Senior civil servants and advisers often resort to coded language when they realise a minister wants to do things his way rather than theirs. Whitehall’s Sir Humphreys over the last year have started calling any scientific briefing or discussion pencilled into the Environment Secretary’s diary as “hot air” chats.
Parachuted into the environment job 15 months ago, Owen Paterson should have had at least a dozen “hot airs” with his chief scientific advisor, Professor Ian Boyd. Previous environment secretaries aimed for about one a month. But in more than a year at Defra, Paterson has held just two meetings with Sir Ian. One Defra adviser described their two “hot airs” as “cursory”.
The official science-based advice Paterson has received from other academic sources has also been minimal, department insiders suggest.
Instead the Environment Secretary, regarded as part of the Tory’s hard-right countryside squirearchy, is linked to an alternative network of leading climate change sceptics that include Margaret Thatcher’s former chancellor, Nigel Lawson, his controversial Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), and arch-sceptic Matt Ridley, the nephew of Lord Lawson’s former cabinet colleague, Nicolas Ridley. Matt Ridley also happens to be Paterson’s brother-in-law.
Given David Cameron’s reported – although denied –desire to “get rid of all this green crap”, Paterson’s arrival at Defra last year is being seen as the beginning of a shift in Government priorities.
At the time, Tory MP and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith noted that the appointment was “odd”, and that if the Conservatives wished to retain their green credentials, then it would have been better to appoint someone who didn’t dismiss environmentalism as a left-wing issue.
A year on, Goldsmith’s view hasn’t changed. At his party’s conference in Manchester, he joked to a fringe meeting that Paterson had recently said there could be advantages to climate change.
Goldsmith said : “This is a huge step forward. As far as I know he previously didn’t think global warming was happening. “Matt Ridley has famously claimed there would be a “net global benefit to human or planetary welfare” from global warming up until temperatures increased 2.2C from 2009 levels.
In step with his brother-in-law, Paterson has stressed the positive rather than the overall negative effects from global warming. He recently said: “Remember, for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer.”
Arriving in Manchester he told a fringe meeting some “good news” in the global warming front, saying that a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had found there was new evidence of “really quite modest” increases in global temperature s.
Given the specific role of Defra to protect the environment and cope with the consequences of climate change, such as flood defences,this sounded optimistic stuff from the IPCC, and a change from previous hard-line red alerts.
The fringe audience heard Paterson say: “I think the relief of this latest report is that it shows a really quite modest increase, half of which has already happened. They (IPCC) are talking about one to 2.5 degree…. what it is saying is something we can adapt to over time and we are very good, as a race, at adapting.”
The full IPCC report, “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis”, is over 2,000 pages, with 14 chapters that includes mathematical analysis of atmosphere and surface observations, carbon cycles, and an evaluation of climate models.
To understand the document completely, one might have thought that Paterson, who studied history at Cambridge, would have needed the input of Sir Ian Boyd.
Yet with so few meetings between the two – and with Paterson also apparently reluctant to consult substantially with the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s chief scientific adviser, Professor David McKay – questions are being asked about how the minister’s view is informed.
In a vacuum left by absent expert scientific analysis, Paterson appears willing to trust other sources. A couple of days before the Manchester conference kicked off, Matt Ridley, offered his interpretation of the IPCC report.
The Right Honourable Viscount Matthew White Ridley, to give him full title, was recently described in the Wall Street Journal as a “confusionist” science writer regularly engaged in “epic blunder-fests of disinformation”.
Viscount Ridley’s sister, Rose, married Paterson in 1980. Although the two branches of the family are not said to be more than usually close, Defra officials acknowledge that Paterson knows what his brother-in-law is saying on certain subjects.
While it is unclear whether Paterson read his brother-in-law’s scepticism in full flow in a Times comment piece in September headlined : “Global lukewarming need not be catastrophic”, the minister repeated what his relative wrote just a few days later in his address to party conference.
Ridley’s take on the IPCC report noted a 15-year standstill in temperatures; that warming has been slower than predicted, and that “temperature will rise towards the end of this century, one to 2.5 degrees, up to half of which has already happened”.
Professor Myles Allen from Oxford University, one of the contributing authors of the IPCC report, said Ridley’s analysis was “not consistent with the report at all”.
The report’s actual prediction, if global systems continue on their current path, points to increases between 2.6 and 4.8 degrees. In any interpretation that cannot be described as modest.
Ridley’s misreading was mimicked by Lord Lawson, who subsequently claimed a global warming rise of 1.5 degrees was now being predicted by the IPCC.
Writing in the Telegraph, Lawson questioned the IPCC’s analysis and called them a “discredited organisation” .
Ridley, who acts as an adviser to Lord Lawson’s foundation, has a chequered record with scientific theories.
After completing a zoology doctorate at Oxford, he wrote articles suggesting the origins of the Aids virus lay in the unforeseen consequences of a polio vaccine administered in the Congo which resulted in a monkey-to-human crossover. It was scientifically plausible, but ultimately wrong. He has been similarly challenged about the acidification of the oceans.
Although he promotes himself as scientist, journalist, biologist and businessman, his part in the downfall of Northern Rock is glossed over.
As the 5th Viscount Ridley, he owns the 8,500 acre Blagdon Hall estate in Northumberland. His family has held the estate since the 1700s, their wealth built ironically on coal mining.
But when he assumed the chairmanship of Northern Rock in 2004 and its £300,000-a-year fee, he had little practical banking experience.
When NR collapsed in 2007, Ridley was accused of developing and fostering the business strategy that led to a “catastrophic” loss of confidence in the bank.
He has always claimed that the board was not to blame, and the collapse was a result of the unforeseen credit crunch.
Although David Cameron continues to plug his “greenest-ever” government, Paterson’s move to Defra was a shock at Westminster. One former government adviser said “Either Cameron didn’t know of Paterson’s lack of green credentials, or worse, he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s all there on Ridley’s blog when he says: “He’s my brother-in-law, get over it!”
In the Commons next week, Paterson’s credentials as an environment secretary will be tested again. The reworked Energy Bill, after changes forced by the Lords, will be back under the scrutiny of MPS.
The opposition benches want greater transparency on what advice Paterson is being given. One Liberal Democrat MP said : “We’ve got a 1970s narrative here, when we should be looking to 2020 and beyond. The simple solution is for Paterson to open up his department’s books and reveal who exactly he’s taking advice from.”
The Independent asked both Mr Paterson’s special adviser and officials at Defra if he could provide a clear statement on his climate change views, and whether or not he could be described as sceptic. Mr Paterson’s adviser said : “We have no intention of providing The Independent with any information that could be distorted. What The Independent has previously written about what he has said is disgraceful.”
A history of denial: Paterson’s opinions
Any Questions, Radio 4,
12 June 2013
“The climate’s always been changing ... I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there...The climate’s been going up and down – but the real question which I think everyone’s trying to address is, ‘Is this influenced by man-made activity in recent years?’ ... The temperature has not changed in the last 17 years and what I think we’ve got to be careful of is that there is almost certainly ... some influence by manmade activity but I think we’ve just got to be rational and make sure the measures that we take to counter it don’t actually cause more damage.”
In response to IPCC report on climate change, 29 September 2013
“People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries. Remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer. It would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north. I think the relief of this latest report is that it shows a really quite modest increase [in temperatures], half of which has already happened. They are talking one to two-and-a-half degrees.”