Comment: Thatcher's Disputed Legacy and the Death of British Climate Science Denial

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This summer saw even the last vestiges of climate science denial wake up or give in to reality. A summer so in your face, so relentless that even the most paid-up, bought-off Petrol Heads couldn’t continue to stomach the fight.

Well, almost.

Writing in the Daily Mail (the mainstream media’s last real bastion of climate science denialism, apologism and anti-climate propaganda) ex-Conservative leader Michael Howard penned a piece that stated: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that something unusual is disturbing our weather” before going on to remind readers of Margaret Thatcher’s surprisingly positive environmental record.

That may have stopped your in your sweaty tracks. But yes, there is an argument to be made that Mrs Thatcher did forewarn of climate crisis.

Howard wrote:

Margaret Thatcher, in whose government I served, is unique among prime ministers in having had a science degree and having worked as a scientist before entering politics.”

She was better qualified than any other politician to understand climate science and to foresee the likely course of climate change if left unchecked.”

Thirty years ago next month, she gave a speech to scientists of the Royal Society. There was a danger, she said, that 'we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.”

Mrs Thatcher's concerns led to her becoming the first leader of any major nation to call for a landmark United Nations treaty on the issue.”

Four years later, as Environment Secretary, I played a small role in ushering that UN treaty into existence at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.”

Now you may not associate Thatcher or Howard with being environmental champions. And some of this is advanced hagiography. But it’s important to chart the last vestiges of sections of the Conservative Party coming to recognise that they have lost a long political argument, a scientific debate and a public relations campaign.

Apoplexy

Howard’s fairly innocuous recounting of history has, however, caused apoplexy in the ranks of the embattled — and dwindling — climate science denier community.

Publications like the Telegraph (itself seeing a stunning 22 percent decline in print circulation) and the Daily Mail are the inky bastions of climate science denial, where angry old white men publish a stream of barely coherent stream of consciousness about their Lost World.

This is mostly just an ideological slipstream of reactionary politics. They follow a pattern: print, then when complaints of falsehood and inaccuracy are made and upheld, apologise and repeat. These are people alarmed at the prospect of (any) regulation and terrified by the notion that the economic system they have venerated is the cause of planetary chaos.

But even these outlets are now being forced to abandon their regular spasms of climate denialism.

It’s fair to say this new reality is not going down well. Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun, Christopher Booker in the Telegraph and James Delingpole in Breitbart were all howling in outrage at Howard’s treachery.

Paul Homewood, author of a blog in a niche corner of the Denier-Gammon bloggersphere Not a Lot of People Know That writes plaintively:

It appears that the Mail have given up any pretence of balance as far as climate change is concerned.”

David Rose regularly published sceptical articles in the past, but I am led to understand that he has now been banned from this. Instead we are fed with a succession of infantile pieces from young Joe Pinkstone, and now today one from Michael Howard, former Tory Minister and apparently now turned climate scientist.”

James Delingpole, appearing over at Breitbart is also upset by the Mail’s new-found green-tinge (in a piece titled 'Margaret Thatcher Would Have Backed Trump’):

The Daily Mail has published a rubbish piece by Michael Howard, former leader of Britain’s Conservative party, attacking Donald Trump, claiming that man-made global warming is real and that Margaret Thatcher was a true believer.”

The piece is headlined ['30 years ago, Mrs Thatcher warned of man-made global warming. I fear this blazing summer is proving her right.'”

He finishes in a flurry: “It’s drivel – worthy, if one could be bothered, of a complaint on grounds of accuracy to the press regulator IPSO.”

Given Howard’s careful reflection of complex climate science, it seems unlikely IPSO will be troubled too much. Unlike for Mail on Sunday writer Rose, for whom forced corrections are becoming a habit.

The heart of Delingpole’s objection is not just a senior Conservative relating a reality that he finds deeply uncomfortable, it is the realisation that the diminishing circle of outlier media outlets is collapsing. He writes, from his particular pedestal:

The fact that so rigorous and robust a newspaper should publish such dross is worrying indeed … Mail is one of the last truly great British newspapers. Its journalists do real journalism. It is tightly edited. It is a bastion of conservative values and it speaks for Middle England … for years it has stood out as one of the few media strongholds of climate scepticism. Often it has published pieces by Christopher Booker – and in its Sunday edition by David Rose – and also by me on occasion exposing the flaws in the climate consensus.”

He continues:

You could argue that this was hardly a difficult position to take … But in a climate where the government apparatus and the scientific establishment and, of course, the BBC are all relentlessly pushing the climate alarmist line it takes editorial courage to be the newspaper that stands out from the crowd and dares to point out that the Emperor is in fact naked.”

If the Mail is now going to duck its responsibilities, that leaves only the Sunday Telegraph (not the embarrassingly pro-wind Daily) and the Sun in Britain’s mainstream media prepared to tell the truth about the great climate con.”

This is a group with an already fragile grip on reality. And the loss of the Mail to the Great Cause is clearly a bitter blow.

Margaret on the Guillotine

The issue has caused apoplexy for Conservative and far-right commentators. For what is at stake is not just their climate science denial cause but the reputation of their figurehead, the Saintly Margaret.

Caught somewhere between Occam’s Razor and Morrissey’s Guillotine we now have a sharp divide between competing factions on Britain’s right. There are now two incompatible versions of British right-wing history.

In DeSmog UK in 2015, founding Editor Brendan Montague wrote:

The climate denier's greatest success during the early 2000s was the apparent conversion of Margaret Thatcher, from the climate cause she so forcefully and eloquently championed as the British prime minister between 1975 and 1990, to a loyal sentry guard for the sceptic cause”.

Thatcher published her autobiography Statecraft in 2002, shortly before she stepped out of the limelight due to her failing health. The autobiography included a long passage in which she renounced her former beliefs and even revised the meaning of her original 1990 address.

In her speech, Thatcher praised the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), called for precautionary action, and argued that economic growth must benefit “future as well as present generations everywhere.”

But, as her autobiography reads: “By the end of my time as Prime Minister I was also becoming seriously concerned about the anti-capitalist arguments which the campaigners against global warming were deploying.”

Citing the key passage in Statecraft, arch climate denier, Christopher Brooker writes:

Pouring scorn on the “doomsters”, she questioned the main scientific assumptions used to drive the scare, from the conviction that the chief force shaping world climate is CO2, rather than natural factors such as solar activity, to exaggerated claims about rising sea levels.”

She mocked Al Gore and the futility of ‘costly and economically damaging’ schemes to reduce CO2 emissions. She cited the 2.5C rise in temperatures during the Medieval Warm Period as having had almost entirely beneficial effects. She pointed out that the dangers of a world getting colder are far worse than those of a CO2-enriched world growing warmer. She recognised how distortions of the science had been used to mask an anti-capitalist, Left-wing political agenda which posed a serious threat to the progress and prosperity of mankind.”

But now, to add to the great chagrin of the climate denial rump, there’s growing consensus that much of Thatcher’s book was ghosted and key sections — particularly the ones they are clinging to — were added wholesale.

In a 2002 review of the book, the Conservative Chris Patten wasn’t overly impressed:

As I was finishing Margaret Thatcher's Statecraft, it was announced that our former prime minister would be making no more public speeches because of ill health. I was sad to hear that news — both for Lady Thatcher herself, and because it would be a pity if this book were her last major contribution to public debate.”

I fear that those who put it together — doubtless working from speeches and unguarded table talk — have done her a disservice, and I hope that it will not do too much damage to the reputation of a formidable prime minister whose delayed retirement from politics will, I hope, be long, happy and healthy.”

It does seem now like — due to the PM’s diminishing faculties (as attested by her own daughter her mental decline was so advanced that by 2003 she couldn’t finish a sentence) — large sections of the book were ghosted and key sections on climate were what’s best described as an ideological placement.

Confined to the Fringes

For these wailing right-wing commentators, Thatcher was always one who needed ideological capture, and that has now slipped their grasp.

Bob Ward, from the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, writing back in 2010 explained:

Viscount Christopher Monckton of Brenchley has posted, on the blog operated by former TV weatherman and prominent ‘sceptic’ Anthony Watts, a personal account of his influence on Lady Thatcher's views about climate change during the 1980s. Thatcher shocked the UN in 1989 with a call to action on man-made global warming, but has since made sceptical public statements about anthropogenic climate change.”

As we have come to expect, Christopher Monckton's recollection of events makes for interesting reading.

He begins with the claim that: “I gave her advice on science as well as other policy from 1982-1986, two years before the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] was founded”, pointing out that the prime minister's policy unit at that time had just six members and that he was “the only one who knew any science”.

Monckton then goes on to suggest that:

“it was I who – on the prime minister's behalf – kept a weather eye on the official science advisers to the government, from the chief scientific adviser downward”.

So if Thatcher’s key thoughts on climate change were ghosted, who would be the culprits? Robin Harris, a long-term IEA affiliate would seem a likely candidate, while Christopher Booker also gets a credit in the book.

Whoever is responsible — the argument is over, the climate science deniers lost.

But if there’s a victory in publications ceasing to print a stream of disinformation into the public realm, it’s possibly a pyrrhic one. Their work is done, and while the question of Thatcher’s views on climate change are a relic of the past, the economic system she championed has driven environmental carnage and social disruption on an unimaginable scale.

It may be that these increasingly isolated individuals will migrate from the relative credibility of the newspapers to discredited outlets such as Breitbart, Spiked or even The Spectator. As politics becomes more extreme and print newspapers decline these voices may find a new space in the online forums of the new, alt, far, right.

As is becoming all too familiar, that is a space in which facts matter little, and to which climate science denial is destined to be confined.

Image: Spiegel/Flickr CCO

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