The Daily Mail’s recent re-adoption of climate change scepticism has its origins in a lunch between editor Paul Dacre and former Tory chancellor Lord Lawson.
In recent years, the mighty Mail has shown signs of joining the global warming consensus. While it could never be accused of leading the charge for decarbonisation or of being a green crusader, the tabloid’s take on the issue appeared to be that climate change was serious and worth tackling. Even columnist Melanie Phillips had found other subjects to foam about.
All that changed following a talk between Britain’s foremost tabloid editor and a semi-retired big beast politician who has become the UK’s foremost climate change sceptic. The Mail has “put on the war paint” (a Dacre phrase) and is campaigning against what it calls green taxes – the wide and growing range of levies on gas and electricity consumers, which are used to fund energy efficiency measures and the decarbonising of UK electricity supplies.
And it really is a campaign, complete with front page ‘splashes’, opinion leaders and a long comment piece in June by Lord Lawson, who chairs a climate change sceptical thinktank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Here’s a sample from a Daily Mail leader on 11 July, anticipating the electricity white paper. “With huge doubts surrounding climate change science – experts have just concluded that we are headed for a global temperature drop – ministers must give us a break from green taxation.”
The Mail’s campaign matters, for two reasons.
We’ve heard a great deal lately about the power of Murdoch-owned newspapers over British politics and public life. But Associated Newspaper’s Daily Mail (and its Sunday sister) also have huge readerships and influence.
Politicians who are serious about gaining or keeping power pay plenty of attention to this newspaper. The Mail’s campaign will be noted in Downing Street, around Whitehall and on the backbenches of the House of Commons.
This isn’t to say the coalition is about to cave in and reverse its climate change policies. But it is getting harder for energy secretary Chris Huhne to make the case for mandatory upfront spending on improved energy efficiency and low-carbon energy.
Who is going to spend the tens of billions of pounds needed to get our economy off fossil fuels? Ultimately it can only be citizens paying through their taxes or consumers paying through their energy bills.
Given that government spending must fall to cut the deficit, it isn’t going to be taxpayers. And energy companies will only engage if they can see a profit. So the money has to come through mechanisms that raise money from electricity and gas consumers. The sums are already large and will grow.
To date most consumers have shown little awareness of this. But there is every likelihood that this will change with gas and electricity bills high and rising, accompanied by hostile media coverage.
The second reason why the Mail’s campaign matters is this. To everyone who sees that climate change is a serious issue requiring action, it affirms that not everyone, or even the great majority, will see things this way. Or not, at least, for the next 20-30 years. One of the UK’s single loudest voices is telling us so.
The power of people to resist an inconvenient truth if accepting that truth might harm their interests is immense. Almost as important is the attractive power of dissent from authority. The more that the establishment demands action on climate change, the more it becomes the received wisdom, the more passionate will become the minority of deniers.
These will gain fresh recruits. And they will continue to command a bigger hearing, from the media and so from the public, than their numbers, expertise or understanding of the science deserves.
And not just from the likes of the Daily Mail. Even the BBC is sometimes guilty of “false balance”, giving contrarian views too much weight at the expense of a strong scientific consensus, such as that around man-made climate change.
So says an independent report on the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s science coverage commissioned by the BBC Trust and published in July. Giving undue weight to opponents of the consensus means “viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial that it actually is”.
(The report was written by a scientist, the geneticist Professor Steve Jones. You can imagine plenty of BBC journalists and editors saying, with a shrug: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.”)
There will come a time, perhaps several decades on, when it becomes obvious to most people, from the evidence of their own senses and memories, that warming and climate change are accelerating. Even then, there will be plenty who insist it is a natural phenomenon.
Anyone who thinks that the arguments about the need to tackle anthropogenic climate change were gradually, remorselessly being won needs to prepare for disappointment. And then press on with making the arguments, because they are right, reasonable and grounded in truth.
So, nations should be acting urgently to tackle climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. If there ever is to be a global climate deal then the UK’s continued leadership, demonstrated by action at home, can only help to bring it about.
It is in our national economic interest, and probably in our security interest, to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. They are relatively expensive now, and likely to remain so or become more expensive.
Low-carbon industries are growing fast, and the UK would be prudent to seek some of the action.
At the same time, the essential stupidity of the Lawson-Daily Mail argument needs exposing. Because in essence, it’s all gas.
If, as they demand, the government scraps existing and planned green levies on consumers (along with carbon and renewable targets), there could only be a second dash for gas – once again building a large fleet of new gas-fired power stations to add to those built in the last 20 years.
That would be the only way of keeping the lights on while electricity consumption rises and output from today’s ageing nuclear and coal-fired power stations falls
This time round, far more of the gas would have to be imported from the Norwegian sector of the North Sea or much further afield. Everything would depend on global gas prices falling, thanks to the rise of shale gas. This does not sound like a sound plan.