Monday, November 28, 2016



Record global temperatures and unusually high Arctic temperatures, in particular, are starting to suggest some scary scenarios for the world’s climate, including the notorious “tipping points” which can accelerate the rate of change. This is a time when we need the best possible understanding of what is happening to the planet, not least because it can help preparations for a dangerous future. But US climate science, hitherto one of the most important sources of understanding, is threatened with budget cuts. This was predictable in the context of anti-science climate denial rhetoric but there have been signs that Trump, at least on this issue, is rowing back from his extreme positions and threats to scrap the Paris agreement. So now is not the time to cut back on the research that helps to anticipate the real global and regional threats that we shall be facing. This would be the equivalent of a pilot switching off the navigation system when he discovers he does not have enough fuel.

We have become accustomed to a string of global temperature records in the last two years, with 2016 likely to exceed 2015 for the global annual average; and we have also passed a psychological landmark with estimates that the world has now warmed by over 1o C since pre-industrial times. Recent weather in the Arctic has provided further surprises, including periods of several weeks where the temperature has exceeded seasonal norms by as much as 20o C. This difference is significantly higher than the average temperature gap between summer and winter in the UK and other temperate climates. 

Climate science has for a long time indicated the likelihood of greater warming at the poles, and this dramatic anomaly is no doubt partly attributable to the aftermath of an el Nino event. However the scale of this increase has taken scientists by surprise and increased fears that climate change could move much more rapidly than has been generally forecast. There are several reasons why the Arctic matters so much, and these include the risk of some very serious feedback effects which have been characterised as “tipping points”. One is the potential reduction in “albedo”, which means that loss of snow and ice cover reduces the reflection of heat and leads to more warming. Another is the potential release of another powerful greenhouse gas, methane, from warming land surfaces and thaws in the permafrost. Big changes in Arctic conditions are also likely to have major impacts on weather across the globe.

These threats underline the importance of action on greenhouse gases. But they also start to put a more immediate focus on issues of adaptation.  Given that more and more attention is now being given to the challenges of adapting to climate change, understanding the numerous climate processes that will affect individual regions and countries becomes even more important. Without that understanding there will be real dangers that adaptation is planned, and investments made, that fail to address the right issues. A simple example is whether to plan for heavy increases in rainfall (possibly the UK), or for prolonged droughts (possibly California).

This makes the suggestions of US cutback on climate research (affecting NASA, NOOA and others) a particularly foolish, shortsighted, and damaging proposition.

Friday, November 25, 2016


Modified policies on climate issues might have some surprising benefits for a declining US coal industry, and for the future of carbon capture.

President-elect Trump is having second thoughts about climate change, previously dismissed as a Chinese-inspired hoax. There are many reasons that might make this a perfectly rational response to the impending responsibilities of office.

First he is almost certainly now getting briefings from scientific and other experts both on the reality of climate science, and on the potential impacts of climate change.

Second the USA is now suffering major drought conditions in the South West. There are indications of a possible link with climate change and strong indications of possibly much worse “megadroughts” in the future. Most people in the US now accept the reality of climate risks, and for some people the potential costs are becoming apparent.

Third, and of more immediate political significance, it seems unlikely that a US withdrawal from the Paris agreement would be followed by any significant US allies or trading partners. Even more significantly, and as I have observed in earlier blog comments, climate policy will become increasingly tied in with trade. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, for example, has made it clear that China will take other countries’ positions on climate change and the low-carbon economy into account when negotiating trade deals.

This is hardly surprising. No-one is going to put up with trading partners who free-ride on cheap but destructive energy sources with unabated emissions, undercutting competitors who adopt environmentally responsible policies. [The UK incidentally will have to recognise the same realities as it navigates a path to those sunlit uplands of new trade agreements. This will be a bitter medicine for ardent climate sceptics and Leave campaigners such as Lawson, Redwood and Rees-Mogg.]

But acceptance of the compelling arguments for action on greenhouse gas emissions could, in principle at least, also provide a lifeline for US coal communities, in the “rustbelt” that provided an important contribution to Trump’s election victory. The connection is carbon capture and storage (CCS) applied to coal. This is not currently a frontrunner as a least cost solution for US energy policy, and a substantial unknown is the extent to which Trump will be willing or able to fulfil his campaign promises to these neglected communities.

Coal has almost certainly suffered more from fracking and the resulting cheap gas than it has from federal environmental policies, so the connection may seem an improbable one. Proposed policies to spend on infrastructure, similar to those advanced by Obama but blocked by a Republican Congress, may provide a “Keynesian” stimulus to the economy. But directing them to benefit deprived areas may be much more difficult, particularly as the allocation of infrastructure spend is far from being in the gift of the President. 

There are in consequence some potential merits in CCS that at least make this an avenue worth exploring. A programme to develop carbon capture and storage has several potential advantages, and these include benefits to economically depressed regions with high dependency on coal.  It requires a very substantial infrastructure spend which is likely to be close to those regions. It may provide a more promising future for coal. And in terms of wider benefits, CCS is still seen by many policy analysts as an important or even essential ingredient of real progress to a low carbon economy, and could reduce the large number of coal fired stations that otherwise threaten to become stranded assets.

These are complex questions, and continued coal fired generation with CCS could still face many barriers, not least on cost. But the idea does provide at least a small element of hope for a fading industry.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


A major element of Trump proposals for US energy policy targets complaints that energy costs, driven by supposedly excessive concerns over climate issues, are disadvantaging US industry, notably in competition with China. As usual there is a complex story to be told, probably too complex for a short comment, but the following observations ought to provoke some thought.

“It’s a lament that rarely holds up under examination of the facts. All too often, these complaints are part of a lobbying campaign that is essentially political. And when that’s not the case, we usually find there’s a lot of money at stake in industries that are reluctant to invest in adjusting to future challenges. And even when corporate leaders know that these investments are necessary, a majority of them still believe the cost should be paid by the taxpayer. That leads them to threaten using their deadliest weapon, the threat of job cuts and the relocation abroad of their factories and production operations.”

Does this sound familiar in a US context? Could it have been written by a US commentator? I suspect it does and could. But, surprising as this may seem, it was written by a former German environment minister in 2014. The context was not the supposedly high costs of US industry, but concerns about the competitiveness of European and especially German industry in relation to a low energy cost USA. He continues the attack.

The complaints by European industry lobbyists, that energy costs are putting them at a “destructive” competitive disadvantage, simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Industry lobbyists will say either that the costs of labour are too high, or that their big problem is the price of energy. America’s historically low gas prices are at present the cause of yet more European moaning.

The facts show how wrong they are. Energy costs account on average for less than 3% of gross production costs in Germany, whereas staffing costs account for about 20%. Even if you look at shares of gross value creation, the energy costs don’t exceed the 10% mark. Yet, industrial lobbies and trade associations continue to prophesy the end of the Western world.

I made similar points in recent evidence to the House of Lords in respect of their questions about loss of industrial capacity in the UK and energy costs as a possible cause.

It is difficult to argue that there is a strong relationship between high energy costs and the loss of industrial capacity in the UK. The following points tend to support this sceptical perspective.

1. The Committee on Climate Change analysis[1] suggests that the proportion of industry and GDP for which energy costs are a significant influence on a firm’s price competitiveness is quite small. [c 2.6% of GDP].  If analysis is confined to goods in extra-EU trade the proportion will be smaller.

2. Exchange rate movements are substantially more significant in their impact on cost competitiveness. The recent depreciation of sterling will have substantially improved the UK position in an international energy price comparison (except to the extent that domestic prices embody international fuel prices). But the same exchange rate depreciation will also have a much bigger and generally more important competitive impact on firms through making their comparative labour costs, and other domestically incurred costs, more favourable (since these are a bigger proportion of total costs even for most energy intensive industry),.

3. The loss of UK industrial capacity in the 1980s and 1990s has been strongly associated with the advent of North Sea oil, sometimes known as the “Dutch disease”, and strongly associated with the exchange rate impacts of North Sea oil as well as of economic policy during that period. It had little to do with energy prices per se.

4. In general the association of energy prices with measures of competitiveness looks weak.  Many of our Asian competitors have faced higher energy costs than the UK or EU. Germany, widely regarded as the most “competitive” of the EU economies, also has among the higher levels of energy costs, in spite of what is sometimes seen as an artificially competitive exchange rate position within the euro[2].

5. There are likely to be some “carbon leakage”[3] issues for particular energy intensive and internationally traded products and industries, especially if competitors are subject to less stringent emissions targets. This should not in principle be a problem in relation to EU competition, assuming the UK were to continue to participate in a reformed EU ETS[4], but may be a problem in relation to other countries, eg Chinese steel.

6. However the appropriate response may be to consider remedies for each of the small number of affected sectors on its merits, rather than to distort the general pattern of UK energy policy.   The political and economic issues are very much akin to those of general trade policy, anti-dumping etc. Anticipation of a changing post-EU trade environment obviously adds to the potential complexity of this particular issue.

From all this we might deduce the probability of a strong read across to the US, ironically with US gas being a main focus of comparison for European “moaning”. The reality for the US is, I suspect, closer to the following.

US coal, and coal communities, will have been hit hard by the fall in US gas prices. Climate policies are a convenient scapegoat in a political environment that includes a strong ideological commitment to rejection of climate science.

There is also a very strong perception that American jobs have been destroyed by competition from “cheap” Chinese labour. Migration of some industry to poorer countries with lower labour costs is an almost inevitable consequence of globalisation. We can and do argue at length in every developed economy about how best to deal with that. It is a serious issue of adjustment to globalisation and free trade. But that is a debate for another day.

The real point though is that energy prices per se seem unlikely to have much connection with concerns over “unfair” Chinese competition, for the reasons given above.  What dominate are first real labour costs, and second exchange rates. Exchange rates are part of the process of adjustment that allows trade to balance in response to differing comparative advantage between countries[5]. Inevitably someone will have a comparative advantage in labour costs and someone else in energy or agricultural production.

Given its resource endowment, the US has always been in a strong position on energy compared to Europe, and it is worth noting that China is pressing ahead hard with an emissions reduction agenda. So using competitiveness concerns as an excuse to avoid ambitious climate targets looks like a particularly specious argument.

There have been other concerns in Europe, mainly on the emissions impact of the unloading of surplus US coal, but that is another and more familiar story.

What is challenging and depressing is the apparent universality of almost entirely phoney claims for the profound significance of energy costs in industrial competitiveness. A good time to ask if the emperor actually has any clothes, or to shout “Cui Bono?”. Who benefits?

[1]Reducing the UK’s carbon footprint and managing competitiveness risks, Committee on Climate Change April 2013.
[2] In the sense that reversion to the DM would make Germany much less competitive. But it should be noted that Germany has also been accused of cross-subsidising parts of its heavy industrial sector.
[3] Carbon leakage occurs if a country exports its own industry emissions to another country solely as a result of having a more stringent policy on CO2 reduction, possibly resulting in the unintended consequence of higher global CO2 emissions.
[4] This point, and that the bulk of this trade is intra-EU, is made in the 2013 Committee on Climate Change report.
[5] In fact the whole concept of industry competitiveness becomes quite questionable in this context. But that again is another question for another day.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Conventional wisdoms on the superiority of unfettered energy markets, and their ability to incentivise investment and deliver reliable electricity supplies, are coming under challenge as never before. The failure to deal adequately with the social costs and externalities of CO2 emissions is one massive market failure, but even the resolution of that through carbon pricing does not address the structural flaw in many wholesale electricity markets. The policy imperatives for a low carbon economy are reinforcing many of these structural failures, but the seeds of trouble have been there for some time. The UK, in many respects the pioneer of market liberalisation, the EU which has since adopted these ideas with enthusiasm, and New Zealand, whose natural resource endowment (hydro) has allowed it to move a long way towards a low carbon power sector, present different issues, but all are forced to confront the same basic paradoxes in electricity economics. Failure to resolve these will ultimately threaten security of supplies, and the credibility of national regulatory frameworks.

Tariffs, pricing and markets underpin both efficient resource allocation and the basis for power sector investment, and have always deserved theoretical and practical analysis.  But there are two separate objectives. One is a set of market prices that incentivises investment. The other is market signals that ensure the efficient use of an existing stock of generation capacity. The fundamental dichotomy is the distinction between the short term and long term. The cost signals essential for production efficiency from existing assets relate only to short run marginal costs (SRMC), but adequate returns to investment, and to a significant degree retail tariffs, require prices that cover total costs[1] including capital costs. This is often described as long run marginal cost (LRMC).  Both objectives matter.  But it is the more limited SRMC, often equated to the short term variable costs of fuel, that has become the key to most wholesale markets, and in many ways the cornerstone on which liberalised market structures rest.

Wholesale prices based on SRMC are an outcome of the requirements for operational efficiency.  But it is intrinsic to SRMC pricing that it is not sufficient to reward investment; nor will it signal to consumers the full real costs of consumption which must include investment.  Allocative efficiency matters in the consumption of electricity as well as in production; and in the wider economy more cost reflective pricing for power will in principle reduce costs and improve economic efficiency.  For both these reasons, the conceptual basis for electricity tariffs has often been defined as LRMC, giving substantially higher prices that can cover investment and other fixed costs. The structure of consumer tariffs can however incorporate both SRMC and LRMC elements.

The UK 1990 model. When the institutional norms for the power sector changed towards liberalised market structures, the LRMC/SRMC issue was brought into sharp focus.  “Energy only” markets necessarily tend towards SRMC based outcomes, especially in periods of surplus capacity. This does not cover investment costs or incentivise new capacity investment[2].  In consequence some market designs have attempted, explicitly or implicitly, to build in features which will, at least in principle and over the long term, be capable of rewarding investment through a spot price alone. A prime example was the England and Wales pool introduced in 1990, using an administrative mechanism to define value of lost load (VOLL), and loss of load probability (LOLP), to provide prices which spiked dramatically. In principle at least this provided incentives for investment on the basis of long term price expectations.

The approach was essentially a clever attempt to reconcile SRMC and LRMC through a device which purports to act as a surrogate for the “market” in assigning a scarcity value to form part of a single “spot price”, albeit done by administrative means. However this approach proved hard to maintain in a regulatory context, partly because it implies and requires the possibility of very substantial price spikes, some of which must be expected to persist over long periods if they are to provide adequate returns on capital.  However even this model, with a single “spot” price, depended on an administrative intervention, external to the market, to set VOLL and measure LOLP. This in turn reflects a political or administrative view of the level of security or generation adequacy to which the system should operate.

Post liberalisation experience.  This central intervention was one of the features that made the 1990 model unpopular and led, in the UK, to the NETA/BETTA reforms. Implicit in the latter was the assumption that the market itself would somehow define an appropriate level of security. The outcome was neatly summarised by John Kay in the FT.

 But privatisation failed to provide a stable framework for planning new electricity generation. The initial regime reflected careful thought about appropriate incentives for capacity installation, but this regime was swept away in 2001 in favour of a simpler one modelled on other commodity markets and known as NETA (New Electricity Trading Arrangements), subsequently to be Betta (British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements). As so often in commodity markets, this structure worked rather better in the short run than over the long term.”[3]

A return to central purchasing. Predictably the UK is now widely seen as facing very tight capacity margins and the possibility of a supply crisis. In response it has reverted to what is essentially a central purchasing regime through the introduction of a capacity market. This is an entirely rational response but it represents a major step away from the unfettered market philosophy that underpinned the original power sector reforms, and the first step to a centrally directed system. The challenge will be to ensure that this new function for government is conducted efficiently and effectively.

EU ambitions for energy only markets. The EU has generally opposed the idea of capacity markets, perhaps partly on ideological grounds, but more convincingly because national capacity markets are potentially a major barrier to a “single market” in electricity. The power sector has always been a national not an EU responsibility, so national capacity markets are a further barrier to integration. Importantly a single market that includes capacity can only make sense if there is a single security standard across the system. This would need to be set centrally and applied in all EU countries participating in the single electricity market. It seems unlikely that the German government, for example, would be happy to see such a fundamental choice made in Brussels.   

Will regulators allow price spikes? New Zealand experience.  A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a market to be effective in inducing investment is that the political and regulatory framework can allow for major price spikes in which the only constraint on prices is the willingness of someone to pay. General experience is that this does not happen. New Zealand was brought to my attention this week, and is interesting because of the high proportion of zero marginal cost generation. As such it presents a foretaste of how this market question might play out in other jurisdictions, as the advent of low carbon technologies accentuates the gap between SRMC and LRMC, with SRMC falling to a very low [4] or zero level, while LRMC, ie the full cost of supplying power, rises. The story, for market enthusiasts, is not encouraging.

Price spikes do occur and are subject to regular complaints of an “undesirable trading situation”, allowing the regulatory authority to intervene and remedy the problem. So the natural “market” development of supply shortages, inducing higher prices to bring forward additional supply or curtail demand, is heavily constrained.

Prima facie this should make life difficult for the generation utilities. However most are vertically integrated into retail supply, and there have also been complaints about the margins prevailing in retail supply. If correct this suggests that any damage to the financial viability of generation is offset at least in part by the ability to sustain excessive margins in another part of the business, a situation that would be strongly redolent of complaints made about UK energy utilities.

Ideology. In both New Zealand and the UK, there is substantial tension between “energy only” free market enthusiasts and the development of centrally directed capacity markets. Central purchasing has entered the UK by stealth under Conservative or Conservative led coalition governments. In New Zealand the left of centre Labour and Greens proposed a central buyer model, only to be accused of Soviet-style economic vandalism.

We can expect these controversies to continue and to accelerate as the world moves further towards a low carbon, zero marginal cost world. But it is more and more evident that conventional assumptions about electricity wholesale markets are no longer “fit for purpose” and we shall in due course see further rounds of major reform.

The Oxford Martin School Programme on the Integration of Renewable Energy will be returning to these and other questions, not just for the UK but in a wider international context.

[1] To be wholly accurate, we should distinguish actual total costs from the concept of long run marginal cost, but for the purposes of this particular exposition the distinction need not concern us very much.
[2] This is most easy to demonstrate for peaking plant, which can only earn enough to cover its fuel cost even in the very few hours when it runs. But a similar revenue shortfall will apply to almost all plant to some degree.
[3] John Kay.  FT.  July 2013.
[4] CCS, if it is ever built, might provide an exception to this.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


It is tempting to turn to despair, not least because Trump has been propelled to victory by a number of constituencies with a strong vested interest in disputing climate science and promoting the production and burning of coal (still a significant industry in many states), as well as the traditional oil interests. But it is still much too early to form a clear view. The campaign has thrown up multiple threats and promises that, were they all to be carried out, would utterly transform national and international landscapes.

Rejection of Paris has been part of that picture, but it is only one of a number of dramatic promises with huge consequences. Others include a strong repudiation of free trade, possible withdrawal from NATO, less US involvement in the Middle East, the possibility of rapprochement with Putin’s Russia, and much more. All have profound political and economic consequences across the globe.

A particular question for the UK arises in respect of its approach to Europe. An explicit element in the Brexit campaign was a move away from the EU towards a global free trading vision, and implicitly a strengthening of ties with the US. Prima facie, and from a rational perspective, a strongly protectionist US President, possibly abandoning NATO, leaves that vision in tatters, and it will be interesting to hear the reaction of Fox and Johnson to this result. In due course, I suspect, it will shift British opinion on Europe.

The bigger questions are around what compromises will have to be made on all fronts, including climate. Trump's campaign statements and his appointment of leading climate sceptics as his environmental and energy advisers is a worrying signal. But there are still factors that might provide some crumbs of comfort. These include:

·       Strong support for environmental and climate policies in many states of the US, and the fact that most Americans do now accept the concerns of climate science.

·       The growing international consensus expressed in the Paris agreement. The possible impact of international peer pressure and push back from America's allies in Europe and elsewhere.

·       The business opportunities that low carbon energy can provide for US business interests and for infrastructure development.

I anticipate we shall have a lot to think about in the coming months, and there is still everything to play for. That at least is what we have to believe.

Trump has called global warming a hoax invented by China to make US manufacturers uncompetitive and vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement.

FT 9 November 2016

Marcel Fratzscher, head of the DIW economic think tank:
 “Trump will be unable to implement his election promises – that is quitting the World Trade Organisation, ending free trade with Europe and so on.”

FT 9 November 2016
Dominic Rossi, Fidelity International.

“We are heading into a world of unprecedented political risk which calls into question the pillars of the post-WWII settlement. It’s unsurprising investors are heading for cover.”

FT 9 November 2016

Hillary Clinton obtained a majority of the popular vote, but in the US system this still translated into a Trump victory in terms of electoral college votes.
Trump’s administration must obtain congressional consent if it wants to legislate on energy issues and the Democrats will still have a blocking majority on most issues in the Senate.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Martin Wolf in today’s FT decries the absence of any debate on climate change in the US presidential campaign. Given the general level of argument in that campaign, those of us who care about the future should perhaps be grateful for that, since it is hard to envisage anything useful being added. Part of the explanation is that US society is now so polarised that almost every issue has a predictable division into deeply divided constituencies. “Guns, coal and freedom”, freedom including freedom to own guns and burn coal, is a slogan that leads to predictable views on climate science, which are likely to become even more entrenched in a bitter political struggle. But there are also other profound reasons why climate change creates such a perfect storm for humanity.

The first factor is that the problem is essentially global, as gases, and climate, are not contained within national or regional boundaries.  Collective agreement and action is therefore a fundamental precondition for any effective policy. As with other much less dangerous issues, collective agreements are often hard to achieve nationally. They are even harder to achieve on a global scale, and in relation to commodities of huge economic importance associated with substantial vested interests of all kinds. Action on climate may be in everyone’s collective interest but it is in no-one’s individual interest. 

The second factor is the long time lag between cause and effect. Thermal inertia means that even the “first round” and more predictable consequences of a given increase in GHG are only fully worked through over periods measured in decades, with consequential effects such as rising sea levels that will continue over much longer periods and are not reversible other than on geological timescales, even if atmospheric CO2   concentrations are stabilised or brought down.  This naturally conflicts with the myopic nature of much political debate and our ingrained human tendencies to ignore or play down risks that currently seem quite distant in time.

It also serves to introduce the third factor, the irreversibility of current emissions of CO2, which does not decay in the atmosphere and is only removed very slowly, if at all, in the natural carbon cycle. It is the equivalent of a centrally heated room where the radiator can only be turned up, not down, but the room temperature responds only slowly to changes in the radiator setting.  We currently have no known means of extracting CO2 at reasonable cost (the artificial “carbon tree”), nor can we have any confidence that such a technology can or will be developed.  In the absence of low cost extraction, this means that fuel choices made now have irreversible consequences. Without action to curtail CO2 emissions, there is an alarming prospect that, by the time we observe actual warming, we will already have baked in a much larger amount of unavoidable future warming and associated climatic change. At a recent presentation in Oxford, Thomas Stocker of the Physics Institute, University of Bern, and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), estimated that committed peak warming rises 3 to 8 times faster than observed warming.

A fourth factor is the nature of the risks and uncertainties involved in any attempt to anticipate the future.  A common observation of human psychology is that most of us find it difficult to make rational and consistent decisions between different types of risk, even if the risks themselves are in principle well understood.  From a rational perspective, the long term threat from climate change is orders of magnitude worse than that of an accident in civil nuclear power, but that has not prevented a German government, with Green support, from calling a nuclear moratorium and building new coal-fired stations, the worst possible option in relation to CO2 emissions.

In the case of climate science, and even though the fundamental influences on climate are increasingly well understood, there have been enough uncertainties relating to specific details and consequences to allow sceptics, without real evidence, to create the impression that the science is of dubious reliability as a basis for policy. So this fourth deadly ingredient is perhaps our inadequate grasp of risk and uncertainty, or at least our collective inability to comprehend the reality of what the climate science is with confidence describing, and failure, in the eyes of some people at least, of the science to provide a sufficiently clear and convincing narrative around a very complex problem.

Finally these problems are compounded both by the nature of the particular vested interests threatened by any action aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuel, and by the central role of energy in the production and consumption enjoyed by modern economies.  Some vested interests are obvious. In the USA many states have sizeable coal (and oil and gas) industries. Nations rich in fossil fuel reserves, especially oil, have a clear incentive to deny the problem.  Distinguished Oxford climate scientist Sir John Houghton, a former Oxford professor of atmospheric physics, co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) scientific assessment working group, and lead editor of first three IPCC reports, describes this very clearly in his autobiography.  Saudi and Kuwaiti representatives in the IPCC went to great lengths in their efforts to weaken the conclusions of the IPCC Second Report, and to attribute or exaggerate uncertainty at every opportunity. Sir John also details a variety of dirty tricks, dishonesty and sophistry deployed by other parties with a major vested interest in denying the reality of the climate science.

And of course as energy consumers or as taxpayers we have own vested interests in not changing our habits of energy use, and in avoiding some of the short term costs of mitigating future problems, even if these are relatively small in relation to the scale of the dangers they aim to mitigate. The US has long been the world’s most profligate user of oil, coal and gas, and has in the past shown a corresponding reluctance to recognise the issue. China, for whom even the per capita carbon footprint now exceeds the European average, has taken a path of rapid coal fuelled economic expansion as it strives to develop.

These five factors are mutually reinforcing.  Vested interests have proved anxious to encourage or exploit any perception of uncertainty in the science, even if this largely relates to the quantum of damage rather than to fundamental understanding of the physical processes and the risk. The long time delays between cause and effect made it easier for sceptics to suggest that the science was mistaken or at least that the risks are exaggerated.  The dependence on global agreement, and action by all, is a disincentive to unilateral action within one country, or even within such a block as the EU.  Long time lags encourage us to dismiss seemingly distant risks, and make us reluctant to incur current costs for future protection.  Irreversibility amplifies all the dangers of delay.