What We Heard at a Climate Change Deniers' Meeting at Parliament

"Children are completely indoctrinated into one point of view at schools up and down the country," said one of the speakers from the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

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27 November 2018, 1:00pm

Collage: Marta Parszeniew

Did you know that king penguins have never had it so good and that polar bears are doing so well that they're a public safety threat? Oh, and have you noticed how cold it's been lately?

Welcome to the world as the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) sees it. A self-described think-tank, GWPF has played an outsized role in the popular debate around climate change since it was set up by Margaret Thatcher's longest-serving Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, in 2009.

Due to a combination of the media's obsession with balance and the prominence of some of its members, the environmental movement has spent years debating this organisation and trying to understand its members. Like Batman and Commissioner Gordon trying to get a handle on the Joker, climate scientists have fought to get the upper hand against an adversary that delights in contrarianism.

But with the BBC recently announcing that climate change will get more prominence in its news coverage, GWPF is struggling to stay relevant. These people might well just want to watch the world burn, but if no one is watching them, who really cares?

Last week I went to the House of Commons to sit in on one of the organisation's meetings, an event to mark the ten-year anniversary of the passing of the Climate Change Act. They're not fans.

"One of the problems we have faced over the last ten years is that the BBC has taken the decision that there is no debate. No one who has a dissenting voice can ever be invited," GWPF co-founder Benny Peiser told his audience.

In a way, the GWPF is a victim of circumstance. Records continue to tumble – to date, the earth has been warmer than normal for 406 straight months – and the last few years have seen the climate crisis play out in ever more visceral and devastating ways. While a polar bear floating into oblivion on a shard of ice might have been ignorable, California being on fire is more immediate.

Then there are the shifting demographics. Old people continue to die and young people continue to grow up. Generally, if you've got longer to live, you might be worried about the future of the world; much to the annoyance of Philip Davies MP.

"Children are completely indoctrinated into one point of view at schools up and down the country," he told the meeting. "Then they go home and tell their parents, and it has an impact on the whole political process.”

The audience of about 40 in committee room 12 of the House of Commons was overwhelming male, pale and rather old. When I entered the room and they turned around to look at me, I felt like I'd just made a dramatic entrance into the trial of Mr Toad.

The Commons is an odd place to be at the best of times. Now, as it undergoes extensive refurbishment, it's even stranger. Cold, damp and with terrible phone reception, it resembles the home of a simple-minded aristocrat who has spent all his inheritance on antique peacock feathers.

Committee room 12 is no different. It gives anyone who speaks in it a misplaced sense of grandeur, and Peter Lilley – one of GWPF's most prominent members – is all about misplaced grandeur. Telling the story of how he was one of the five MPs who voted against the Act back in 2008, he remembered that it was snowing when the vote took place.

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Photo: Victor de Schwanberg / Alamy Stock Photo

"I pointed out that the House was passing a bill that would become an act of parliament based on the idea that the world was becoming warmer, when we were experiencing snow in London, in October, for the first time in 74 years!" The audience lapped it up, so Peter carried on: "I'm a scientist," he told his fans, before explaining that he dropped natural sciences at university and switched to economics.

Of course, Peter isn't a member of parliament anymore. He's given way to young, charismatic upstarts like Philip Davies, 46. So how many of his colleagues share his views on global warming, I asked?

"I think quite a lot of Conservatives privately agree, but you'll never get them to say so," he claimed. "You'll always find a group of people who come up to you and say, 'Oh, privately I totally agree with you,' and those people are the worst of all, in my opinion. I've got no respect for them. They’re cowards."

Through the course of the meeting, GWPF felt more and more like an organisation falling into irrelevance. Take away the grand surroundings and you're left with a niggling thought that it's a meeting of conspiracy theorists who wouldn’t look out of place in a dreary village hall. "I'm currently in dialogue with the BBC about their bias," began one audience member, prompting nods and "time to wrap this up" looks from the panel. The ideas espoused by its supporters – men like Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s brother – that carbon dioxide is good for the world, and that we need more of it, just seem absurd.

Today, it's better for politicians to pay lip service to climate science, rather than actively contradict it. As I wrote in the last "Some Like it Hot", climate change denialism has transmogrified in recent years. Oil companies insist they are in favour of controlling carbon emissions, even as they spend millions trying to defeat measures to tax carbon emissions. Closer to home, Michael Gove makes vague commitments to protect wildlife and tackle plastic pollution, as scientists warn that by 2080 up to 1.2 million UK homes will be at risk from flooding as sea levels rise.

But openly denying that our climate is changing is beyond the pale now – at least, everywhere outside the White House. It's the battle to do something about it that will define politics for the next generation. For the purists in committee room 12, they’ll just have to sit back and watch from afar as that debate unfolds.

Joe Sandler Clarke is a reporter for Unearthed .

Collage credits: Theresa May (CC By 2.0, via); David Attenborough (CC By 2.0, via); Michael Gove (official Parliament portrait); polar bear (CC By 2.0, via).