How Lord Lawson Used Climate Denial to Stage His Political Comeback

Read time: 5 mins

The global economy was in a death spiral and Britain was at the centre of the financial tornado. The legacy of Chancellor Nigel Lawson – reliance on the deregulated and seemingly craven denizens of the City of London – meant Britain, in particular, was in serious peril.

At the same time, environmental groups and campaigners had finally persuaded the Labour Government to address the serious risk that profit-seeking oil companies posed to the global ecology. The Climate Change Bill passing through Parliament in 2008 would introduce statutory reductions in carbon emissions.

It was at this moment that Lord Lawson, retired to a picturesque and sleepy French village, and conspicuous through his long absences from the House of Lords, decided to stage a remarkable political come back.

Lawson chose the traditional platform for his bid to return to the international political stage: a book. An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming was published by Duckworth Overlook, which had a long history of producing works by authors associated with free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

Puffed-Out Pamphlet

Indeed, the Appeal was a puffed out version of a pamphlet Lawson authored for the Centre for Policy Studies. As we recounted previously on DeSmog UK, the CPS was originally a spin-off of the hardline free market IEA set up to lift Margaret Thatcher to power with the support of both tobacco and oil backers.

Lawson on completing his manuscript dedicated the work to David Henderson, the IEA fellow who first approached the one-time chancellor and persuaded him to join the curious cause of climate denial.

Julian Morris, the IEA intern turned $100,000-a-year director of the climate denying pioneers at the International Policy Network was also praised in the short acknowledgements – although his involvement seems to have caused embarrassment in some quarters.

The former chancellor complained bitterly that his small contribution had been turned down by other, more prestigious publishing houses, assuming conspiracy was afoot. This is a rather cute historical echo of Friedrich von Hayek’s publishing frustrations in the 1940s before The Road to Serfdom became an international bestseller.

Dubious Arguments

Lawson’s book itself was little more than a rehearsal of the same attacks on climate science, economics and policy: manufactured and distributed mostly by American free market think tanks funded directly or otherwise by oil-vested interests from Koch to ExxonMobil.

And, it contained at least one excruciating error. It seems Lawson was unable to translate temperatures between Celsius and Fahrenheit, leaving the book peppered with hilariously daft claims about the heat in various cities around the world.

This flaw was graciously passed over by most reviewers. But some were in any case scathing about Lawson’s efforts. “But the best that can be said about this book,” Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute wrote, “is that it is mercifully short.”

Ward adds: “But his account of the science of climate change still sucks – it is a highly idiosyncratic and partial account, seemingly driven by ideology rather than by reason… Lawson parades most of the dubious arguments constantly reversed by the free market lobby groups in the United States.”

Michael Meacher, the former Labour environment minister, was kinder. “Nigel Lawson has provided a valuable antidote to the sloppiness surrounding climate change,” he wrote. “But he wants to go further than tilting his lance at the sillier eccentricities of what he sees as the climate-change establishment.”

He told Daily Mail readers: “He wants to demolish the entire infrastructure of climate change theory. Here his arguments are badly flawed.”

Lawson would send his book to the chief scientific advisor to the Labour Government – and elicit a response. But Professor John Beddington appeared to be singularly unimpressed by his interlocutor’s contribution to knowledge.

There are a number of points related to the underlying science of climate change that are incorrect or presented in a misleading way,” he explained patently in private correspondence since released under the Freedom of Information Act.

 

Perhaps most surprisingly, the book was attacked by Richard Lambert, the then director general of the Confederation of British Industry. He claimed Lawson’s argument was “based on two dangerous assumptions”: that the risks are small and the costs of mitigation are unfathomably high.

This is the kind of analysis you might have developed in 1913 to tell the people of western Europe not to get too fussed about the threat of imminent war… Lawson resorts to the kind of hyperbole that would make the most fanatical environmentalist blush.”

Conervative Influence

The clangers and scientific muddles of An Appeal to Reason did not stop it from becoming an influential pamphlet. Christopher Booker, the Sunday Telegraph columnist who appears only to believe in things he already agrees with, praised Lawson as the only “senior political figure in Britain [who has] dared stand apart from this stifling orthodoxy.”

The book was also read by Conservative politicians. Ann Widdecombe was among the Tory right-wingers to confirm she had been influenced by Lawson’s appeal – she would later become one of just five Parliamentarians to oppose the Climate Change Act in the House of Commons.

She complained: “…there was an orthodoxy which was enforced with all the rigour of communism or fascism or, for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition. Dissenters must not be heard and global warming became a religion.”

And that was precisely the point of the book. Lawson never intended to persuade anyone who understood the science of climate change, and certainly was not appealing to environmentalists or, to a significant extent, the public at large.

Instead, his short polemic was designed as a briefing note for free market advocates and the right wing of the Conservative party. It allows them to present what appears to be reasoned and considered opinion to disgruntled constituents when they attacked climate science. And leaves them free to act in alignment with the interests of the oil industry.

Get Weekly News Updates