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Was Johnson misled on his Road to Climate Damascus?

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BORIS Johnson, for the moment at least Prime Minister, has said that he had a Road to Damascus moment about climate change when he was fully briefed upon the risks and size of the problem. Certainly it’s true that his beliefs seem to have changed in government from the attitudes he displayed as a contrarian columnist.

Carbon Brief https://www.carbonbrief.org/ says that through a Freedom of Information request it has gained access to the slides that were used to perform this conversion. At which point the rest of us need to consider whether this was just a bit of information editing in order to persuade or actually – well, we don’t use the unparliamentary word lying, do we? – contained active untruths in order to mislead.

Unfortunately, at least some of what was said was very much further along the spectrum to the latter than any of us should be comfortable with. We’ll use just a few examples to make our point.

In the tenth slide, there’s that grey shaded area, marked ‘baseline’. But this is the outcome from RCP 8.5, the emissions scenario that never was any more than an extreme case there to illustrate complete disaster. As we’ve laid out before at length, RCP 8.5 isn’t baseline anything and never has been. It’s not just that it’s not a continuation of past trends, it’s that it requires us to do things that we know we aren’t doing, and also a wholesale turn to things we’re just not going to do. It requires, for example, that we run out of conventional gas and oil, don’t develop renewables in any manner whatsoever, and so turn back to using coal even more than the Victorians did. It’s not just that this isn’t going to happen; it never was.

Slide 10

Using an impossibility as ‘baseline’ just isn’t being realistic or truthful.

On slide eight, there’s a revealing little slip. This is where they compare sea-level rise for RCP 2.6 (the scenario in which we, roughly enough, entirely solve the emissions problem) with those under the never-going-to-happen RCP 8.5 scenario, which of course shows sea-level rises higher than we’d like. The slip is in removing RCP 4.5 from the comparisons, RCP 4.5 being actually something around the current baseline. That is, what will happen if there are no further advances in technology, no improvements in renewables costs, and no policy changes. In other words, the very thing that should be compared against is the thing removed from the comparison.

Slide 8

On slide seven, on future warming, there’s another use of the RCP 8.5 scenario; the one we know isn’t going to happen and never was. But it is that single one that makes the chart look dangerous. Remove that and current policy largely solves the problem being complained about – which is presumably why RCP 8.5 is included.

Slide 7

We can also be more than a little picky about slide five, which illustrates the damages and dangers of climate change with reference to wildfires. But as many have been saying for decades, and as climate change science itself is now beginning to acknowledge, the number of wildfires has been declining in recent times. This is actually at the root of the problem; fire suppression has led to the build-up of fuel so that those fewer fires that do happen are very much worse. Forest fires are the result of our mismanagement of forest fires, not climate change.

Slide 5

The commentary about deaths from heatwaves is even worse. For as Bjorn Lomborg pointed out two decades back, many more die from cold than heat. A warming world – leave aside whether we want a warming world or not for other reasons – would lead to fewer deaths from temperature extremes, not more. As more recent studies have shown, warmer winters have saved half a million lives in England and Wales alone over the past 20 years.

Claiming as a cost something that is a benefit is veering dangerously past mere information editing, isn’t it?

Of course, most of us would change our minds if we were presented with selective – selected perhaps – data to show us that we should change our minds. Sadly, we would prefer that public policy be determined by the full set of facts – reality. It’s a pity briefings to politicians don’t seem to work that way, isn’t it?

This first appeared in NetZeroWatch on February 3, 2022, and is republished by kind permission. 

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. He writes on the subjects of environmentalism and economics, particularly corporate tax.

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