Glass half full

Posted On: 
28th November 2013

The Upper Chamber’s self-declared ‘rational optimist’ Viscount Ridley shares his views on climate change, risk assessment and why we shouldn’t always trust the experts

Kevin Spacey might be taken aback if he saw Lord Ridley’s office on Millbank. The Hollywood actor often has cause to call the phone in this room – which is so plainly decorated it feels vacant, as if awaiting new tenants. He’s not interested in Ridley, the award-winning scientist, writer and former bank chairman, but in his equally ascetic yet illustrious roommate, Lord Dobbs, the onetime Chief of Staff to Thatcher and author of House of Cards, the American TV version of which stars Spacey.

Ridley, 55, arrived in these unassuming quarters via a hereditary peer by-election in February (“Don’t worry,” he told his wife in the run-up to the vote, “I’ll never get it”). Since then, the scientist, whose books include 1999’s Genome and 2010’s The Rational Optimist, has been busy using his position to warn about rising energy costs and, more controversially, to make the case for a less pessimistic view of climate change. 

The son of Matthew, 4th Viscount Ridley, and nephew of Nicholas Ridley, a fixture in Thatcher’s Cabinet, Matt Ridley describes himself as a ‘lukewarmer’ rather than a climate change denier or sceptic. He has ruffled green feathers on this score, not least by accusing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of cherry-picking bad news for its reports. But he refutes the charge that he too is selective, and insists he is just following the evidence. 

“I’m trying to be fair. I’m trying to look at all sides of the question. So for example I often say the retreat of Arctic Sea ice is actually faster than expected. That’s the one piece of data that has gone faster that people predicted, but it’s the only one I can see – everything else has gone slower than predicted. 

“So when I listed in a speech in the Lords nine different ways in which the latest IPCC report is retreating from more extreme positions – namely admitting there’s a pause, admitting the models have overpredicted warming etc etc – I don’t think I was cherry-picking. I mean, I’m making a case, yes, and I’m bringing in arguments, but if there was strong evidence that climate change was worse than expected, I’d be quite happy to say so.” 

Following the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, David Cameron hit the headlines by saying climate change should be tackled as an “insurance policy”. The Prime Minister said that while he would “leave the scientists to speak for themselves about the link between severe weather events and climate change”, the evidence seemed to him to be growing. “If I said to you there’s a 60% chance your house might burn down, do you want to take out some insurance? You take out some insurance,” Cameron said.

Does the PM understand the science better than Matt Ridley?

“There’s a lot of room in the science for many different interpretations,” Ridley begins diplomatically, before adding that he’s far from convinced by the ‘insurance policy’ argument. “What kind of insurance policy is it that costs you an awful lot, doesn’t pay out and doesn’t prevent your house being burnt down, as it were? In other words, if you’re the only one doing it, it doesn’t really work as an insurance policy. Also, things like storms are going to happen anyway, so I’m not sure it’s an accurate analogy.”

“But of course, I agree with the Prime Minister,” he adds, casting a pantomime glance over his shoulder and laughing. “We do have to take some precautions and be aware that there is some risk. It’s all a question of how big the risk is.” 

His views on risk might be at odds with David Cameron’s – not to mention those of much of the climate establishment – but they do overlap with the Environment Secretary’s. Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in September, Owen Paterson said he was confident humans could adapt to climate change and also pointed to the benefits of the UN’s predicted temperature increase, including fewer winter deaths and the potential to grow crops further north. 

The comments caused an outcry among climate scientists, who accused the Environment Secretary of failing to properly understand the UN’s report, but does Paterson deserve credit for breaking a taboo?

“Yes he does,” Ridley says. “Because he’s absolutely right – those are the facts on the ground, as far as anyone can tell them.” He then expounds the advantages of a moderate rise in temperatures, including longer growing seasons and a reduced risk of water stress. 

Can it be a coincidence that Paterson and Ridley share these views, given that the Environment Secretary is Ridley’s brother-in-law? (Paterson is married to Ridley’s sister, Rose.) “Well, I had published an article [about the advantages of climate change] shortly before he gave that speech, so he may have read that, I don’t know. But I didn’t feed him the line, no,” Ridley says. 

“But we do talk about these things. He picked up on the fact that moderate climate change of the kind we’re going to see through to about 2060-2070, if you accept the current models, is going to be a net benefit, so it’ll be a very long time before we see net disadvantages from climate change. Now, just for saying that, all hell broke loose – the ceiling came down on my head and on Owen Paterson’s head. Yet all we were doing was reflecting the consensus of scientific opinion.”

Ridley recently set out his thesis on this topic in a long essay for The Spectator – an article which reads like a data-supported version of Private Eye’s cartoon series ‘Global Warming: The Plus Side’. In it, Ridley says his children “will be very old before global warming stops benefiting the world”. But he also concedes that, after 2080, climate change may start to do net harm to the world. So what happens then? Don’t we have a moral duty to the generations that come after us?

“We have a moral duty to poor people today, as well,” he says. “You have to balance your moral duty to your own great-great grandchildren against your moral duty to people in poor countries, and peoplein this country who are in fuel poverty. For me, that is the key balance that you have to strike.” 

If current economic growth rates around the world continue, Ridley says, the average citizen will be about nine times better off, in income terms, by the end of this century than they are today. “Climate change is forecast to knock that back to about eight times as well off. So we’re talking about a slight diminution in the amount by which they get richer,” he says. 

He also thinks that if you follow the logic of Lord Stern – the leading climate change economist who has said that the IPCC’s recent report “makes crystal clear that the risks from climate change are immense” – then people will be “rich enough to drive cars, but not rich enough to build floodbanks”.

Ridley, who believes that adapting to climate change may be cheaper in many cases than mitigating it, also says that Britain should take heed of recent announcements by Australia, Japan and Canada that they are downgrading their climate change commitments. 

“I personally think that the British Government does need to take note of what Australia is doing in particular – and of what Canada and Japan have done. The lesson from Japan is: spend money on research, not on immature technologies – not on rolling out technologies. The lesson from Australia is: you can win an election being against carbon taxes – it’s not something to be afraid of.”

Does he think the Conservative Party could learn from Tony Abbott’s approach?

“I do. I think they should…I mean he’s not dismantling everything, but he is quite rightly recognising that the Australian public wants affordable energy, and energy that’s sufficiently affordable to create jobs, more than it wants some kind of really rather empty gesture to the world.”

For many, the fact that other governments are reneging on their environmental promises is even more of a reason for Britain to take the moral high ground and become a world leader on climate change policy. 

Ridley sees things differently: “The moral high ground is a very expensive place. We are the world leaders now in offshore wind technology, which is a very bad thing to be a world leader in, because it’s the most expensive way yet devised of producing electricity, and it is going to destroy jobs in this country, as well as make people have to choose between heating and eating. 

“We haven’t really seen the impact of offshore wind on people’s electricity bills but it’s going to be there – not just on domestic energy bills, but also on industrial ones.”

Ridley’s damning assessment of Britain’s wind industry isn’t something one would ever hear from a ministerial mouth – but does anyone in Government secretly agree with him? Like his roommate’s creation Francis Urquart, it seems Ridley couldn’t possibly comment – not least because he is “just a humble backbencher”. “I don’t talk to nearly enough ministers to get a sense of anything,” he says laughing.

Nor is Ridley convinced by the reasoning that the UK’s renewables industry will boost the economy by creating jobs, arguing that it isan old-fashioned economic fallacy. “The jobs that count are the ones we’re creating consuming energy not in producing energy, because there’s far, far more of them and if we can make energy affordable we get many, many more jobs in using it.

“If we want to maximise the number of jobs in producing energy, fine – let’s get two million people and put them on exercise bicycles and wire them up to the National Grid. That would be the most labour-intensive way that I can think of to produce energy. It would also tackle obesity! 

“We build power stations for the people who are going to use the power, not for the people who build them. We should be thinking about consumers not producers”. 

Ridley’s stance is unsurprising given his devotion to the free market: the subtitle of his book The Rational Optimist is, after all, ‘How prosperity evolves’. But his economic libertarianism has also been linked to the failure of Northern Rock, of which he was chairman from 2004-2007. Ridley resigned in October 2007, soon after the bank was forced to ask for emergency funds from the Bank of England. 

Who or what does he think is to blame for the Co-op’s current woes? Was it a failure of regulation – or too much intervention?

Ridley avoids getting into specifics. “The only thing worth saying is that the crisis in the banks of a few years ago was just as bad in the mutual sector. In other words, there was just as much bad lending and bad governance in mutuals as there was in the banks – not just in the Co-op but in a lot of building societies too. The idea that there was something more sensible about the way mutuals behaved is not borne out by the evidence.”

What would he say to those who have drawn parallels between his attitude towards risk when he was chairman of Northern Rock (during the crisis, a panel of MPs chastened Ridley for failing to “recognise the risks of the bank’s strategy”) and his attitude now towards the risk of climate change having a catastrophic impact on the world?

The two are linked in Ridley’s mind, but not perhaps in the way you might expect. 

“My experience in the financial crisis left me mistrustful of mathematical models, because risk was all based on mathematical models in those days – and they were wrong. It left me mistrustful of regulators who were pointing in the wrong direction, because that was largely the case in the financial crisis, and it also left me mistrustful of experts. 

“In other words, just because an expert says something is going to be true, it’s no reason to accept it – you have to make up your own mind about things. Those are all lessons I felt I learnt from the financial crisis – not the only lessons I learnt from it, but they are all of relevance to the climate debate. One has to come to a balanced view about risk and one of the things about the financial crisis is that many, many people in the financial world were focused on the wrong risks. 

“Liquidity risk was not being taken seriously, by me or by anybody else before the crisis,” he adds. “So it doesn’t give me confidence that the experts are looking at the right risks in climate change either.”

Such a rationalisation might make Ridley unpopular in parts of the green and banking sectors, but the peer is not a man to shy away from expressing his convictions, however controversial. His advice for politicians trying to assess risk is to “always look at both sides of every question, and challenge one view with the opposite view.” 

He cites electronic cigarettes as an example – saying government plans to regulate them as a medicine will do more harm than good. Ridley says he’s becoming increasingly interested in the issue and, having recently discovered e-cigarettes are banned in South America, where the tobacco industry is particularly powerful, he is “putting some questions out about it”.

Away from his Westminster office, Ridley lives near Newcastle with his wife Anya Hurlbert, a neuroscientist. It doesn’t sound as if he’s had much downtime during his first nine months as a peer, but when asked what he is currently reading he gestures towards Lord Dobbs’s empty chair, and wonders if he is allowed to plug his roommate’s latest novel. “It’s called A Ghost at the Door, and it’s brilliant. I was genuinely surprised by the denouement – which I won’t give away.” 

The question is, of course, whether a future Michael Dobbs thriller will one day portray an articulate, libertarian hereditary peer with provocative views on climate change. Matt Ridley must know there’s a risk.  


"It’s certainly true that I see myself as a social liberal and an economic liberal – which means Conservative these days. I believe that people should free to do what they like in the boardroom and in the bedroom." 


"Did somebody put that into Wikipedia? People are weird, aren’t they... Was it Lord Tweedmouth or something? It was either him or his wife who supposedly invented the golden retriever. I find that quite hard to believe – surely golden retrievers have been around forever?" 


"What worries me about a lot of what’s called ‘social’, is that I’m not sure it’s very well targeted. My telephone at home rings the whole time with people offering me new government subsidised boilers or indeed government subsidised solar panels for my roof, and I’m extremely well off, and shouldn’t be subsidised for anything."