In the wake of press coverage (Mail on Sunday and Daily Telegraph ) of the BBC climate seminar scandal, I posted some background to the current revelations here. This touched on connections between Tony Blair’s presidency of the G8 in 2005 and the seminar. It is worth looking at this in more detail.
The G8 is a forum for the governments of eight of the world’s largest economies. During an eight-year cycle each nation takes it’s turn to act as chairman and set the agenda on an annual basis. Of course this opportunity does not occur for every government leader. Some may be in and out of office during the years when others hold the post, but there is no doubt that presidency of the G8 provides politicians with an opportunity to be seen playing a major role in international affairs. Of course it is also important that the G8 president should have solid public support at home for the policies that he chooses to be the hallmark of his term in office.
In 2005, Tony Blair had been prime minister for 8 years and was under pressure from his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, to stand aside. There can be no doubt the ‘Blair legacy’ was by this time a major consideration in formulating public policy. This golden opportunity to strut the world stage could play a valuable part in bolstering his rather tarnished reputation and particularly so in 2005, which was a general election year in the UK. Finding policy initiatives for the G8 agenda that would enhance the prime minister’s image as a caring man of the people, and command public support at home too, would be a crucial task at such a time.
Downing Street finally decided that the two subjects that would best serve the purpose were African development and global warming. The prospect of saving not only Africa from chaos and starvation, but also the whole of humanity and the planet from environmental catastrophe would surely fit Blair’s messianic persona perfectly. There is some inside information about the processes by which this decision was taken.
In 2007, Sir David King retired from the post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser and was inclined to reminisce about the influence he had had on public policy during his term in office. During an interview on the BBC Today programme in late 2007 he had this to say:
… in that early period in 2004 there was much discussion about what we would be doing during our G8 presidency, and the response – and I think this was because it was taken up so well with the media, so let me say something nice about the media – the result was that we lead the G8 with climate change and African development, both of which I was very very strongly in favour of.
BBC Today Programme 20-12-2007
In other interviews Sir David provided clues as to how this came about, and the decisive influence that he had on events:
When I became chief scientist in 2000 Tony Blair was still very cautious about nuclear power. He did not even have an adequate understanding of climate change until 2002. For those first two years I was battling against the odds.”
King had arrived in office in 2000 determined that climate change, which he saw as the biggest threat to humanity, would be his great central issue. “Britain’s Co2 emissions were steadily rising despite our promises to reduce them, and the closure of ageing nuclear power stations and replacement with gas and coal was the main reason for that. That had to stop.”
In King’s view, Labour might never have listened to him but for the epidemic of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in 2001, which turned his office of science and technology from a government backwater into a centre of influence. “The outbreak of foot and mouth turned out to be crucially important,” he admitted. Unimpressed by Whitehall’s efforts to stem the epidemic, he called in mathematical modellers, who found it was out of control. He convinced Blair that it could be got under control within days by a draconian policy of mass slaughter, which brought the sight of millions of burning animal carcasses to television screens across the nation.
“It looked terrible,” he recalled, “but almost immediately the epidemic began slowing down. It showed the government what science could do. I could never have had such power in government if FMD had not happened.”
King was quick to capitalise on his new-found influence. In 2002 he “engineered” the opportunity to give the Zuckerman lecture for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, choosing climate change as his topic. Then he delivered the same lecture to Blair and the cabinet, both in person and on paper. “For Blair that was a turning point,”It was when he read that lecture that he realised that we had to do something about climate change.”
Was King being immodest or was Blair really so ignorant? Labour had, after all, been parroting the rhetoric of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions for nearly a decade. “I think the point is that Blair had not understood the urgency,” King said. “He knew about climate change but until then it had just been another political problem.”
I pushed Blair’s nuclear button, The Sunday Times, January 13 2008
That King’s influence on government was established by his advice during the Foot and Mouth epidemic seems significant. Mathematical models have long been a tried and tested tool in epidemiology where they can be used successfully to track and predict the spread of disease. Of course climate change is another field in which mathematical models play an important part; in fact you might say that the credibility of climate alarmism almost entirely depends on them. King does not say that the apparent credibility of the models employed at the time of the Foot and Mouth epidemic added weight to what he told Blair about climate change, but it would seem very likely that that was the case.
A Sunday Times report with the scathing headline “Tony Blair: ‘I’m a planet-saving kinda guy’”seems to bear out many of Sir David King’s claims.
Blair’s faith in science to achieve such changes [to renewable energy] seems unbounded, which is odd, given that he has no formal scientific training and used to speak out vigorously against the expansion of nuclear power when Labour was in opposition.
He does, however, have a history of investing huge faith in whatever people, issues or causes he chooses to adopt – sometimes in the face of all evidence to the contrary. His critics might cite the “dodgy dossier”, on which he based many of the arguments for the invasion of Iraq, his support for George W Bush and Peter Mandelson, and even his religious beliefs. This time, where does his belief come from?
Blair’s “new convert” passion, married to his natural optimism, has a certain persuasive power – if you don’t study the numbers too closely. He’s not just optimistic about science, though, he’s optimistic about the resolve of world leaders, too. And that’s an altogether tougher sell.
“Policy makers have undergone a paradigm shift in thinking,” he says. “I first put climate change on the G8 agenda in 2005. I had to struggle to do it and we came out with a rather general formulation about the 2050 targets for cutting emissions.
Tony Blair: ‘I’m a planet-saving kinda guy’, From The Sunday Times, July 5, 2009
In 2011 Sir David returned to the same theme in a Guardian article headed, ‘Needed: a world Leader’:
In January 2004 I caused some consternation, particularly in the White House, when I said that global warming was our greatest threat – greater even than global terrorism. My statement prompted George W Bush to call Tony Blair, demanding a gag order be placed on me. I refused to be gagged and that statement, along with others, spurred the UK to develop a leadership role on climate change in the international community. Seven years on – and with global climate talks struggling – that leadership is needed more than ever.
I still believe climate change is the pre-eminent threat facing our civilisation, but in 2004 there was considerable apathy. My statement precipitated considerable public and political attention for the scientific analyses demonstrating the probably catastrophic effects of climate change. Action followed. In 2005 Tony Blair hosted the G8 summit at Gleneagles, and the resulting communiqué was a giant step in raising the international importance of climate change.
The Guardian, Needed: a world Leader, 28 June 2011
Once again Sir David seems to be crediting himself with putting climate change on the agenda of the 2005 G8, but the mention of ‘apathy’ is significant. It is hardly likely that a prime minister would lead his G8 presidency on a matter of current public policy that would require voters to change their lifestyle, and make sacrifices, when they are not thoroughly fired up about it. In an election year such behaviour would be unthinkable. Action to promote a suitable level of concern about climate change would be necessary and it soon followed.
In early 2005 there was a conference at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre in Exeter with the eye catching title Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Of course there is nothing unusual about scientists gathering together for a few days to explore current research in their field, it happens all the time. But your normal science conference is organised by academics for academic purposes, and press interest is usually rather limited, to say the least. As for politicians getting involved, that really is very unusual. But this was a very special kind of conference, and it seems most unlikely that science, in the sense of seeking to discover the truth about the natural world, was the name of the game. It had been organised by politicians for political purposes. Here is what the conference website had to say after the event:
The aim of the Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change Symposium (held in Exeter 1-3 Feb 2005) was to advance scientific understanding of and encourage an international scientific debate on the long term implications of climate change, the relevance of stabilisation goals, and options to reach such goals; and to encourage research on these issues.
In a speech on 14 September 2004, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the conference by saying:
“… we propose first to host an international scientific meeting at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter in February. More than just another scientific conference, this gathering will address the big questions on which we need to pool the answers available from the science
The UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been tasked to organise this event.
The passage that has been omitted at the start of the second paragraph is interesting. Looking at the text of Blair’s speech we find the complete sentence runs:
‘Prior to the G8 meeting itself we propose first to host an international scientific meeting at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter in February.
The connection between the conference and Blair’s G8 presidency is unambiguous, but evidently that was something which the organisers preferred to draw a veil over..
To put the matter of ownership of this event, and its place in the political firmament beyond any possible doubt, here is what a press release from DEFRA dated 25th January 2005 says:
International climate changes scientists will gather in Exeter next week to look at the scientific aspects of the stabilisation of climate change.
Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said:
“This scientific conference will make a valuable contribution to our G8 Presidency and our wider aim of reinvigorating the climate change debate and stimulating further engagement for future action.
” We hope it will provide new information on the risks of climate change and provide a firmer basis for discussing long-term stabilisation action. However, it is not of course, a policy negotiation.”
So how was debate and engagement to be stimulated and reinvigorated? It would seem that the answer that is by unbridled alarmism provided with a veneer of scientific respectability,.
As a PR exercise, the conference was a huge success. Here is what the Today programme had to say on 5th February 2005 after the conference had ended:
Presenter: On Monday we were told that that temperatures throughout the year would be rising by 11o C. On Tuesday, the warning was of a mini-iceage, because the Gulf Stream has reversed. Even that couldn’t save the polar bear which was doomed on Wednesday. By Thursday, all aquatic life was in trouble as the oceans turned to acid. Those have been the dire predictions from climate scientists who have been meeting in Exeter this week and vying with each other to come up with the most scary forecasts.
But behind all the hype there was some serious science and some serious questions about how long we can continue to churn out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Our science correspondent ,Tom Feilden, looks back at a week of spectacular headlines and forward to a world fifty years from now.
Notwithstanding the presenters remark about hype, Fielden’s report is concerned entirely with more scare stories: central London inundated when Thames Barrier is overwhelmed; a future dominated by rising sea levels, severe storms, freezing winters and long arid summers; collapse of Gulf Stream and record low temperatures; average temperatures dropping by as much as 10oC (its not clear if this is at the same time as they rise by 11oC); skating on the Thames and Channel Ports blocked by sea ice; melting of West Antarctic ice sheet; catastrophic impacts on wildlife and ecosystems; sea levels rising by 30m; and just for good measure, it may already be too late for the polar bear and the ptarmigan, nothing can save them.
To be fair, Feilden ends his report by saying that these warnings depend on the predictions of models and there are some who still question the reliability of these. But he also says that the debate at Exeter has moved on from whether it is happening to what we need to do about it. But by then the vision of Armageddon had been too firmly established for any caveat to be effective.
There then followed this astonishing exchange between the presenter and Sir John Houghton (sometime Met Office chief executive and chairman of the IPCC Assessment Working Group and as we shall see later, a conference attack dog) :
Presenter: We are hearing all these incredible predictions, what can we say for certain?
Of course the presenter’s use of the term ‘hype’ when referring to the stories that the conference had spawned, and Feilden’s mild caveat about models, would be unthinkable in BBC output today, but all this happened a year before the now notorious seminar on BBC Climate Change – the Challenge for Broadcasting was used to indoctrinate BBC management and programme makers with the correct line to take on climate change.
So often with events like the Exeter conference, only tantalising snippets about what happened escape weeks or months after the event. In this case a climate septic was present who was well equipped to report on the proceedings. Even after seven years of delving into the darker regions of the climate debate, and becoming pretty unshockable in the process, I still find his eyewitness account shocking. It’s not very long, but too long to copy here, and I implore anyone who has read this far to look at it before continuing.
When the conference proceedings were published a year or so later, they were replete with
political authority in the form of a ‘Forward by Rt Hon Tony Blair MP’ and a ‘Ministerial Address by Rt Hon Margret Beckett MP. The battle to enlist hearts and minds in support of Tony Blair’s G8 agenda had been well and truly joined. But what more would be needed?
With the political spin doctors now applying themselves to managing public understanding of climate change it is not difficult to think that anything might be possible, even enlisting the services of our supposedly apolitical and entirely impartial national broadcaster the BBC.
In the next post I will examine the evidence that connects the Exeter conference propaganda fest with a senior BBC executive admitting that in the wake of the G8, impartiallity was about as safe with the BBC as a blood bank would be in the hands of Dracula.
(The title of this post has been ‘borrowed’ from a Sunday Times article that is quoted above and appeared under the same headline.)