Dr Benny Peiser is the Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), an all-party and non-party think tank chaired by Lord Lawson. He is the founder and editor (since 1997) of CCNet, the world's leading climate policy network. A 10km-wide asteroid, Minor Planet (7107) Peiser, was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union.
© The Open University
Stories of Change Project
Benny Peiser interview
RH: = Roger Harrabin, interviewer
BP: = Dr Benny Peiser, The Global Warming Policy Foundation, participant
RH: Dr Peiser, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by us for the BBC documentaries and the Open University. Can I start with the first question that we’re asking all of our interviewees, which is when did you first get an interest in energy?
BP: Well, that’s a historical question! <Laughs> Thinking back, the first concern about energy really start in my family’s home in the early seventies, my father read The Club of Rome, Limits to Growth, and the fear that we are going to run out of energy was one of the big features of that report and in ’73 it then became almost a reality in Germany and I think in Europe as a whole, when the oil boycott kicked in. And I can remember we could play on the motorways because on Sunday traffic on motorways was banned, so that energy crisis in the early seventies was the first really big concern about energy, and then I became an environmental campaigner, anti-nuclear power campaigner and was one of the founding members of the Green Party in Germany and then was very much concerned about nuclear energy.
RH: Where did things move from there, you were far on the Left then politically. Were you a Marxist, would you say; how would you describe it?
BP: I was a Socialist, a Green Socialist. I actually experienced the evolution of what we call in Germany the Outer Parliamentary Left into the Green Movement, I was really a witness to that evolution from socialism to ecology and I participated in that development and know most of the key players. I used to play football with Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn Bendit –
RH: The German Green –
BP: He became one of the leading Green politicians.
RH: It must have been a turbulent time, there were great street protests against nuclear, against squatting, were you involved in all that sort of stuff?
BP: Well, mainly on environmental issues, mainly against nuclear power plants, which were built in response to the concern that we are running out of fossil fuels. That was the backdrop of Germany’s decision… and French and British decision to build nuclear power plants was the fear we’re running out of energy and we need alternatives, that was the alternative energy at the time.
RH: OK, so you’re obviously no longer in that place. What moved you?
BP: It was a long story and a long development. There were a number of environmental scares, Chernobyl was one where we were told that 50, 60, 70,000 people would die as a result of that accident. We had the acid rain scare in Germany, there were lots of environmental scares, many of which I was concerned about at the time and over the time it materialised that many of them were exaggerated.
RH: Let me just take you up on acid rain, there wasn’t actually a scare, there was genuine acid rain and we made it better by putting scrubbers on power stations, so we actually solved that problem, the nuclear one I do agree with, the exaggeration of the threat from Chernobyl
BP: But it was sold in Germany that the German Forest was about to die, and it turned out that it didn’t –
RH: That was an exaggeration.
BP: It was and there were other exaggerated fears and over the years as you grow older and a little bit wiser, perhaps, you begin to realise that some of the genuine concerns had been hyped up. And that is a real concern today with that kind of experience over the decades, that I take any new scare with a pinch of salt.
RH: You then moved from Germany to Liverpool John Moores University, but you weren’t anything to do with climate at that time; your specialism then was sports, I think ancient sports medicine, something like that?
BP: Sport science, sports history, sports economics, the social aspects of sport science, yes.
RH: So how did you move from that?
BP: Well <laughs>, I went to Britain for personal reasons, I met my wife in Germany and she’s British and so I was looking for a job and my PhD was in Ancient Greek History to do with the ancient Greek athletic rituals and festivals and I applied for a job in Liverpool, that’s why I ended up in Liverpool, I got a job. I didn’t have a job when I arrived in Britain, I was very fortunate to get a job within six weeks.
RH: And so what were you doing then, you were researching, you were writing, publishing papers or what?
BP: Yeah, what you do as an academic. I published papers on all sorts to do with sports science, but also I have a special interest, perhaps from my own experience, in how people perceive potential disasters, how people respond to existential risks, and societies, how we deal with big environmental, potential problems, how do we deal with them in a rational manner? That was my interest, originally to do with the fear of asteroids and comets and I became interested in climate change really only when it devolved into some kind of potential global disaster.
RH: Was your conclusion on asteroids that the fear of an asteroid strike was hyped or…?
BP: Well, the astronomical community was very responsible in dealing with that, they struggled for many, many years how to communicate a risk that is not negligible, but that is low. They were tempted to overhype it because they could get funding and they were campaigning for telescopes and so on, but they were very responsible in realising that they couldn’t really get away with it by overhyping a relatively small risk. The risk is there, it’s there today –
RH: Every two million years, I think, there’s a global impact from an asteroid –
BP: About one or two, absolutely, but then in between we have smaller impacts that can take out a city, so there are these risks. And there was one in 1908 in Siberia which released energy equivalent of a thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs, so the risk is there but it’s very small and you can then decide what do we do with it, and you have two ways of dealing with it. Either you say look, this is a manageable risk that we have to take and we have to reduce the risk by monitoring the asteroids or discovering the asteroids and thereby knowing where they are, or you actually try to mitigate the risk and build a kind of space defence system where you prepare for the eventual day when an asteroid is on a collision course, but that would be extremely expensive and no government is willing to spend that much money on that.
RH: So around that sort of time I met John Houghton, who went on to become Head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Science Working Group and he was also struggling with describing the risks at the time, he didn’t want to overhype it, but he was saying, ‘We feel that the way the statistics are stacking up it looks like humans have had an influence on the climate,’ and he trod very carefully around that and in fact we struggled as to how to communicate it, was it actually a story, I wasn’t convinced at the time that it was a story, whether it passed the threshold or not?
BP: I followed that very carefully and I noticed when it tipped into hype, and you’re absolutely right, initially it was not portrayed as a global disaster and it’s going to hit us and so on, and most scientists even accepted publicly that there were uncertainties and that the science wasn’t entirely settled, which obviously everyone knew, but what happened, particularly in the US, is that politicians used the argument of uncertainty to say, ‘well, if even the scientists say there are uncertainties, why should we do something about it?’ Once the scientists realised that politicians were using their caveats and uncertainties to kick this into the long grass, they said, ‘We can’t afford to publicly acknowledge that we don’t know everything and there are still unsettled areas,’ and so they then ignored that and said, ‘The science is settled. We’re all agreed there’s a consensus; everyone is agreed that this is a big problem.’ And so that changed, in my view, in response to the political environment.
RH: Do you have some sympathy for the scientists in this case?
BP: I have some sympathy, I can understand particularly those who are genuinely worried. But it didn’t change the inherent inability of the international community to genuinely do something serious about it.
RH: So what did you do yourself about it then, you’d started your newsletter by then?
BP: Oh, the newsletter, this has been going on for 20 years and –
RH: It was a newsletter that started off looking at asteroids and then moved into looking at climate change -
BP: Yeah, after about 10 years or so it moved more towards the climate issue, because it became such a huge and contentious issue and my view was right from the start I wanted to hear all sides of this debate. That was my policy with asteroids because as you can imagine in the astronomical community you had similar divisions between alarmists and less alarmist astronomers, the same divisions, the same problems, and I wanted to hear both sides.
RH: I must say I’ve been a subscriber to your newsletter for more years than I can remember, it is incredibly informative, but I don’t notice it particularly demonstrating both sides of the debate; it does seem to take a pretty relentlessly contrarian line?
BP: Well, I don’t take a line – I feel that those views are simply not reflected in the wider public arena, and I felt a duty to provide a forum for people who would otherwise be more or less ignored.
RH: Are you a kind of natural contrarian –
BP: I guess there is something in me –
RH: It’s something that you want to push back against a consensus –
BP: Yes, in a way I am a natural contrarian, but on the other hand I am also someone who wants to have a real, fair play of arguments, so I really try not to stop one side of fully explaining their position, but I want the other side to have the same opportunity.
RH: So what’s happened since then, of course, in the UK for instance, is we have now all the major newspapers leaning towards the Right, taking at least the luke-warmest position, if not a completely oppositional position on climate change, so the debate has swung completely the other way.
BP: Well, not the debate but those papers –
RH: The debate in the media?
BP: Yes, I take some credit for that obviously, because before Lord Lawson, myself and some others, set up the Global Warming Policy Foundation, there was complete consensus in the media even the right wing papers were completely on board, and it is only really in the last five or six years when they began to realise they were more concerned about the policies than the nitty-gritty details of the science, the policies didn’t make sense. And we can come to that in a bit, but that was the main… they realised energy prices were going up very strongly, it was very unpopular –
RH: But that was to do with gas, wasn’t it? It wasn’t to do with renewables mostly, it was mostly to do with the volatile price of gas -
BP: But it added –
RH: But gas was the main –
BP: That’s right, but it added to the perception that government policies added to the burden, and that became very unpopular.
RH: OK, so you’ve delineated a success from your point of view. If you like to hear different points of view, do you think things have swung too far?
BP: Not really because you have the BBC <laughs> and a lot of other papers who are still –
RH: Well, The Independent, The Guardian, take a pretty mainstream, scientific line on the climate –
BP: Yes, and most… I’m obviously monitoring –
RH: The BBC tries to report proportionally, is its aim –
BP: Yes, as we know –
RH: That’s why you’re here!
BP: Yes, thank you, the first time –
RH: And that’s why I’m seeing Richard Tol on Thursday and Matt Ridley on Tuesday.
BP: Well good on you and that’s how it should be, but let’s be realistic, there is a divide and the divide is present and I think it’s a good thing, it’s a healthy thing –
RH: But do you feel comfortable with that divide? It’s become a right/left divide; surely something that’s based on science shouldn’t be a right/left debate, should it?
BP: But it isn’t on science, that’s the point, it is not about the science, it never has been about the science, has always been about what to do about climate change, it always has been, it’s not the nitty-gritty details. Even if you are really concerned about, let’s say, the 2° target being reached in 20 years, what do you do to avoid that?
RH: What do you do?
BP: Well, the point is… the political reality of the world is that the governments are not doing anything really, genuinely about it and there are reasons for that. And people have been warning about the inability and the unwillingness of the international community to genuinely decarbonise, we’ve been warning for many, many years that it is impossible. That’s what we’ve been saying, not because we’re against it. If there were a global agreement, a level playing field, every country would pitch in and would do their bit, we would be all in favour, although it would be costly, but then at least there would be a level playing field. It’s not going to happen. And because it’s not going to happen, for a very simple reason, the big developing countries still growing populations significantly and their economies significantly, will need cheap and abundant energy for decades to come. That is at the core of the problem.
RH: I see the problem with international agreement and with domestic action but I think you’re understating the amount of change that we have seen in the USA, in Europe, in developing countries now with the amount of renewables that China is putting onto its system. Only today, they’ve announced in India that Cochin Airport will be entirely powered, its ground operations, entirely powered by solar. We’ve seen solar panels come down nearly 70% because of subsidies which you opposed and traditionally libertarians have opposed. Things have changed, albeit not as much as they would need to do to satisfy scientists.
BP: Well, this is why I’ve very confident that the governments after the Paris Agreement will claim full success and will say the world has solved this problem, which is good. I mean that’s exactly the message that governments will send out, finally the Indians and the Chinese and the rest of the world are doing their bit, good for them! But everyone you ask, every climate scientist will tell you this won’t do anything to CO2 emissions and the 2° target will be reached within 20 years. So it will be sold as a big success and everyone like the Chinese and the Indians, and the rest of the world of course, all claim that they’re doing their bit but in reality it doesn’t, it’s a drop in the ocean.
RH: Isn’t it a question of timescales, don’t you think? It’s taken governments a long time to figure out that we’ve got potentially a serious risk here, it’s taken them a long time to start swinging their economies round; if we had another 20 or 50 years to play with, everything might be fine?
BP: Well, that is the optimistic outlook I’m not against having that optimistic outlook if it calms people down, but if you ask people who are more concerned about CO2 than I am, they will tell you this is business as usual, CO2 emissions are not even slowing down, they’re accelerating and will accelerate at least for the next 20, 30 years and there’s no end in sight, particularly now that we’re swimming in energy.
RH: What’s the GWPFs position on climate science as it stands?
BP: We don’t have a position; we are very broad church. and If we have a position it’s that the science isn’t settled and it should be openly debated and vigorously discussed and there are certainly still elements, particularly the element of climate sensitivity, in other words how much warming can we expect over the next 100 years? These are issues that are, in our view, still open for debate and should be vigorously debated, that’s our position we don’t have a collective view on the science in any case.
RH: GWPF has campaigned very hard on the amount of emissions that should be given out by any given country. Where do you think things are going from that point of view?
BP: Well, it will be interesting after Paris. Our main concern has been unilateralism, in other words, we’ve always said if you are really concerned about CO2 there needs to be a global agreement of capping CO2 emissions because otherwise all you do is shifting CO2 abroad. If you do it unilaterally all we do is basically shift our heavy industry abroad and import the CO2 <laughs> with the products we import, so you don’t actually solve anything. That’s why we were against unilateral decarbonisation policies.
Where are we? I think Paris will be very interesting, I’m 90% certain that there will be an agreement. The agreement will not have any binding CO2 targets, it will be left to individual nations to decide their own policies and that will cause a lot of headache for the EU and the UK, because it will require EU Member States to decide whether they want to implement unilaterally binding targets for 2030. And I’m quite certain that the EU won’t have a consensus on new unilateral targets that are legally binding, so there will be a big battle ahead in the next few years. Yes.
RH: OK, that was a poorly phrased question, where I was trying to take you was to ask you about other scientific issues, so the pause for instance. GWPF has spent a lot of time campaigning to draw attention to the pause or slowdown in warming, whatever it’s called. I think you do accept now that a pause or slowdown will end and climate will continue to warm. I think you do accept that, is that right?
BP: Well, we are not prophets, you are the prophet. We don’t know whether it’s going to end –
RH: No, I’m not a prophet, I’m asking your point of view as somebody who runs a climate contrarian campaign –
BP: But how will I know what the climate will be in a year <laughs> or in five years –
RH: No, I’m just asking you if think it will end –
BP: I don’t know!
RH: I’ve seen you quoted as seeing it will end –
BP: It will end?
RH: That the pause will end sometime –
BP: Why? Well, sometime -
RH: I don’t know, I’m just saying what I’ve seen quoted, are you saying you don’t know –
BP: I don’t know what the future –
RH: You just simply don’t know whether –
BP: Well, absolutely, for the time being there is no indication that this unexpected and unpredicted slowdown or pause or hiatus, whatever you want to call it, is going to change any time soon because what we’ve seen over the last two years, the reason why temperatures have gone up has to do with a strong El Nino and this warm North Pacific. But it might be over, but it might continue, I mean there are others who are saying this might go on for another 10 years, who knows? This is one of the big issues where governments have been disturbed that the IPCC made predictions and said, ‘We are expecting the warming of 0.2ᵒ per decade.’ That’s what they published, that’s what they predicted, it didn’t happen. So the really interesting question is this, Roger: the IPCC says that if we don’t slow CO2 emissions significantly, the 2° target that the international community has agreed they want to avoid reaching, warming target, will be reached by about 2035, if we continue with our current level of CO2 emissions. Now that will be the proof of the pudding; are we going to see a 1° warming over the next 20 years as predicted by the IPCC or not? And governments will look very carefully how reliable the IPCC’s climate models are, because if it happens as predicted, I’m pretty sure policies will change at the international level. If it doesn’t happen you can be assured that the climate policy is dead.
RH: Let’s come back to climate policy in a moment, just stick on science for a moment. Your critics will say that you focus over-much on global surface temperatures, there are also other indicators of warming, there’s ocean warming, there’s ice melt, there’s also ocean acidification, which looks extremely predictable, ocean acidification, no fancy climate change models involved. Are you not concerned about these happening?
BP: Yeah, we are concerned, absolutely concerned, but we are monitoring the situation, for the time being we don’t see anything that is catastrophic. Of course you have to be concerned –
RH: But it would be catastrophic if the ocean were acidified and changes in productivity came about and –
BP: Absolutely it would. But all I’m saying is for the time being we don’t see a signal that points in that direction, we have our predictions, what might happen in 50 years’ time, but what you have to do… the same with the Polar icecaps… And that reminds me of my experience with the asteroid community, the most important thing in order to assess risk is observation, and that’s where we actually should spend more money, in making sure we have the best possible observations. And sometimes you have cyclical changes. The icecaps we have only observed really over the last 35 years or so, because that’s when the satellite photos came about. In all likelihood if the warming continues, the Arctic sea ice will obviously go, that’s for sure, but there might be other factors involved and so the most important thing for policymakers to accept is observational evidence and not speculative projections into the long-term future.
RH: But it’s much more than speculative projections, isn’t it? This is the very basis of science to see what you see now and project what will come in the future –
RH: Let’s just stay on ocean acidification for a moment, because scientists are very confident in saying that with the levels of acidity or alkalinity changing in the way that they are, it’s inexorable towards the point where this century we won’t see coral reefs existing in way they are, so the old boulder corals will be able to withstand the changes, but the branching corals that provide the shelter for fisheries will just disappear, so we’re looking at a major planetary ecosystem that looks like it’s going to disappear and you seem rather unworried about that.
BP: No, I’m no unworried about it. All I’m saying is that these kind of alarmist predictions of what might –
RH: But that isn’t alarmist –
BP: What? You’re saying a whole ecosystem is collapsing –
RH: Yes, it’s alarming, it’s not –
BP: And that the science is settled and everyone is agreed, but that’s not true, it’s not everyone is agreed –
RH: Well, can you tell me anybody who isn’t agreed with that?
BP: Of course, you have to follow the scientific literature in a more unbiased way and not just cherry pick those scientists who are making the most alarmist predictions; that’s at the core of the problem. You have to look at the full spectrum of scientific papers and then you will realise there are so many open questions, even on ocean acidification, the science isn’t settled, there are big debates, ongoing, in the peer reviewed literature, and you have to accept that because if we continue in cherry picking only the worst case scenarios, then of course we can’t sleep at night.
RH: Your opponents accuse you of cherry picking scenarios. I’m glad you mentioned diversity of literature because I read an article by Matt Ridley about ocean acidification saying there’s this professor in Australia who says that actually ocean acidification can rise quite a long way and the coral mass is not affected. And I thought, ‘That’s very interesting, I’ll go and interview him.’ His name is Terry Hughes. And I got to him and he confirmed that was indeed the case. He was the man who told me that actually it was the branching corals and the fan corals which would disappear, so Matt had taken evidence from rather a narrow paper –
BP: I think you better ask Matt about that –
RH: OK, so it would be wrong for you to accuse us of not looking at the diversity of literature, that’s one instance where I’ve gone halfway round the world to find the proof and actually have confirmed the opposite thesis, which is that ocean acidification looks like it’s going to be a very serious problem.
BP: Let me assure you that on the issue of ocean acidification the scientific debate is ongoing and it’s far from being settled that the oceans will be dead in 100 years’ time, the kind of picture you’re painting is of an ecosystem –
RH: Yes, I’m not saying the oceans are dead, I’m saying it looks like the ecosystem of the corals as we understand it will have gone –
BP: Which protect the fisheries and so on. This is a recurrent theme of your own reporting, is you’re portraying these kind of apocalyptic imageries that are so over the top that people inherently think, ‘Hold on, if Roger is with every particular issue that he is talking about, always seeing the kind of disaster, how can we trust such a person?’
RH: Well in this case, I went, as I said, halfway round the world to meet a man who I thought would disprove the ocean acidification, so I think you –
BP: So what does that tell you, you’re relying on one person?
RH: I’m relying on the person who Matt Ridley quoted in the opposite direction.
BP: So what does that mean?
RH: So let me just pick you up on your word ‘alarmist’, because you do accept that there is a difference between the word alarming and alarmist and what climate scientists are projecting, and they are projections, is alarming and is it right for somebody like you to accuse them of alarmism, if they see something alarming?
BP: But there are some climate scientists who are projecting alarming consequences, there are others who are not projecting alarming consequences –
RH: Yes, that’s absolutely right –
BP: So I don’t understand your question?
RH: So the question is, should you be using the word alarmist for those who see an alarming future?
BP: Well, I don’t care if you want to call them alarming scientists or alarmist scientists, what I’m saying is –
RH: One is an insult and the other isn’t, you know?
BP: I don’t see this as an insult.
RH: Well, to call somebody alarmist is an insult.
BP: What’s the difference between <laughs> portraying an alarming scenario and being called an alarmist?
RH: The difference is one is an insult, that’s all.
RH: Let’s move on from that. Do you accept the notion that there may be tipping points in the climate that we’re not able to foresee and that we may be heading for them, we simply don’t know? I guess you possibly would accept that?
BP: I think you can’t rule it out but I think from all I’ve read it is exceedingly unlikely to happen any time in the near future. It’s a bit like saying, do you deny that an asteroid could hit us tomorrow, of course, I can’t. It could happen, but what’s the chance? Very low.
RH: Let me ask you now a little bit about the UK political scene. We’re seeing the newspapers to the right, we’ve seen them shift towards more of a contrarian position, we’ve just seen the government scrap or radically reduce a lot of subsidies to the sort of renewable technologies which you have written against and campaigned against. Do you feel like you’ve won that battle internally in the UK political scene?
BP: Well, we’ve certainly won the public debate, I think the public has become much more sceptical about the policies, certainly about the policies, more so than perhaps on the science, but even the science they’re taking either with a pinch of salt or with fatigue, they are simply fed up with the constant –
RH: But you never intended them to take the science with a pinch of salt, did you? Just to see there was an ongoing debate, there’s quite a big difference between taking it with a pinch of salt –
BP: Well, they are taking the whole thing with a pinch of salt, what I’m saying is they’ve become cynical as a result of –
RH: Is that a desired state or not?
BP: No, definitely not, but I can fully understand people are fed up with the constant alarming story after another alarming story and they’ve heard it all along and whenever there’s a storm or a drought, whenever it’s cold or it’s hot, it’s always climate change. People are fed up with it and this cynicism –
RH: I don’t actually think that’s true, I don’t think that’s said anymore –
BP: Well, climate fatigue is a widely-accepted phenomenon in most Western countries –
RH: No, indeed it is, so what I’m wondering about is how you feel in terms of the political system, do you think that Mr Osborne has come on side to the luke-warmer side or the don’t worry about it too much side or do you think he has a different plan?
BP: No, I think that George Osborne has always understood that this is a political and economic issue, he’s obviously not a scientist but he looks at the economics and he has come to realise that it doesn’t make any economic sense for Britain to do the heavy lifting in the absence of an internationally agreed deal and that’s why he promised the country that Britain will not go faster or further than the rest of Europe and that is a promise he made in Parliament and in the Conservative Party Conference. And that is a clear signal that Britain is going to give up unilateral targets and unilateral policies, which is in my view a very rational view, because if you continue with these policies all you do is undermine your own competitiveness, shift your heavy industry abroad and import the CO2 emissions back through imports, so you don’t solve anything by going it alone.
RH: Do you want to see the Chancellor or the Prime Minister abolish the Climate Change Act?
BP: Oh, this is not likely to happen –
RH: No, I just wondered if you wanted… I read something the other day, I think that you wrote, saying the next think is the Climate Change Act?
BP: Well, the next thing what is going to happen is a re-assessment of the unilateral targets, that doesn’t mean that Act will be abandoned, but it could mean an amendment of the Act in line with European policy developments.
RH: What policy are you advocating ?
BP: We as a forum definitely have always advocated an abandonment of unilateral targets and you either get an international agreement where you have a level playing field or you give up unilateral targets. Yes.
RH: So do you think you’ve influenced Mr Osborne in this, have you had any success in that, do you think?
BP: <Laughs> I think we’ve influenced public opinion more than George Osborne, let’s put it this way.
RH: Does Nigel Lawson talk to him, I’m not sure, a former Chancellor, they’re allowed into the Treasury, I have no idea?
BP: That you’d have to ask Nigel Lawson but I guess as a former Chancellor he is occasionally invited to meetings of former Chancellors, I think that’s a regular thing. Whether they ever talk about climate policy I don’t know, but I think George Osborne knows by himself whether or not the policies make sense and I think he has sent out clear messages that unilateralism is finished and that unless there is an internationally-binding agreement Britain will reconsider its unilateralism. I think that message is out loud and clear.
RH: So what do you want to see for Britain’s energy future and what do you envisage, let’s take those two separately –
BP: Well the good news is that we don’t have an energy problem at all, neither in the UK nor in Europe nor in the rest of the world, we are swimming in energy as a result of the shale revolution, there is enough energy at least for the next 100 or 200 years for everyone at current levels of consumption which is good news, because we were all concerned, as I told you in the seventies we were told that we were running out of oil and gas of fossil fuels and this would lead to huge global disasters in terms of warfare, wars in the Middle East for oil and so on. That pressure has diminished, so that is, geo-politically speaking, a big relief, that every country in the world knows they will not run out of energy but it is largely fossil fuel based and that is a problem for people who are concerned about CO2 emissions. Because even President Obama, who has made climate change such a big issue, has given the green light for drilling for oil in the Arctic, he’s going big-time for shale, so even Obama is not abandoning fossil fuels.
RH: You yourself have campaigned for a bonanza in shale gas. You talked before about hype. That’s hype, isn’t it? We don’t know how much shale gas we’ll get.
BP: Absolutely. I have not campaigned for a bonanza! <Laughs>
RH: Well, I just read the headlines on your newsletters, Shale Gas Bonanza Promised and that sort of thing.
BP: Well, that’s not me speaking, that’s what the media reported when the shale gas discovery in the Bowland in the Northwest of England were reported, but there is a good chance that we’re sitting on a veritable goldmine of shale, but we don’t know, how much there is. It might be hyped up. For all I know these are companies who have an interest in hyping up <laughs> these discoveries! <Laughs> I don’t know, but I think the British Geological Survey has confirmed that there significant shale deposits in the UK and that’s again, something that I regard as a positive development because we’re running low on North Sea oil and gas and in all likelihood this will be decommissioned over the next 20, 30 years and this will also mean a significant drop in revenue for the government in income. And shale could be very good for the North of England, good for a new industry, for the revival of the North, it could be good for energy prices, it could be good for the Treasury, so I’m all in favour, absolutely.
RH: You say that wasn’t your voice. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to work out where your voice is because I’ve read the newsletter as I said, probably for 15 years or so, but sometimes the headlines don’t match the copy. So for instance, here’s one recently. You quoted: ‘A slowdown in global warming is not a sign that climate change is ending, university researchers have found. The phenomenon is a natural blip in an otherwise long-term upwards trend.’ And the head line on it, and I don’t know whether this is your headline or not, is: Global Warming Pause and How to Lie with Statistics.
BP: That, I guess, was my headline. Yes, I’m the editor of the newsletter, so sometimes I’m in charge of actually producing the headlines; so what’s wrong with that?
RH: It just strikes me, having read the newsletter for so long, you’re a kind of a guided weapon, you’re a bruiser in this climate change debate, you go out and beat people up –
RH: Verbally, of course, not literally, of course –
BP: I don’t. I don’t get it any fist fights.
RH: No, well what about an example like that, you’ve called that researcher a liar?
BP: No, no, no, no. Sorry, but it’s well known that you can obviously use statistics for all kinds of arguments, so I’m not getting into any fist fights or any personal battles. I take as editor, the responsibility to use headlines the way I see it and sometimes it’s a bit humorous, sometimes it’s perhaps a bit pugnacious.
RH: It tends typically to ridicule climate science and mainstream climate policy –
BP: No, there are thousands of –
RH: Well, that’s what I’ve read into it –
BP: I’ve got 8,000 subscribers, they will confirm whether or not I’m –
RH: Well, I’m one of those subscribers. I think it’s a great newsletter, but I think it takes a very ostensible, political line and I do think it tends to deride mainstream views on science and policy, that’s my observation -
BP: Sometimes it can happen if there’s a particularly bad example of a hyped-up, obvious mistake, that I would take the mickey out of that story, but that happens. 90% of the information comes from the mainstream newspapers and from all sides, not just from the –
RH: Well, some of it comes from science journals, some of it comes from newspapers, some of it comes from radical commentators from online journalists, they’re all mixed in together –
BP: That’s right –
RH: Is that part of your philosophy that you don’t believe in science by authority or policy by authority, that you leave everybody with an equal say, can you explain a bit about your philosophy on that?
BP: I certainly don’t believe in science by authority, that’s for sure. I believe in science by solid arguments and factual arguments, and there are extremely, well-educated and extremely brilliant science bloggers who have discovered flaws in papers who are peer reviewing papers and so some of these bloggers are really excellent and they deserve a forum, they deserve to be included, they are often better than environmental correspondents in their reporting and why shouldn’t they be heard?
RH: I think the mainstream science has really been caught out with its use of the internet. My personal view is that some very good researchers, independent researchers, were unfairly disparaged, particularly during the Climate Gate episode, but I put out a search a couple of years ago for a climate sceptic or a climate contrarian in UK academia and I went on several websites and asked and nobody came forward.
BP: Sure –
RH: There’s such an overwhelming consensus. Is it likely that a few bloggers would be right and the overwhelming consensus would be wrong, it may be possible but is it likely?
BP: If you divide the debate between the more alarming side of the debate and the more sceptical side of the debate, I think that would not portray the full spectrum of views. I think while you might find it difficult to find academic sceptics who are willing to come out of the woodwork, there are quite a number of what we call luke-warmist people who actually accept the consensus in that CO2 is a greenhouse gas which warms the atmosphere and warms temperatures, so you have people who accept the general consensus but are not convinced that we are facing a disaster. And that is, I think, a much more interesting divide. The problem is that even the luke-warmers have been pushed into this corner of being deniers.
RH: Have they?
BP: Of course they have, you just need to follow The Guardian, people like Richard Tol who is –
RH: The Guardian has a particular take on this issue –
BP: OK, but people like Richard Tol, for instance, or Nick Lewis or Matt Ridley, these are all people who publish and write a lot on these issues, well respected science writers, they are not sceptics, they are luke warmers
RH: And you won’t find them being called deniers in anything that I’ve ever written –
BP: Good, thank you.
RH: Let me ask you a final question because we’re running out of time, There’s an amendment to the Energy Bill going through the House of Lords in which Lord Oxburgh is proposing that fossil fuels being brought into a country… that the firm that brings in the fossil fuels should take responsibility for the emissions, disposing of the emissions of the CO2 into geological storage in the North Sea, for instance, or compensating abroad for those emissions. This is being supported by Labour’s Bryony Worthington, Baroness Worthington, and also by Matt Ridley, who I spoke to this morning, what would the GWPFs position be on that, would you think that would be a good policy?
BP: I haven’t looked at this amendment and therefore I really can’t comment because I’m not familiar –
RH: Just give me an in principle, do you think that somebody who benefits from the burning of CO2 should take responsibility for the waste product which is the CO2 that is unwanted, in the same way that a chemicals firm who used raw materials would have to take responsibility for the waste effluent into the water, for instance, would that be a reasonable position?
BP: I think it would actually be a reasonable position under the condition that the same company could also get the benefits of their product, so yes, they should pay for the negative externalities, but they should also get paid for the benefits of the positive externalities. I think in that case it would make sense. Just to make them pay for the negative consequences disregarding the positive benefits they bring I think would be a one sided thing, unlikely to be adopted by any government.
RH: Can you tell me a little bit more about the positives, I’m not quite sure what you mean; you could mean a number of things –
BP: Well, CO2 obviously has a lot of benefits, it helps to increase crop production, people have calculated that perhaps a trillion or so dollars has been the direct benefit of what is called the CO2 fertilisation effect on agriculture, so there are benefits that you can calculate that these companies don’t reap, so they would come back and say, ‘You want us to pay for the negatives, but we want to be paid for the positives too.’
RH: So you think fossil fuel firms should pay for their externalities for the CO2?
BP: If they should, I’m not saying… I haven’t looked at this amendment or this idea –
RH: I’m asking your point of view, you’ve been in this for thirty years, you know –
BP: My point of view, yes, I think that’s right, they should get paid for the benefits and should pay for the negatives; that I think makes a lot of sense indeed.
RH: And which do you think would outweigh the other?
BP: I have no idea, but I think it would possibly balance itself out at the end of the day because there are a lot of benefits that people don’t know about, they ignore or don’t want to hear about it, but CO2 is the element that plants need and the more there is in the atmosphere, the more growth you see. And this is one of the reasons why we’ve seen the greening of planet Earth, part of the reasons why there is this huge greening of the planet is because we’ve pumped so much CO2 in the atmosphere in the last 150 years.
RH: It’s well acknowledged that CO2 has a fertilising effect, but you’ll also be very well aware of the predictions coming through mainstream science that if there is a benefit from increased CO2, it’s only a temporary benefit before we start creating massive disruption to the climate potentially.
BP: Well that’s what I’m saying, you have to balance it out, weigh up the benefits and the disadvantages and you asked me what I think about it, I’ve told you that economically speaking it would make sense if you take both into account, the benefits and the costs.
RH: OK, let me finally ask you because this is the last question we’re asking everybody, what level of optimism have you got, there are risks involved, you’ve admitted, possibly tipping points, possibly overshooting the 2ᵒ, how optimistic are you that humanity will fare well through this enterprise?
BP: Oh, I’m totally optimistic that whatever happens to the climate and I don’t know, for all I know the alarming scientists <laughs> might be right, I’m pretty optimistic that governments would respond in the proper manner if we were to face a real crisis –
RH: But then it would be too late, wouldn’t it, because CO2 lives 100 years in the atmosphere –
BP: No, we can get it out of the atmosphere –
RH: At massive cost?
BP: Of course, but if we face a crisis governments would have the public support to incur these costs, currently they don’t, that’s the big difference, that is the difference, once people realise there is a crisis they would be prepared to spend much more to avoid it. And this argument it would be too late, I don’t buy that, I think there will always be enough time. The signals are not there and that is the most important thing to look out for, where are the signals for the kind of disastrous future? These signals are not on the map at all, governments know that and that’s the reasons why they are keeping this in the long grass.
RH: Benny Peiser, thank you very much.
BP: Thank you.
<End of Interview>