in the developing world, and that is one of the main reasons why the Chinese have set up this rival International Development Bank to the World Bank. As you may know, the United Kingdom, France and pretty well everybody else has been happy to join, and they will be financing coal fired power stations.

Also, either she doesn’t know or she refuses to tell what is really happening. If you look at the International Energy Agency or if you look at BP – those are the two bodies that try and make correct projections of what is going to happen to energy demand and energy use over the coming 30/40/50 years – they both project an increase in the use of fossil fuels for the obvious reasons that we were talking about earlier.

Switzer: Let’s change the subject slightly. You are all too often denounced as a climate change sceptic or even a denier, and I understand that the BBC won’t allow you onto their programmes to talk about this issue?

Lawson: That’s right. They did invite me on – I think in February of last year – surprisingly, and there was a howl from all the Greens – some of them vested interests, some of them fanatics – that is was a disgrace that I was allowed on, and I haven’t been allowed on since.

Switzer: Really? But you accept the broad science that there is a link between carbon emissions and warming? You just question the wild predictions and doomsday scenarios, don’t you?

Lawson: Yes. I mean my position is very clear. Of course, I accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which – other things being equal – the more that’s put in the atmosphere, the warmer the temperature of the planet will be, and that burning fossil fuels does this.

There are a number of things which are unclear, however. First of all, the other factors which should determine the temperature of the planet. It’s not just carbon dioxide – that’s absurd. There have been fluctuations in the temperature of the earth over millennia, long before we were burning fossil fuels.

The other thing is how big an effect it has, and it’s clear that the computer models which they’ve relied on grossly exaggerated [the effect] because so far this century – we’re 15 years into it, which is quite a reasonable time – although the models predicted that the temperature would accelerate, in fact it’s more or less stopped. It’s a pause, it’s a hiatus. Obviously the sensitivity to this is less than they thought. So, there might well be some warming, but it won’t be very great and it’s nothing that we can’t adapt to, quite apart from the fact that – as I said before and I think it’s most important – that the most important thing is to raise living standards among the desperately poor in the developing world. The best way to do that is through using the cheapest available energy. Now, that might not be carbon based energy forever, but for now and the foreseeable future it is, and I think it is wicked to try and stop that. 

Switzer: Well, I mean you’re not alone here. There are many distinguished climate scientists, such as Richard Lindzen from MIT, Judith Curry from Georgia Tech, William Happer at Princeton,Robert Mendelsohnat Yale, John Christy at NASA, Freeman Dyson– he’s a famed physicist. They’ve all in their own ways criticised various aspects of the IPCC’s line on climate change, but they hardly get heard in this debate.

Lawson: Well, that’s right. Some of those you mentioned, including Freeman Dyson, are members of the academic advisory council of my think-tank. One of the points that Freeman Dyson has made a lot, which is absolutely right, is that the biggest impact of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the greening of the planet. Carbon dioxide is the food for all plant life, and without plant life there wouldn’t be much animal life either, and it is observable and is scientifically accepted and measureable. Although the fanatics don’t like to talk about it, Freeman Dyson – who’s the world’s most distinguished living physicist – has made this point on a number of occasions, quite rightly. What has happened as a result of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the world is getting a greener place. And the biosphere has been improved tremendously as a result of that and this has been good for animal life as well as for plant life. 

Switzer: Where is the accountability of these climate enthusiasts, whose predictions just don’t measure up? We’re all aware of those debunked predictions, such as the vanishing Himalayan glaciers and the disappearing north polar ice cap. Here’s Tim Flannery– he’s an environmentalist here in Australia, Nigel, he’s not a climate scientist – but here he is predicting permanent drought in New South Wales on the ABC’s late line ten years ago.

*Tim Flannery Interview*

Switzer: Tim Flannery, 10 years ago, saying that water has been in virtual freefall, they’ve got about 2 years of supply left, rainfall declines seem to be of a permanent nature, Sydney will be facing extreme difficulties with water. Yet, when Flannery appeared on the same show just recently, Nigel Lawson, he was allowed to say that the recent heavy rain in Sydney (that he said would not happen) was due to – guess what – global warming. So, when there’s a drought we’re told it’s the fault of global warming and when there are heavy storms and floods, that’s also the fault of global warming. What’s going on here?

Lawson: Well, you’re absolutely right. This is totally unscientific and manifest nonsense. The science is clear. The science is the so-called greenhouse effect, which means that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – other things being equal (of course, other things may not be equal) – will have a warming effect.

It says nothing about droughts or rainfall or any of that. That is totally unscientific. But what has happened is since the world has stubbornly refused to warm during this century as a result of the increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which there’s certainly been, they have stopped talking about global warming, which is the scientific thing, and started talking about climate change or ‘climate shifts,’ which, of course, has got nothing to do with it. The climate changes all the time, it always has done, it always will, it changes at different times, in different ways, in different parts of the world, differently. That will always go on. They sometimes use the weasel words ‘oh, well when there’s a drought somewhere in Australia or wherever, they say this is consistent with what we would expect from climate change’ – the burning of fossil fuels/man made. You will note that they never say that anything is inconsistent with their theory. As Karl Popper pointed out, if a theory can’t be falsified, if it is so constructed that it can’t be falsified, then it’s not a scientific theory.

Switzer: If you’ve just joined us, you’re listening to Between the Lines. I’m Tom Switzer and I’m with Lord Nigel Lawson talking about global warming. Nigel, what about renewable energy? Here in Australia both the Abbott Government and the Labour opposition support renewable energy target mandates. 20% of all Australian energy, they say, should come from renewable sources by 2020. Are renewables really the way forward here?

Lawson: No, they’re not. One of the problems with the renewables, and particularly wind power that the UK has gone for, is that it is intermittent. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, and electricity has to be on tap all the time otherwise it’s useless. So, you have to have back-up, and the back-up is carbon based energy.

Now, not only are you not reducing carbon emissions nearly as much as you think you will – you have to have these fossil fuel power stations turned on when the wind isn’t blowing enough, which often, incidentally, is during some of the coldest periods of the year when you need the most – but it also adds hugely to the cost because these power stations are inefficient. If they aren’t running continuously, [the fossil fuel power stations] then have to be turned on when the wind turbines are not turning, and then turned off again afterwards. It is crazy. Intermittent energy is no good to man or beast.

Switzer: Well, given the prospects of a legally binding, enforceable, verifiable and, you know, genuinely global deal at Paris is – as you’ve made quite clear – virtually zero, what should the world do instead?

Lawson: I think what the world should do is what mankind/humankind has done through-out the centuries, throughout the millennia and does in every part of the world. That is to adapt. Adapt to whatever nature throws at us, whether it is storms, droughts or warming. This is happening very, very slowly and very, very gradually. We can adapt, particularly with the advantages of modern technology.

Just look at how people have adapted successfully around the world to many different temperatures. The temperature, for example, in Singapore is extremely high. The average temperature there is something like 27 degrees, but it’s a successful economy and they’ve managed to adapt to it. Finland is also a successful little country – pretty cold, with a mean temperature of something like 5 degrees. They’ve adapted to that. We can adapt, and as I say, modern technology makes adaptation more practical than it has ever been before. So, that’s what we need to do.

If there is a technological break-through – I have no love of fossil fuels – if there is a technological break-through one day and some non fossil energy becomes the sensible economic thing to do, great. Let’s go that way. But until that happens – and let’s do more research and see – but until that happens, the one word answer to what we should do is adapt.

Switzer: Now, and finally, Nigel Lawson, and listeners should know that you and I have been talking about these issues for the best part of a decade. Do you think there will come a time when historians will look back at the past decade or so, and say this climate hysteria reached its peak and the rational debate was at its most restricted and politicians at their most gullible?

Lawson: Yes, I think this will be seen by historians looking back as one of these outbreaks of collective madness, which happened from time to time in the world. They’ve happened before. This is not the first time, but this is a particularly striking example of it. It is a collective madness, which has to some extent in many countries become a new religion, filling a vacuum because of the declining belief in the conventional religions.

Switzer: Well, when you wrote your book “An Appeal to Reason” in 2008, all the publishers thought it had no chance of selling. They didn’t want to go near it because it went against that stifling, prevailing wisdom. Yet your book did sell at lot of copies. And, for what it’s worth, I think your views are always worth hearing at least on my show at RN. Nigel Lawson, thanks so much for being on the ABC.   

Lawson: Thank you very much, Tom. It’s good to speak to you as ever.