Slide show which convinced Johnson climate crisis is real in 2019 ‘show PM lacked basic knowledge when elected’

How government scientists brought about Boris Johnson’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment on climate science

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 02 February 2022 21:32 GMT
Boris Johnson once famously said wind turbines couldn’t ‘pull the skin off a rice pudding’, but he is now a major proponent of renewable energy
Boris Johnson once famously said wind turbines couldn’t ‘pull the skin off a rice pudding’, but he is now a major proponent of renewable energy (Reuters)

A 2019 presentation which is believed to have caused Boris Johnson to re-examine his beliefs about the climate crisis and take the scientific consensus seriously, has been published, highlighting the process by which the prime minister put aside his climate scepticism.

While Mr Johnson has previously spoken of experiencing a “road to Damascus” moment on the climate crisis after being an outspoken critic of climate science, he has been accused of becoming prime minister without “basic knowledge” of the biggest single issue facing humanity.

The slides which made up the presentation, given in Downing Street shortly after Mr Johnson became prime minister, have been published by the website Carbon Brief, which obtained them through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, along with emails about the presentation from the government’s senior scientific advisors.

During his journalism career Mr Johnson regularly dismissed climate science.

​​When scientists linked the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to rising sea levels, he said: “There is no evidence that the planet is suffering from the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change.”

In December 2015, while writing about a warm winter he said: “I am sure that those global leaders were driven by a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity; and that fear – as far as I understand the science – is equally without foundation. There may be all kinds of reasons why I was sweating at ping pong – but they don’t include global warming.”

He also occasionally pushed the views of climate sceptic, and now vaccine sceptic, Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In 2013 he wrote in The Telegraph that “it might be time for government to start taking seriously the possibility – however remote – that Corbyn is right”. He did not mean Jeremy.

But more recently his tone changed markedly – a change which he himself has acknowledged.

His record is of plenty of hot air on the climate crisis but the reality is that this is a government of climate delay not climate delivery

Ed Miliband

Speaking about how he came round to the science behind the climate crisis, he said last year: “I got them to run through it all, and if you look at the almost vertical kink upward in the temperature graph, the anthropogenic climate change, it’s very hard to dispute. That was a very important moment for me.”

But the recency of Mr Johnson’s conviction that the climate crisis is indeed caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, as has been known for decades, has sparked renewed concern over the Conservative Party’s approach to the issue.

Ed Miliband, shadow secretary of state for climate change and net zero, told The Independent: “I welcome all converts to the idea that we need to tackle the climate crisis. But Boris Johnson still needs to learn that rhetoric isn’t enough.

“His record is of plenty of hot air on the climate crisis but the reality is that this is a government of climate delay not climate delivery.”

Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer told The Independent: “It is deeply worrying that Boris Johnson became prime minister apparently without even a basic knowledge of the biggest challenge facing humanity – climate change.

“The science has been clear and readily available for decades, yet a small elite of right-wing politicians has had a vested interest in spreading misinformation and doubt for their own political gain. It seems that Boris Johnson either chose to join them in spreading misinformation or at the very least had been hoodwinked by it.”

She added: “Yet in 2019 Boris Johnson appears to have realised that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of climate action. In fact, the public, as well as scientists are now demanding far more ambitious and urgent action than the government has so far put on the table. Despite his ‘road to Damascus’ moment, Boris Johnson and the conservatives are still lagging far behind.”

Some of the key issues the slides the prime minister were shown highlight include the “Keeling curve”, which shows the upwards trajectory of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, a graph detailing the increase in global temperatures between 1850-2020, showing how the planet has warmed by over 1C, and also sea level rises around the world since just 1993.

The emails which were also released as part of the FOI show that just two years ago, No 10 was asking whether the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were “scientists or not” and if their reports were “worth taking note of”.

The IPCC is widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative body on the global climate, with thousands of scientists around the world contributing to and reviewing data and recommendations on climate science.

No 10’s questions about the validity of the IPCC came just seven months after the UK had passed its legally binding 2050 net zero target, and a year after the IPCC’s 1.5C report made global headlines.

Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief, told The Independent: “The majority of the slides shown to the prime minister in this presentation are, frankly, 101 climate science.

“This has been established science for many years. It is surprising really that it took quite this long for him to have his own personal epiphany on climate change. But it’s also reassuring that, when he was finally presented with these facts by the UK’s leading scientists, then he sat up and publicly committed to taking this issue seriously.”

A similar sentiment on the prime minister’s (belated) ability to reflect once the facts were in clear view and change his position, was also expressed by Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics.

He told The Independent: “The world should be glad that Boris Johnson eventually accepted the science of climate change, albeit belatedly. As mayor of London, he was prone to promoting climate change denial, basing his understanding on inaccurate and misleading sources instead of scientists.

“I hope that the presentation that opened his eyes to the truth about climate change will be shared with some of his fellow Conservative MPs, such as Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay, who clearly still do not understand the risks we all face if we do not cut our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.”

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