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Source: BBC Radio 4: Today
Date: 01/12/2015
Event: Matt Ridley: climate change "a problem but it is not an urgent problem"
Credit: BBC Radio 4

  • Matt Ridley: Author of The Rational Optimist
  • Nick Robinson: Presenter, BBC Radio 4 Today programme

Nick Robinson: A dizzying parade of world leaders, joined by a staggering 40,000 delegates, observers, lobbyists and journalists. The high-level climate talks began yesterday in Paris, and over the next fortnight negotiators from 195 countries will try to seal a deal to prevent temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid, therefore, dangerous climate change. Well, not everyone is impressed by the talks - we're joined by Matt Ridley, Lord Ridley, a Conservative peer and a journalist who's sceptical about all of this. Lord Ridley, are there any climate change talks that you frankly think will be worthwhile, or frankly do you think the whole thing is a waste of time and money?

Matt Ridley [laughs]: Well, I certainly think that 40,000 people focussing on what isn't, I think, the greatest environmental priority - there are greater ones, like rainforest loss and overfishing of the oceans, that should taking our attention - 40,000 people talking about imposing limits on what is effectively the use of energy in the developing world is I think not the right priority. And there is an alternative emerging, which I think makes more sense, and that is that people start talking about "sciencing" the problem, to sort of paraphrase that movie The Martian, getting scientists to tackle the problem that at the moment we don't have low-carbon energy sources that are cheap enough and abundant enough to compete with fossil fuels, and until we do, we won't solve the problem. We've been going round this for 20 years and we haven't found a way of limiting emissions by negotiation.

Nick Robinson: But in other words you do accept there is a problem, you know, because you say "science the problem" - the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, all science academies round the world share the view of the International [sic] Panel on Climate Change, that this is not just a problem but it needs urgent remedy.

Matt Ridley: Well, I think that's wrong. I mean, I think it is a problem but it is not an urgent problem - in other words, the world has warmed about half as fast as was predicted in 1990, since then, and it is everything we now know about climate sensitivity suggests that we're actually probably seeing net benefits from climate change, at the moment -

Nick Robinson: You're not a scientist so it begs the question - a) how do you know, frankly? And b) how sure can you be? Are you really certain that all these scientists are wrong and that you are right?

Matt Ridley: Well, but I agree with the scientists that there is a range of possible outcomes. You know, they don't say that it's certainly catastrophic, they say that there is a chance of between one and a half and four and a half degrees of warming, with a bias towards the lower end, by the way, and - because that's where the probability density function falls - and I've been covering this issue for 25 years, I've gradually become more sceptical that there is an immediate problem.

Nick Robinson: But if there's a range of outcomes, isn't it wise to say: prepare for the worst, take precautions for what could be the nightmare? You may be right, they may be right - they're scientists, after all, you're not - but who knows? None of us know for certain, so why not have these talks, prepare for the worst, take measures to avoid the -

Matt Ridley: But again, just to pick you up on that, I'm not outside the scientific consensus here - the scientific consensus includes the possibility that this will not be very harmful. And the reason why we shouldn't rush into solutions today is because the solutions we've already rushed into are doing real harm, not only to poor people but to the environment - the biofuels programme has probably killed 190,000 people a year by reducing the - by increasing the price of food and putting pressure on rainforests and things like that, and we are at the moment constraining aid to developing countries for building fossil fuel power stations. Well, that's keeping a lot of people mired in the problem where they cook over open wood fires, which not only destroys rainforests but also kills more than three million people a year because of the effects of indoor air pollution.

Nick Robinson: So your argument, in effect, is the cure may be worse than the disease, because we're not sure about the disease. What is it that you're saying we could do, if you are not merely to be portrayed as someone who - you own a coalmine, for example - who is in favour of fossil fuels, who is in favour of stopping money going to solar or wind and the rest?

Matt Ridley: Well, I think it's clear now, after 20 or 30 years of this, that we're not going to solve this problem with, for example, wind power - it produces 1% of world energy, at the moment, after all the money we've poured into it. So what we need to do is find a technology that works, that's much more dense than wind power, that works on a - that is cheaper and works on a scale. Now, nuclear can do that, but at the moment it's too expensive, so we need to pour money into research and development - that's what people like Bill Gates are saying.

Nick Robinson: Matt Ridley, Lord Ridley, thank you very much indeed. The climate change talks go on, of course.