Nigel Lawson, climate change and dog sh*t

Having it out with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer

Nigel Lawson I can’t pretend I expected to get on with Nigel Lawson. In fact, I worried that I might lose my cool – say something I would regret, perhaps even bop him on the nose.

Having grown up in a Labour-supporting household in the 1980s, I had little reason to love him: as energy minister during that period, Lawson masterminded the government’s divisive war against the miners, and afterwards, as chancellor of the exchequer, he sold off the family silver (that is, launched a series of massive privatisations) and deregulated financial services (with consequences that have recently become all too clear). Lately he’s done considerably more to wind me up by pooh-poohing the idea of climate change, and anybody who tries to address this non-problem (as he sees it).

Like many others, I’ve done my bit to tackle a problem that seems real enough. I travel by bike or public transport, grow food in the garden and on my allotment, flush the minimum possible amount of water down the loo using an Interflush, and when things fall apart, I make do and mend.

On receiving Lawson’s new book, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, I handled it as though it were toxic and flinched when I glimpsed the author’s photograph, scarcely able to withstand his expression of fierce intellectual arrogance.

But in the hours before I was due to meet Lawson, I started reading. And I was dismayed to find that I agreed with considerable amounts of what he writes – while also very strongly disagreeing with other bits. It was not going to be easy to distinguish between them if I lost my temper.

As I cycled across London to meet him, my emotional turmoil was increased by an encounter with a driver who screamed four-letter words through the window of her 4×4, to the effect that I should wear a helmet.

I replied that she was driving a dangerous weapon, and suggested that she might consider the effect of her outburst on the stunned children sitting in the back. Whereupon she said I had no idea if she was a good mother or not, and added, apparently quite gratuitously, that she was a tax lawyer.

In that brief instant it occurred to me that the world is divided between people who mean well and bumble along relatively harmlessly (eg, me), and money jugglers, politicians and economists (such as this woman, and Lawson) who are causing the world to go all to hell. But perhaps this was a little simplistic.

In person, Lawson was less intimidating than his photo. Though no longer startlingly thin – his weight-loss, some years ago, gave the former Chancellor the unexpected opportunity to become a best-selling diet guru – he’s by no means fat. And instead of scowling, he twinkled, which proved surprisingly disarming. So much so that I found myself telling him a joke about economists eating dog-shit, of which more shortly.

We met at the home of his daughter, the TV cook Nigella, and her husband Charles Saatchi, the adman turned art collector. (The former chancellor’s own home, these days, is in France.) Sinister lifelike figures – an old codger, a woman pushing a pram – loitered in the hall and on the stairs. Among the many other artworks, I missed Tracey Emin's messy bed, but counted several large pots by Grayson Perry. Positioned prominently on the table was a book, “Decline and Fall of the Middle Class”, which I felt was rubbing my nose in it a little.

Rather than have a big fight all at once, I told Lawson that I was glad that somebody of his background (I regret that I may have said eminence) had made absolutely clear the uselessness of carbon trading (“it has done nothing to reduce emissions, merely awarded subsidies to selected emitters”), carbon offsetting (“a scam… it resembles nothing so much as the sale of indulgences by the medieval church”) and biofuels (“it’s far from clear that ethanol produces more energy than is used in its own production, and it requires a vast amount of land, leading to a rise in food prices”).

He accepted the compliment.

For those who seriously wish to reduce emissions, Lawson argues, the only way is to impose a carbon tax across the board – but this government lacks the confidence to do that.

I pointed out that his own party deserves much of the credit, or blame, for pushing global warming up the agenda. The Tories even swapped their old logo, a burning torch, for a green tree.

“David Cameron has gone overboard,” says Lawson. I can understand some of the motivation. He was clearly engaging in rebranding the Conservative Party because – as the advisers might put it – the old brand would not sell. But I suspect he may believe in it.” (It's unclear whether Lawson considers true belief worse than cynical rebranding.) “I think it's completely mistaken. I don't think he has thought through the consequences.”

After investigating the economics of global warming on a House of Lords committee, Lawson concluded that the science was not as certain as many people believe, and that measures being taken to address it are economically damaging.

He lectured on this at the Centre for Policy Studies, and that lecture formed the basis of his new book. “But despite being promoted by an outstanding literary agent,” he said, “the book was rejected by every British publisher to whom it was submitted, and there were a considerable number of them.”

The problem was that the book runs counter to orthodoxy, Lawson said. “To question global warming is regarded as sacrilege. I hate intolerance. The only thing I won’t tolerate is intolerance.”

Taking this cue, I asked if I might mention certain quibbles that had occurred to me while reading the book. He consented.

Most importantly, I suggested he had overlooked the likelihood that important commodities, notably cheap oil, may be approaching a terminal peak in supply. A book about global warming, which is generally believed to be worsened by the burning of fossil fuels, seems incomplete if it doesn’t seriously consider future supplies of those fuels.

“People have been talking about ‘Peak Oil' for as long as I can remember,” Lawson sniffed. “It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future.”

The Hirsch Report, commissioned by the US department of energy, paid no heed to global warming but concluded that, if peak oil is not to have damaging effects, we need to prepare for it at least two decades in advance. And George Bush, challenged recently on TV to ask the Saudis to pump more oil “for their best customer” (the US), replied that the Saudis might not have the capacity to pump more – an unprecedented hint that we may be approaching peak oil already, or even past it.

Lawson seemed unfazed. “They’ve got plenty.” How he knows this is a mystery: Saudi oil reserves are not independently audited. As for the Hirsch Report: “It gives them something to do,” he smiled. (His own book, needless to say, should not be taken so lightly.)

Lawson is a big supporter of nuclear energy. But experts point out that if we try to match the world’s current energy requirements using nuclear alone, we’ll run out of uranium in little more than a decade.

Lawson replied, perhaps rightly, that uranium prospecting has never been carried out properly so there’s probably much more out there than we currently believe. But even if he’s right, nuclear is still only a relatively short-term solution, and fraught with political problems. Even setting aside the problem of what to do with all the waste, can we really switch to nuclear ourselves, while forbidding Iran and others to do the same?

Rather than answer this query, Lawson gave the impression that he simply didn’t hear it, and waited for another.

In his book, Lawson describes the ethic by which he chooses to address the world’s vast problems. “We care about our children and our grandchildren,” he writes, “but we do not normally lose sleep over the welfare of our grandchildren’s putative grandchildren.” Thus, it would be wrong to expect the present generation to make sacrifices for people who may or may not live hundreds or thousands of years hence.

But if we aimed for a way of living that was truly sustainable – if we leave the world as we find it – then not only our own children but every succeeding generation would benefit. One way we might do this would be to switch to a monetary and economic system that doesn’t require constant growth – along lines proposed by the likes of the Irish Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.

“There’s nothing unsustainable about the way we do things now,” said Lawson flatly.

I’m stumped. Every economist and businessman distinguishes between capital and income. By burning up fossil fuels, we’re spending nature’s capital with no hope of replenishing it. This has been done before, as by the inhabitants of Easter Island, with the result that their civilisation collapsed.

I put the point to Lawson twice, but got no direct answer.

For all his talk about bravely tackling orthodoxy, Lawson remains wedded to a powerful orthodoxy of his own: mainstream economics. His arguments against tackling global warming come back again and again to the idea that globalisation, and economic growth as measured by GDP, are fundamentally necessary – perhaps even inevitable, like the march of the seasons – instead of political choices.

Is it possible that his own chosen orthodoxy might be as harmful as the one he scorns? Around the world, people are rioting as food has become scarce and unaffordable. In part this is because land has been sacrificed to growing biofuels, but it’s also down to the demands of global trade. Wouldn’t Kenyans be better off growing food for themselves, rather than mangetout for British supermarkets?

“I know a lot about Kenya. The people of Kenya benefit from being able to sell their produce to markets in the west. Huge benefits.”

We too benefit from international trade, in much the same way. We import and export precisely the same amounts of certain goods, with a variety of trading partners – at a great cost in carbon emissions – but we count this a benefit because it increases GDP. Couldn’t we consume what we produce, instead, and accept lower GDP?

My time was nearly up. Hoping to liberate the former Chancellor from his mainstream economic mindset, I told him a joke, about two economists who challenge each other to eat a pile of dog poo for £20,000 a go. Having both done this, and rendered themselves precisely no better off than before, they pat each other on the back – because they’ve increased GDP.

I was rather pleased with this satirical critique. Lawson heard me out with a straight face.

“You are quite right that GDP is imperfect,” he said, his face assuming the all-powerful expression captured on his book jacket. “But it's less imperfect than all the other things that have been tried. GDP per head, as a measure of prosperity, over the long run, goes up with consumption per head. And what people consume is generally what they want to consume. They don’t consume dog shit.”