The three kinds of climate denier

Nobody says global warming is ‘all bullshit’ any more. Instead they say it’s too costly

The view that "global warming is all bullshit, it's got to stop . . . and the world is freezing" is no longer the dominant form of climate change denial, according to Lord John Krebs.

It may still have a foothold in the US administration, with Donald Trump its supreme advocate, but climate deniers’ arguments are much more subtle now, believes Krebs, the UK’s foremost authority on adapting to climate change and building resilience to counter its worst effects.

Deniers fall into three categories, he adds. First is the camp that says: “It’s happening, but it’s too costly to deal with; we should wait until we are all rich enough and then deal with it.”

Leading Brexiteer, MP Peter Lilley, a member of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, typifies this view. The think tank's recent report on commitments under the UK Climate Change Act claims it will cost £300 billion to honour legally-binding targets up to 2030. In reality, it will cost £700 per household, Krebs notes, when the average British home owner is currently paying £4,000 a year in insurance.


Krebs believes it’s an insurance policy worth taking out, even if one is doubtful about climate change. Your house may never burn down, but fire cover is worth avoiding disaster, should it happen.

It will “cost” 1 per cent of GDP, assuming 2 per cent GDP annual growth over the next 12 years; “delayed gratification” by merely six months.

Climate ‘lukewarmers’ The second category of modern sceptic says climate change is not serious enough to worry about – it’s real, mostly man-made but not dangerous, “so we don’t have to do anything about it”. Krebs’s former pupil, commentator Matt Ridley falls into this “climate lukewarmer” category.

The third denier deploys the “tobacco strategy”: there’s uncertainty/doubt, so we should wait until we know more. This ploy successfully shrouded links between smoking and cancer for decades, which due to uncertainty dissuaded the US Food and Drug Administration from taking action. Its manifestation is one Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who has ensured its firm foothold within the Republican party.

Krebs is not a climate scientist. He is an ecologist, but armed with three interactive graphics on rising carbon concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing global temperatures and shrinking Arctic sea ice, which he plays as an antidote to climate deniers.

He displayed them at the 2018 Climate Change Lecture hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin's Mansion House recently – the undeniable evidence, before going on to consider if current actions are meaningful or mere rhetoric.

Speaking to The Irish Times, he deftly avoids criticism of Ireland's climate actions and commitments, though he outlines frankly how Brexit may hit our efforts to decarbonise.

His message is clear without saying it: the UK is much farther down the decarbonising road, and is at the stage of considering whether to adopt more demanding targets – in the meantime, Irish emissions continue to rise, especially in transport and agriculture. In contrast, UK greenhouse gas emissions have declined by 42 per cent on 1990 levels.

UK governments have to commit to five-yearly carbon budgets that cannot be abandoned following administration change. A powerful, independent committee on climate change, of which he was a member for eight years, has both advisory and watchdog roles.

The Irish Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 is a pale equivalent – though we do have an independent and robust Climate Change Advisory Council tasked with assessing and advising on how Ireland is making the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.

The UK is “miraculously” ahead on tracking to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Industry, power generation and offshore wind have been the trailblazers. And it has shown it can be done while increasing prosperity: “No need for hair shirts, brown rice and sandals.” Ireland has singularly failed to decouple economic growth and rising emissions.

It’s a good-news story, though Krebs notes it involved picking low-hanging fruit. It’s about to get tougher, he warns, as Britain needs to tackle more difficult emitting sectors in the form of transport, agriculture and old buildings.

Then there’s “the dreaded B-word . . . the absolutely disastrous decision to leave the EU”. He adds: “I apologise, it’s a spanner in your works as well as our own.

“Interestingly, all the leading advocates of Brexit are also climate-change deniers,” he observes. In that context, he fears once “the shackles of Brussels” are off, and in the absence of European Union legislation supporting decarbonisation, standards will be compromised.

For Ireland, problems are likely to be in energy, he predicts. The UK is leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, so it must leave the “internal energy market” whereby member states can buy cheap excess electricity and gas off each other. This may undermine the all-Ireland integrated single electricity market and the North-South electricity interconnector. The UK government expects it will be able to wangle its way back into that market, but Switzerland’s failure to gain access over the past 20 years suggests otherwise.

Krebs admits he has “little Brexit rants”; his everyday medicine. What clearly irked in that regard was the UK government’s promise to transform EU environmental law into UK legislation, when in reality the measure was full of “escape clauses” and provided the executive with massive powers without having to consult parliament.

His recent House of Lords amendment gave the Conservative government a bloody nose, by way of a 15th defeat in the upper chamber on its EU withdrawal Bill. The lords voted to maintain EU environmental standards and compliance after Brexit.

While the Paris agreement on climate was “mind-blowing”, there is a gap between ambition and pledges by signatory countries, Krebs says. Commitments need to be ratcheted up “if we are serious about the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels”.

Emissions will have to fall to “net zero” at some point if the rise in average temperature is to be halted – this means that although there may be a small amount of CO2 emitted each year, an equivalent amount will be absorbed and stored.

He is not optimistic on “political will” and institutional structures. A big question remains unanswered: “Does the public have the will to drive the politicians to have the will . . . to make the decisions we need to make now – it can’t be decades ahead – to ensure our grandchildren or children have the future that we all wish for them?”