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Matt Ridley Interview

[RH: = Roger Harrabin MR: = Matt Ridley]

RH: Matt Ridley, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed for a
combination of the Open University and BBC. It’s a great pleasure to talk to you.

We’re asking everybody, for the first question, when their interest in energy was first

kindled. I suspect your story may be slightly different to everybody else’s.

MR: Well, yes and no. I got very interested in the climate story when I was covering it
for The Economist in the late eighties, early nineties.

RH: I’m thinking way back from then, because very few people have a coal mine on
their land!

MR: Yes, although the coal mine’s relatively recent, but I grew up in a coal mining
area, and I’m descended from a long line … well not recently, but in the eighteenth

century one of my ancestors was pioneer of coal mining in Newcastle and indeed put

the first steam engine into a coal mine on the north bank of the Tyne so was right

there at the beginning of the industrial revolution. So yes – I have a –

RH: So that’s there in your family history. Do you –

MR: I have an affection for what coal did for humanity and I occasionally feel like
standing up for it. I try and be dispassionate about it, I always declare that I have,

currently, an interest in coal mining. It doesn’t actually last for very much longer,

another couple of years and then I get no money from coal mining and then I can say

what I really think, which is that coal is wonderful!

RH: OK, well –

MR: <Laughs>

RH: Let’s get back onto that in a moment, because I’d like to start, if you would, with
your history on climate change, because you’ve moved about a bit, can you just talk

us through your journey?

MR: Well I first came across the climate change debate in 1987 or so, working for
The Economist, and I was alarmed. I looked at the numbers people were saying, I
looked at the increasing carbon dioxide levels, looked at the Jani equation for how

Commented [CB1]: Transcription error. This should read
“Charney equation”. It refers to the findings of a
National Academy of Science report in 1979 on carbon
dioxide and the climate, chaired by Jules Charney.
Carbon Brief [1]:


Page 2

much warming this was likely to produce, and reported it straight, as it were, as a

very alarming prospect. I became a little more sceptical in the nineties when I began

to look into the science a bit more closely, but then I kind of drifted off and went off

and wrote about genes for a number of years and didn’t pay any attention; then the

hockey stick graph hit me between the eyes. When I first saw that I can remember I

was at a farming conference, someone showed this hockey stick graph, Mann et al.

1999, and I thought wow! I was wrong to be sceptical, this is really scary, because it’s
clearly unprecedented, it bears no relation to what’s happened at the Medieval warm

period and that kind of thing, and so when in the following years I’ve discovered –

RH: So you wrote about it at that point?

MR: No I didn’t, I wasn’t writing about climate change either way much at that point,
but when I did touch on it, I didn’t demure from the consensus.

RH: Intellectually you were convinced.

MR: I thought I’d made a mistake by being sceptical, put it like that. But then I came
across Steve McIntyre’s work on the hockey stick, and the further I dug into that and

Andrew Montford’s distillations of it –

RH: I should say these are two bloggers, and very well-informed bloggers.


MR: Exactly, well Steve McIntyre’s a Canadian mathematician who had the hockey
stick put through his letterbox by the Canadian government and thought, ‘Hang on –

this graph doesn’t look right’, and the more he looked into it the more he dug up

that’s wrong with it. And basically now there’s very few people who think that graph

is correct i.e. that the rate of change today is dramatically different from anything in

the past, and that the level of temperature is dramatically different from things in the

past 1,000 years, we’re talking about. So the undermining of the hockey stick was

therefore all the more important, because it had been the thing that had persuaded

me to take this issue seriously. But it was simply the beginning of going on looking

into more and more of the climate story and finding that more and more of the

Commented [CB2]: The ‘Hockey Stick’ refers to a graph
of temperature over the past 1,000 years, reconstructed
from tree rings, ice cores, corals and other proxy
records. The graph was first published in a paper by
Mann, Bradley & Hughes in 1999 (hereafter referred to
as MBH99).

Commented [CB3]: ‘Medieval Warming Period’ or
‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’ refers to a time between
950-1250AD during which the IPCC says temperatures
in some regions, but not globally, were as warm as in
the late 20th century (WG1 SPM p3).

Commented [CB4]: In 2005, Steve McIntyre and Ross
McKitrick published a critique of the techniques used in
Mann et al. (1999) Their critique was, in turn, disputed
by subsequent studies (see comment [6] below).

Commented [GS5]: Actually, the issues raised mainly
only impacted the last step in the procedure (1400-
1450) and were clearly shown in Wahl and Amman
(2007) not to make any substantive difference to the
form or substance of the Mann et al. results.

Commented [GS6]: Ridley is creating a strawman. The
original Mann, Bradley & Hughes paper only covered
600 years, and made no claim that the rate of change
now is 'dramatically different from anything in the past'.
The MBH99 extension to 1,000 years also did not make
this claim (obviously since these are just
reconstructions for a small part of the past). The best
updates since then - which include both methodology
improvements and expanded data sources - do not
show anything dramatically different to the basic picture
shown in MBH.

Commented [GS7]: I can't comment on what led to
Ridley's supposed conversion, but since better papers
have come along with more or less the same results I
cannot follow his logic, even if he thinks the absolute
worst about the MBH papers themselves.
Carbon Brief [2]:

Carbon Brief [3]:

Carbon Brief [4]:

G Schmidt [5]:

G Schmidt [6]:

G Schmidt [7]:

Page 10

is are we focussing on the wrong thing? Are we trying to stop some tiny increase in

the probability of a hurricane hitting you, or are we trying to stop you dying when a

hurricane does hit you?

RH: And here you would make your argument for coal?

MR: Well, no, I’m not making an argument specifically for coal.

RH: You said earlier on you wanted to make an argument for coal.

MR: Well the point about coal is that it has produced enormous improvement in
human living standards, and not just coal, same with oil, same with gas, same with all

three fossil fuels. The improvement that they have done to human life is spectacular,

but not just to human life, to the planet as well. And people somehow think that fossil

fuels are evil, but just look at what they’ve done! They’ve stopped us cutting down

forests. If Britain hadn’t shifted to coal we’d have deforested this country very quickly.

As it is we’re reforesting this country very rapidly at the moment. Oil has stopped us

killing whales, whales and penguin populations plummeted. The advent of kerosene

is what killed the US whaling industry in the nineteenth century. The whaling industry

came back in the twentieth century, but again it went away because basically there’s

no need to use animals for energy, which is what we were doing.

The advent of gas had a spectacular effect on human living standards because it

enabled us to make cheap fertiliser, and cheap fertiliser has fed the world and

basically we’ve got 9 billion people more easily fed today than 3 billion people in


RH: All these points are extremely well made, but I’ve just come from an interview
with Lord Stern, in which he says if we’re talking about coal for instance, if you priced

in the externalities of coal, that’s the costs that are not taken up by the people who

are burning the coal, costs on society, air pollution in particular he cites, local air

pollution and also CO2 into the atmosphere causing warming, that the dis-benefits of

coal vastly outweigh the benefits of coal according to his most recent analysis.

MR: Yeah, well I think he’s completely wrong about that, because when you think
about it, I’ve just mentioned the greening of the planet, I’ve just mentioned the failure

to cut down the forests as a result of coal. These are benefits of coal, they’re also

externalities, and the idea that local air pollution is a problem from coal, yes, it’s a

Commented [36]: This is a very legitimate policy choice
of what society does about extreme weather and
climate change. To make this policy choice you need
the best information from climate science. An argument
against one policy choice over does not need to bring
climate science into question.

Commented [AH37]: It’s obviously correct that we need
to reduce poverty as rapidly as possible. But climate
change is likely to increase poverty, for example,
through reduced labour productivity from increased
thermal stress. This has already started to happen and,
depending on emissions, [labour productivity] could
decline to less than 40% by 2200 in peak months with
tropical and subtropical regions experiencing extreme
thermal stress.

Commented [AH38]: This is not contested but does not
mean that the use of fossil fuels will continue to do so in

Commented [CB39]: The World Health Organisation
says that coal and other polluting fossil fuels now pose
a “major burden on sustainable development.”

Commented [AH40]: Right ...and now we need to
replace fossil fuels with renewables! Renewables have
a range of co-benefits for health including reduced air

Commented [AH41]: This is incorrect. The current world
population is around 7.4 billion.

Commented [CH42]: CH: There are many peer-
reviewed studies of the possible climate dis-benefits of
fossil fuels, such as Hope (2013) “Critical issues for the
calculation of the social cost of CO2: why the estimates
from PAGE09 are higher than those from PAGE2002.”
To be convincing, Ridley needs to cite the peer-
reviewed studies that show these to be wrong.

Commented [CB43]: See comments [28]-[34].
P Forster [36]:

Andy Haines [37]:

Andy Haines [38]:

Andy Haines [40]:

Carbon Brief [39]:

Andy Haines [41]:

Carbon Brief [43]:

Chris Hope [42]:

Page 11

problem when you burn unabated coal in a dirty way in cities, like in Peking today,

but in this country we’ve largely got rid of that. We have extremely good controls on

the sulphur emissions and the nitrogen emissions from coal burning, so actually

we’ve adapted. We’ve got the benefits of coal without the dis-benefits. So it’s simply

not true to say that the externalities of coal are negative; I think they’re positive.

When you think about it, he’s saying that the CO2 externalities, the negative CO2
externalities in 2100 are more important than the positive CO2 externalities today.

Well, I wonder if that’s fair? The people of 2100 are going to be much richer than

today, they’re going to start to suffer marginal damage from climate change, not

necessarily very great damage. How can we be sure that if we cut coal off today –

and coal is by far the cheapest way of making electricity, there’s a billion people on

the planet who have not got access to electricity, there’s 4 million people dying every

year ‘cause they’re cooking over wood fires, because they don’t have access to coal.

How can we be sure that we’re not doing those people a disservice if we stop burning

coal now?

RH: I’m not sure you’d want those people to be breathing in the coal fumes on a

MR: No, no, but you use the coal to make electricity, like we do in this country, that’s
the point. <Laughs>

RH: Yes. Assuming you can get it to those people.

MR: Exactly, but that’s the cheapest way of getting it. If you do it from wind power it
costs roughly three times as much.

RH: Well it is at the moment, but one of the things that you have disparaged in your
columns is subsidies, so subsidies for solar for instance; yet subsidies for solar have

brought the cost of solar panels plummeting by 70% in the past few years, so solar

now, not wind but solar is the real competitor to coal in developing countries,

particularly in sunny areas, and we could easily see, in the next ten years I think

we’re going to reasonably anticipate seeing that solar would become the best option

in sunny countries.

Commented [CB44]: Beijing in northern China was
formerly known in English as Peking until the late 20th

Commented [AH45]: Ridley quotes no evidence at all for
his statement. It is correct to say that the levels of air
pollution from coal can be reduced by emission
controls. But even now, power plants are estimated to
cause around 7500 deaths per annum in the USA. Coal
fired power stations are the largest single source of
mercury in the USA. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. In
the UK, estimates suggest that coal is responsible for
1,600 premature deaths, 68,000 additional days of
medication and 363,266 working days lost. These
health effects of coal cost £1.1 to 3.1 billion (€1.3 to 3.7
billion) each year in the UK.

Commented [AH46]: Ridley is referring to the annual
deaths from household air pollution (4.3 million), as
estimated by the World Health Organisation in 2012.
But they are not all due to burning wood - a variety of
solid fuels are used (wood, animal dung, crop residues
and coal). However, the energy required to provide
clean household energy for the 2.7 billion or so people
currently reliant on these solid fuels for household
energy is actually quite small in comparison to global
energy use.

Commented [47]: This is not correct. Whilst figures on
the economics of coal generation are rarely published
these days (the usual comparator is new gas), the
difference between wind and coal costs is likely to be
closing fast - especially if carbon costs of coal and any
intermittency costs of wind/solar are included in their
respective costs.
Carbon Brief [44]:

Andy Haines [45]:

Andy Haines [46]:

J Watson [47]:

Page 20

RH: There was another paper saying that research typically didn’t factor in
acidification with warming, and therefore the results would be much worse, but let’s

not get stuck on the details of that, because I want to ask you a final question, this is

a question we’re asking all our interviewees, I think I know the answer already, it’s

what level of optimism have you got over this issue?

MR: <Laughs> Well, I’ve got great optimism we will not see devastating climate
change or extreme weather within our lifetime, within our children’s lifetime, within

our grandchildren’s lifetime. However, I have got some pessimism that the measures

we are taking today will do more harm than good, and that for example rushing into

biofuels all around the world, putting 5% of the world’s grain crop into cars rather

than people’s tummies, has probably killed 200,000 people a year. And I think that’s

a pity.

RH: You could be optimistic that we’d seen the end of those policies, which people
would say were knee jerk policies.

MR: But we haven’t seen the end of those policies. They’re still going on. We’re still
diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motorcars. Now it’s true that the price spike

that they caused is over, agricultural prices have dropped. The reason for that is

because we’re no longer putting more into motorcars, so the increase in yields that

we’re seeing all around the world, partly as a result of the CO2 fertilisation effect and

partly because of other technologies, the increase in yield is now able to feed the

world easily, even while we feed a twentieth of the world’s grain crop to motor cars.

RH: I just want to ask you one last thing. You’ve changed your mind in the past about
climate change you’ve moved from one position to another. What would it take to

move you back again?

MR: Very rapid temperatures rise. If we see, over the next ten years, half a degree of
temperature increase globally –

RH: But nobody’s forecasting that.

MR: Indeed, but they were. I mean, at the moment I’m concerned I’m too much of a
lukewarmer and I’m not enough of a sceptic… the deceleration of climate change

over the last few years, it’s ticking up this year, but we’re making a big deal of it.

Commented [CB78]: This 200,000 figure appears in a
press release by the Association for American
Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), which is based on a
paper by Dr Indur Goklany published in the group’s
official journal. See comment [35] above for more on the
AAPS, Goklany and his association with the Global
Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-skeptic lobby
group on whose advisory board Ridley also sits.

Commented [RM79]: The fact that we are able to feed
the growing population has more to do with nutrient
(chemical) fertilizer application, irrigation, productive
breeds of crop varieties, etc. rather than CO2
fertilization. I know of no study that argued CO2
fertilization as the dominant reason for human food

Commented [CH80]: No-one should make a big deal out
of one year's climate. The problem is that sceptics and
lukewarmers have been making a big deal of the one
exceptional year of 1998 ever since; 'no temperature
rise for 16 years' and so on.
Carbon Brief [78]:

R Myneni [79]:

Chris Hope [80]:

Page 21

RH: The surface temperatures, the ocean is still warming, ice is still melting.

MR: Yeah, but the lower troposphere, which is where the theory says we should be
seeing the warming, is warming least of all! That’s the bit we should be seeing

warming, and that’s warming least.

RH: So you want to be more sceptical rather than less?

MR: Well I don’t want to be, I fear that I should have been.

RH: Matt Ridley, thank you very much.

<End of Interview>

[Carbon Brief Note: The timestamps on the comments are not representative of
when the remarks were made.]

Commented [81]: This is out-dated science when
satellite data was not corrected for known biases.
These biases have been corrected. Chapter 2 of AR5,
Fig 2.24 and 2.26/7 shows that the troposphere is
warming perfectly consistently with the surface.
P Forster [81]:

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