Tag Archives: climate change

Margaret Thatcher’s Climate Change Legacy: A Tail of Two Halves

Margaret Thatcher leaves a mixed legacy on climate change. As an original climate hawk, she was instrumental in helping to launch the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) back in 1988 and also in promoting the U.K.’s climate change research capabilities though the foundation of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change in 1990. You can get a taste of her early stance in this short video here:

In her later writings, however, she recanted and became a hero to the climate skeptic cause.

Thatcher’s original engagement came via the career diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell. In 1975, Tickell took a sabbatical at Harvard University during which he first became acquainted with the science of climate change (although as an undergraduate he studied Modern History at Oxford). His interest in the subject culminated in the publication of a book called “Climate Change and World Affairs”. This is now out of print, but you can find an article summarising his ideas in the April 1986 edition of the scholarly publication Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union here. Even today, the article appears quite fresh; for example read the conclusion:

The measures proposed may seem puny in relation to the problems that we face. Even such measures present major difficulties, and agreement on them may not be feasible until the need becomes more manifest. Yet the hazards of inaction are very real. The pleas­antly warm moment that we now enjoy will not last for ever. The world itself is changing, partly through our own actions, and we face intimidating responsibilities as a result. We have no option but to meet them.

Tickell was asked by Thatcher to become Permanent Secretary in the Overseas Development Administration in the early 1980s. Subsequently, he caught Thatcher’s attention during a flight to Paris in 1984. She had asked whether the assembled officials around her had any agenda ideas for the next G7 meeting to be held in London. Tickell proposed climate change and as a result was invited the next day to Downing Street to brief Thatcher on his ideas. From then on, he advised Thatcher on various environmental issues on an informal basis. In an interview given as part of Churchill College’s British Diplomatic Oral History Programme (BDOHP), Tickell stressed how Thatcher was drawn to scientific topics given her background. (For an in-depth piece on how Thatcher’s scientific background influenced her policy making see this article for the Royal Society by Jon Agar here.)

Margaret Thatcher much prided herself on being the only scientist in her government. Anything that related to science she took a particular interest in, and almost felt that she owned it. Some of her views were radical and didn’t always fit the other views she heard from others. The main advice she got was, of course, from the civil service machine. I came back from New York to attend two meetings for her. I think she regarded me as someone useful who could stir the pot for her, and perhaps challenge the orthodox wisdom, whatever it might be.

Part of Tickell’s remit was to float various policy ideas that may be of interest to Thatcher and support her political profile. Out of such a pitch came the genesis of the grounding-breaking speech given by Thatcher at the Royal Society.

She was more receptive on some things than on others. The genesis of the 1988 speech to the Royal Society on climate change arose from a meeting when I went to see her when I was on holiday. I always tried to make a point of going into No.10 when I was on holiday. I then suggested three ideas to her which she might try. I didn’t know which, if any, of them she was going to follow. Then I heard about three weeks later that she was interested in the one about climate change, and we started toing and froing about what she might say and when she might say it. She’s always been very interested in science and felt that she had that particular contribution to make.

The speech (transcript can be found here) was ground-breaking in that is was the first in which a world leader had called attention to the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions:

For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some[fo 4] to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century.

Spencer Weart, a leading scholar on the history of climate change and author of the modern classic “The Discovery of Global Warming” credits Thatcher as being the first world leader to call for the mitigation of green house gas emissions (here). Her unequivocal position can be seen in this address she gave to the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989 (here).

But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level.

It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.

A second key shaper of Thatcher’s view on climate change was John Houghton. Houghton had been Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Meteorological Office from 1983 and also a senior figure on the World Meteorological Office (WMO). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was, in fact, born out of the WMO. Houghton worked well with Thatcher as can be seen in this interview Houghton gave for the WMO here.

However, back in 1990 I had one very good ally and that was Margaret Thatcher. She gave a talk to the Royal Society in 1988 and – remember she was a scientist by background – she talked about global warming and the newspapers carried this as their headline the following day. That was the first time, in the UK at least, that global warming started to appear on the ‘map’.

Earlier in 1988, the Canadians put on their own global warming conference which raised political awareness in a very important way. 1988 was also the time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had its first meeting and I was asked to be the chairman of its Science Assessment Panel. We had long debates, with hundreds of scientists worldwide, and we had a very interesting time determining what was happening on a global scale and what we could predict for the future.

In 1990 we had our final meeting in Windsor of this scientific group, agreeing the conclusions that would be put forward by the IPCC. Because the IPCC is an Intergovernmental Body, governments now started to take ownership of the assessments and many were accepting the findings. I subsequently presented the findings to the Thatcher Cabinet at Downing Street. It was the first time they’d ever used a projector in the Cabinet Room and famously Margaret Thatcher listened for twenty minutes without interrupting – an unusual occurrence apparently!

The scientific and political concensus that resulted meant that the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro saw all the nations of the world sign the framework convention on climate change. This included the USA and President Bush I.

Houghton’s good relationship with Thatcher paid dividends in the establishment of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in 1990, an organisation which was supported jointly by both the Met. Offfice and the Department of the Environment and kept the U.K at the forefront of climate research. But on 22 November 1990 Thatcher quit the premiership after losing the support of her colleagues, and from that time on she contributed little to the climate change debate until the publication of her book Statecraft in 2002.

The book contained a chapter called “Hot Air and Global Warming” that could have been written by any true-believing climate skeptic. Moreover, as a result of this book, such high profile skeptics as Anthony Watts and Christopher Booker came to laud Thatcher as one of their own (for example here). Given that most of her information sources for the chapter came from libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation  (all of which she references), this is not really surprising.

Further, in the process of becoming a skeptic, Thatcher now viewed the IPCC as ‘alarmist’ and climate change science as a stalking horse for international socialism. From the book:

The new dogma about climate change has swept through the left-of-centre governing classes


provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.

The switch was a triumph for the right-wing think tanks and other assorted merchants of doubt. Yet this outcome is certainly not a triumph for humanity, and nor, in reality, for the political right. Climate change will grind forward regardless of the pronouncements of the left and right. To pretend it doesn’t exist as part of a policy platform is stupid in the extreme. Many political pronouncements can never be refuted as they are normative statements—a question of personal ethics or beliefs. Climate change is not one of them: it will get hotter or it won’t. Someone has to be wrong.

Delusional Investing in a Post-Growth World (And a Possible Alternative)

The internet certainly has its faults, but one can’t but admire how it has democratised information. It is now possible to get access to a multitude of private-sector reports that would only have been available to investment professionals a mere 10 years ago.

One example, with a high degree of quality, is the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook. You can get a pdf of the 2013 report here. Within its pages is a wealth of information on cash, bond and equity returns. Critically, the report chronicles a recent revolution in the prospects for investments. Moreover, the ‘new normal’ savers face gives off some telling signals with respect to future economic growth and, unexpectedly, provides some good news for the economics of sustainability projects.

The three authors behind the report—all from London Business School—provide a short introduction that doesn’t pull any punches in its message to the investment community:

To assume that savers can expect that the investment conditions of the 1990s will return is delusional. Many investors seem to be in denial, hoping markets will soon revert to “normal”.

The report covers cash, bonds and stocks, and all three have seen a collapse in expected returns. Let’s take a closer look at bonds, since they dominate pension-related savings in most countries. You can plainly to see that nominal yields have slumped (click for larger image):

Average Yields on Long Bond jpeg

But once we take inflation into account, things are far worse. In the chart below (taken from the full report), the authors have used inflation-protected bonds starting from the year 2000 (or equivalent where such bonds are not issued by a particular country) to see what kind of real returns investors are prepared to accept (click for larger image).

Real Yields jpeg

This kind of chart always shocks me. Continue reading

Flood Risk in the U.K.: What Does Mr. Market Think? (Part 2 An Actuary’s Nightmare)

In my previous post, I noted that strange things were happening in the flood insurance market. In short, the insurance industry no longer wants to extend the status quo (here):

The current agreement under which insurers continue to offer flood insurance to their existing customers will expire on 30 June 2013. The insurance industry has proposed a new a scheme to ensure customers can still buy affordable flood insurance, after this date. We are currently in talks with the Government about taking this forward.

In truth, they want to move some flood risk from one actor in the market to another. But before I look at that issue, I want to ask the question “why do they want to change the status quo?”

To do this, we need to take a quick detour through the theory of insurance. There is a nice little eight-minute youtube video that explains the theory of insurance here:

The core message in the video is the same as the core message of this blog: risk is the probability of an event times the cost of the event. Continue reading

Data Watch: Atmospheric CO2 February 2013

Atmospheric CO2 concentration is the world’s leading risk indicator. Every month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. government federal agency, releases data on the concentration of atmospheric CO2 as measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The official NOAA CO2 data source can be found here.

This is the longest continuous monthly measurement of CO2 and dates back to March 1958, when 315.71 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 was recorded.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses the year 1750 as the pre-industrialisation reference point, at which date the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was approximately 280 ppm according to ice core measurements.

Key numbers relating to NOAA’s March 5th release of February 2013 mean monthly CO2 concentration are as follows:

  • February 2013 = 396.80 ppm, +3.26 ppm year-on-year
  • Twelve Month Average = 394.2 ppm, +2.36 ppm year-on-year
  • Twelve month average over pre–industrial level = +40.8%

Decadal CO2 Change jpg

Continue reading

Data Watch: US Natural Gas Monthly Production December 2012

The U.S. government agency The Energy Information Administration (EIA) issues data on U.S. natural gas production, including shale gas, on a monthly basis with a lag of roughly two months. The latest data release was made on February 28 and covers the period up until December 2012.

Data is reported in billion cubic feet (bcf). Key points:

  • December 2012 natural gas dry production: 2,041 bcf, +0.3% year-on-year
  • Average monthly production for the 12 months to December 2012: 2,004 bcf, +5.0% over the same period the previous year

Since the end of 2011, the rate of production increase has levelled off (click chart above for larger image).

US Dry Gas Production Dec 12 jpg

Continue reading

Permafrost, Chimpanzees, the Savanna and Risk

In my  weekend links, I highlighted a new study published in Science. It is behind a pay wall, but has been well covered by Climate Central and Climate Progress. The study provides us with a good excuse to revisit the whole topic of climate risk.

The paper in question is an empirical study of past permafrost thaw at different temperatures. To summarise the conclusion, stalactite and stalagmite growth in Siberian caves suggests that significant permafrost thaw took place 400,000 years ago when the global mean temperature was around 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than it is today. This level of specificity is new, and is important for not being model based. Incidentally, we have an accurate temperature record going back around 800,000 years through the study of ice cores.

When such studies come through, I think it always useful to place them within a risk component analysis framework. As a reminder, risk is best defined as probability times effect—or  more specifically probability times net harmful effect. It is also worth recalling that we should not get sidetracked by the accusation that such studies lack certainty. The human condition is one of decision-making under uncertainty. As individuals, the only real certainty we have in our lives is death.

Keeping these points in mind, climate change can be viewed as a chain of risk components, each of which has its own probability distribution. We move from emissions, through atmospheric concentrations (the study of the airborne fraction that I blogged about here), to climate sensitivity, until finally we arrive at the net harmful effects on both individuals and societies.

Continue reading

Canada: The Laid-Back Uncle Who Joined the Tea Party

So what happened to Canada? I have followed the country’s politics only intermittently over the  years (despite being an international relations and politics junky and having relatives there). The Quebec secessionist movement was a newsmaker in my youth, but since that time I have seen Canada as like a rather laid-back (but a little bit boring) good-intentioned uncle, contrasting sharply with the schizophrenic one across the border.

Canada? To outsiders the country is the home of an efficiently functioning health service, sensible gun control, a well-regulated financial system and decent public education that covers the vast majority of its citizens. A veritable Switzerland set at the top of North America.

But then we come to climate change—and Mr and Mrs Common Sense metamorphosize into Sarah Palin-loving red necks screaming ‘drill baby drill’. How much of this can be put down solely to the lead of the government headed by Stephen Harper? Wikiepedia gives the gory details. And this article, via Skeptical Science, shows how the government’s tone has soured the usually sensible Canadian organs of state.

But what of the man or woman in the Canadian street? Have they been sneaking out the house surreptitiously to join a Tea Party-type gathering down the road? Continue reading