Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/20/house_of_lords_climate/

Lords debate Climate Bill, carbon racket

'We don't know what we're talking about'

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 20th November 2008 11:31 GMT

The government's climate minister in the House of Lords dropped a clanger on Monday evening, when he claimed that the polar ice caps were melting at a record rate.

"It is indisputable that polar ice caps are melting - we can see that with our own eyes," Lord Hunt, Minister of State of the Department of Energy, told the house. Hunt described himself as a climate "agnostic" - but he was swiftly corrected by Lord Lawson of Blaby, the former Chancellor.

"My Lords, that is not true of the past year; The noble Lord’s predecessors were seriously misinformed by his officials, and I suspect that he will be too," Lawson replied. Twisting the knife he continued: "That is a real problem for him, and I feel for him.

"The fact is that in the Antarctic, where most of the ice is, the ice is thickening and has been for some time. In the Arctic this year there has been a greater extension of ice than ever before."

The Lords were debating the Climate Change Bill once again - which the Commons voted through on an unusually snowy October evening recently. That Bill was passed by our elected representatives by 463 votes to 3. Would the unelected upper chamber - which has a reputation for rejecting and amendment hasty legislation - be show greater scrutiny?

You can guess the answer to that one. The Amendments were passed by around 190 to 10. But the Lordships' debate was at least broader and deeper than the six hours of greener-than-thou pledges relayed in the Commons last month. A significant speech by Nigel Lawson, now Lord Lawson, made the difference. Lawson described it as the first and last speech he would make on the Bill - but more of that in a moment.

The debate gave the Government and its supporters the chance to say something they hadn't in the Commons. That hand on heart, that they don't know what they're talking about. Quite literally. Take this exchange between The Earl of Onslow and Lord Hunt. Onslow asked:

"The world’s climate has got colder over the past 10 years, just, while world emissions have risen by quite a lot. Can the Minister explain that?"

"My Lords, I am not a scientist," the Minister replied, "and it is not my role to debate the intricacies of scientific arguments".

"The committees and the expert groups that have looked into these matters and which have informed the government’s decision: it is on their conclusions that the 80 per cent target is now based."

That's a very odd reply, since Hunt didn't need to offer a scientific argument, he'd been confronted with two assertions of fact. Either they were true or they were false. Hunt's answer avoiding expressing his own judgement either way. Instead, the Minister of State preferred to pass - indicating that a) facts are irrelevant and b) saying he had total confidence in someone else's judgement. In fact Hunt deferred several times in answers to the "committees and expert groups" to make his political judgements on his behalf.

When politicians defer to the "science" - that means that judgements are being made by their appointed committees and quangos. And the committees, it turns out, are highly political - they've got an axe to grind. They're doing politics on our behalf. This is a kind of evisceration of democratic politics: if these quangos are so wise that we aren't permitted to question the political judgements they produce - we may as well appoint wise quangos to do all of our politics for us.

And Guy Fawkes really could have saved himself the trouble of buying all that gunpowder: we've arrived at No Parliament by other means.

So to Lawson.

After Mrs Thatcher's former Chancellor had written a book on policy responses to climate change, he discovered that no British publisher would take it. A US publisher brought it to market, and it's since become a hit, translated into two languages.

Lawson's main point was that this was a futile gesture. It didn't require the UK to cut its own emissions by one gram. But the consequences of this gesture were costly. He began by explaining why he hadn't spoken before in the House:

"I felt that it was unbecoming for an unbeliever to take part in a religious service, which is what all this is really about.

"The Bill will go down in history, and future generations will see it as the most absurd Bill that this House and Parliament as a whole as ever had to examine, and it has now become more absurd with the increase from 60 per cent to 80 per cent."

A futile unilateral gesture?

Lawson invited the Lordships to "pretend the planet is warming" - and ignore the figures from the Met Office and Hadley Centre. (Lawson said he didn't see the evidence supported the claim that the planet was cooling, but it certainly hadn't done a lot of warming since the 1998 El Nino). "The majority of climate scientists do not think that if there were a warming, it would be a disaster." So what then?

The point of the bill was symbolic - and only "makes sense" if other countries were to follow suit and make similarly symbolic gestures, he argued.

(The UK only contributes 2 per cent of man-made CO2 emissions worldwide, while worldwide human emissions are only 2 per cent of the planet's CO2 output. And the planet's CO2 is about one tenth of greenhouse gas. So the rhetoric is about "setting an example".)

The problem, said Lawson, was that Europe had planned to isolate the US, a plan that had "backfired horribly". This left the EU making symbolic pledges of its own - no one expects China, the world's biggest CO2 emitter, or India to follow. Except that the Europeans are now backing off. The catchy 20 per cent by 2020 reduction has been abandoned. Germans need their coal, the new members like Poland need theirs - and are playing industrialisation catch-up - and the whole thing is falling apart.

"Nothing will happen. It can only be agreed unanimously and will be looked at again in December this year, after the Poznan meeting, which I hope the Minister will grace with his presence. It will be an educational event for him."

Lawson highlighted a recent conference called "Cashing in on Carbon" in which an investment group featuring Lord Stern was prominently featured.

"So the people who gave you the glories and the joys of mortgage-backed securities are now offering the great business opportunity of carbon-backed securities."

Meanwhile the emissions trading system was a "scam": China made a lot of money selling these worthless indulgences. So much money, it had to tax them. Climate change had also proved to be a vote-loser for the Canadian Liberal opposition - its "green shift" cost it the election - and in New Zealand, said Lawson. He also warned the Tory party not to find itself "high and dry" with symbolic climate gestures.

It was almost a lone voice, as the House of Lords nodded through the Amendments.

Back in the Commons, the bill was hailed by climate change minister Joan Ruddock as a "triumph for the UK". ®