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Lord Young: This Is No Time To Waste Our Money On Windmills

Yes, the Earth is warmer. But our climate change precautions could cripple us economically

This year the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to an Israeli scientist, Daniel Shechtman, who in 1982 discovered a crystal with a structure then deemed impossible by science. When he wrote up his findings, not only was his paper refused publication, he had to resign from his research group and was ridiculed by many of the most distinguished scientists of the day, including the double Nobel prizewinner Linus Pauling. But in the end he was vindicated.

This is an old story, for the whole of science is the story of theories that did not stand the test of time. Galileo had to recant his assertion that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe but, within a few years, Isaac Newton had constructed the laws of gravity and motion that gave us the Universe as we know it. That lasted 300 years until they were supplanted in turn by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Now, according to results announced by a group of scientists working at CERN, the basic tenet of his special theory of relativity, that the speed of light cannot ever be exceeded, may well be wrong and theoretical scientists are back to the drawing board.

These two events coming within weeks of each other should serve as a stark reminder that the laws of science are not fixed and immutable but are in fact formulated by mankind. No one can really doubt that we are going through a period of global warming. A few weeks ago I was at an Inuit settlement on the west coast of Greenland where they have seen five months of sea ice a year reduce to less than a month; they have discarded dogs and sleighs and changed their way of life. A week or so later we went through the Northwest Passage, which only opened up in summer for the first time some four years ago.

Our climate is always changing. If you go back 10,000 years the Thames was actually a tributary of the Rhine and we were part of mainland Europe until the ending of the Little Ice Age made us an island again. Cold weather returned between the 15th and the 19th centuries, when the Thames would freeze over and frost fairs were held. It was said in Roman times, when we were going through a warm period, that English wine was famous; it looks like it could be again.

Which is why I am a bit of a climate sceptic: not about the existence of climate change, but about its cause. Margaret Thatcher once held a seminar at No 10 and invited 40 of the world’s leading scientists in the subject to spend a full day with us. I left far more open-minded about the whole issue. But, in an age of few political beliefs, the cause of climate change became an end in itself.

The debate could not be described as measured on either side and has attracted an almost religious fervour. Only recently the Government Chief Scientist, no less, forecast that by the end of the century Antarctica would be the only habitable continent.

The West is on the brink of descending from recession to depression, unemployment is high and business confidence is low, and the EU has a debt crisis that threatens its very foundation. Is this the time to continue additional taxes on transport, to bring in carbon credits that add to costs, to construct forests of notoriously inefficient windmills, and to increase all our energy costs, all in the name of a scientific theory? Are we absolutely certain that the main cause of global warming is carbon and has nothing to do with the output of the Sun, or any of the other theories?

With the credibility of some of the data of those dealing with climate change at least open to question, are we absolutely certain that we can afford all these precautions that may not even turn out to be necessary? It would be unfortunate if history recalled that we solved a problem that in the end did not require a solution by tipping the economy into depression.

Lord Young of Graffham was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, 1987-89

The Times, 12 October 2011