Response to Paterson’s unremarkable and nonsensical speech

Owen Paterson, the UK’s former Secretary of State for the Environment – and now scourge of environmentalists – made the most extraordinary speech a few days ago on climate change and energy policy[1].  The speech was a rare combination of the unremarkable and the nonsensical. Gordon MacKerron In the unremarkable category, Mr Paterson argued that climate change science was broadly right.   Equally, his endorsement of local combined heat and power and what he called ‘rational’ demand management are compatible with a suitably wide-ranging approach to countering climate change.  His scepticism about the achievability of an 80% cut in GHG emissions by 2050 is at least arguable, and his view that the attempt will be very expensive is almost certainly right – but probably much less expensive than the long-term cost of inaction .[2]

But most of the rest of his speech is deeply misguided and/or prejudiced.  The warning signs come early on in his appeal to ‘common sense’ – always a dangerous approach, as my common sense will rarely be yours, and is often a cover for deeply-held prejudice.   The idea of common sense also has the appeal of not needing scrutiny.   Among the ‘common sense’ ideas Paterson advocates is exploitation of shale gas and, somewhat bizarrely, the building of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  Shale gas is of course something that the UK may well develop in a limited way, though at some political cost and offering no reductions in gas prices, as the UK is well integrated in a European market that will scarcely notice UK shale production.  So shale’s impact will at best be marginal, take several years to become even noticeable, and not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[3]  And his view that renewables are hopelessly expensive ignores the fact that there are major, ongoing cost reductions in many renewable technologies

But with SMRs, we enter the territory of fantasy.  First, he oddly confuses the obsolete (and as it happens, quite small) UK Magnox reactors with the new generation of proposed SMRs.  But no SMR (properly defined) has yet been commercialised anywhere in the world, and work on them – mainly in the USA – has been waning , as their developers, notably Westinghouse, have said they cannot find a market.  This is unsurprising as their cost per unit of output is higher than the already expensive conventional, larger reactors, unless hundreds can be sold to give manufacturing economies.  But no-one will commit to large orders of technologies that are not yet proved to work reliably.  The MIT, in their study of the future of nuclear power,[4] convincingly argue that radically new nuclear technologies take up to 50 years to become established due to factors like the need for safety licensing, prototype experimentation, planning and siting approvals, slow construction times – all in the context of historically rising costs and a need to win public acceptance.  So we should expect no significant contribution from SMRs by 2050, even if they do become commercialised, which is far from clear.

But perhaps most extraordinary of all in the speech is Paterson’s contention that rising energy bills,  penalising (‘coercing’) especially the poor, have been a consequence of rising green taxes or levies.  There are two major flaws here: first, the overwhelmingly biggest contributor to rising energy prices over the last several years has been hefty increases in the price of gas; and second, slightly more than half of these green charges directly pay to help reduce fuel bills for the poor  via insulation or more efficient heating systems.

If all this was not quite enough, Paterson ends with a clarion call to give scientists and businesses the ‘freedom’ to explore relevant new technologies.  Quite what is supposed to be shackling these communities is not clear from the speech; and the reality is that there has been an enormous increase in research effort in energy in recent years, which will hopefully both widen and cheapen the range of technological choices which will help meet the challenges that climate change so formidably poses.

[1] Owen Paterson ‘Keeping the Lights on’ Annual lecture to Global Warming Policy Foundation  15 October 2014

[2] N. Stern The Economics of Climate Change: the Stern Review Cambridge 2007.

[3] H. McJeon et al. ‘Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas’  Nature doi:10.1038/nature13837

[4] MIT The Future of Nuclear Power  An Interdisciplinary Study 2003, and MIT Update of the 2003 Future of Nuclear Power 2009

Professor Gordon MacKerron, Professor of Science and Technology Policy, SPRU, Co-Director of Sussex Energy Group.


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25 comments on “Response to Paterson’s unremarkable and nonsensical speech
  1. Mike says:

    Actually, it was Ridley’s nonsense wasn’t it? Owen’s just a muppet; even Lawson was embarrassed.

  2. Latimer Alder says:


    Prof.MacKerron surely notes the flaws in his own commentary.

    1. It may be true that factors other than green taxes have also contributed to rising prices. But that does not mean that green taxes are blameless. Two wrongs do not make a right.

    2. Perhaps some of the money raised by green taxes is used to reduce some people’s energy bills. But the remainder does not.

    It is a straightforward tax to pay for a simple transaction: poor folk pay higher electricity prices to bribe rich folks to put up wind turbines on their land.

    Mr Patterson calls this ‘the most regressive tax since the Sheriff of Nottingham’. He has a good point.

  3. Dr F C Aris says:

    I don’t see that there’s any evidence that OP confused our magnox reactors with SMRs. OP is not suggesting radically new nuclear technology; SMRs have operated as power plants in submarines for the last fifty years. People are ordering new nuclear plants, e.g. the Westinghouse AP1000s. The fact that SMRs may be more expensive is mitigated by OP’s note that local siting of the SMR may allow integration as CHP. These are all cogent strategies worth serious consideration, not thinly disguised ad-hominem attacks from someone who has never even worked on a nuclear plant.

    I see nothing controversial in the observations OP makes about climate science; perhaps VV can explain.

    • Perhaps FCA can be bothered to click on the link provided above.

      • Dr F C Aris says:

        Would that the link provided any support for your claim that all of OP’s remarks about climate change were wrong, but it doesn’t. So perhaps you’d like to make some effort and argue scientifically against OP’s claims?

      • Let’s see,

        Other things being equal, carbon dioxide emissions will produce some warming. The question always has been: how much? On that there is considerable uncertainty.

        This is only correct if by “uncertainty” he is referring to the “confidence intervals”. This is standard in science. We can never “know” anything with absolute certainty. So, maybe this isn’t wrong, but it’s not hugely relevant. Plus, uncertainty doesn’t really help us. You don’t really do a risk analysis by considering the chance that everything will be fine. You do it by considering the chance that things will be bad.

        For, I also accept the unambiguous failure of the atmosphere to warm anything like as fast as predicted by the vast majority of climate models over the past 35 years, when measured by both satellites and surface thermometers.

        I don’t think this is right. The warming over the last 35 years is within the model confidence intervals.

        And indeed the failure of the atmosphere to warm at all over the past 18 years – according to some sources.

        This is only remotely true if you consider one single dataset (RSS). All the rest (UAH, GISTEMP, HadCRUT, NOAA, BEST, Cowtan & Way) suggest we have warmed over the past 18 years. Plus, the ocean heat content continues to rise and the planet’s ice mass (land and sea) continues to fall.

        Many policymakers have still to catch up with the facts.

        Assuming he includes himself, then he’s correct about this.

        I also note that the forecast effects of climate change have been consistently and widely exaggerated thus far.

        The stopping of the Gulf Stream, the worsening of hurricanes, the retreat of Antarctic sea ice, the increase of malaria, the claim by UNEP that we would see 50m climate refugees before now – these were all predictions that proved wrong.

        This appears to be an example of a strawman since there have been very few – if any – actual specific predictions about the effects of climate change today. Most refer to what might happen within the next century. Of course, I’m ignoring Hollywood movies and newspaper articles. Anyone who counts Delingpole, Ridley, Rose, Booker as being on their “side” really shouldn’t be complaining about errors in the MSM.

        For example the Aldabra Banded Snail which one of the Royal Society’s journals pronounced extinct in 2007 has recently reappeared, yet the editors are still refusing to retract the original paper.

        So what? You don’t retract papers simply if they turn out to be wrong. You retract them if there’s plagiarism, misconduct, fraud. If one could show that the authors of this paper did behave fraudulently or engaged in misconduct, fine. Otherwise, it’s simply a paper that has turned out to be wrong. Plus, if it was retracted what would Owen Paterson have to whine about? These types of things are the life blood of the modern pseudo-skeptic. Of course, if it had been retracted there would probably be complaints about scientists trying to cleanse their publication record. A win-win for some, I guess.

        Despite all this, I remain open-minded to the possibility that climate change may one day turn dangerous.

        This isn’t obviously true, but – of course – I may be wrong.

  4. John Catley says:

    Patterson gave a long and detailed speech.
    You have provided a short and rather vague critique accusing him of spouting nonsense.
    Would you care to address the salient points of his speech and detail your arguments against what he says?
    Incidentally, on the point of SMRs, have you seen the press release from Lockheed about their progress with small fusion reactors?
    Wasting exorbitant sums of money on wind generators which can never satisfy our energy needs and which blight our landscape is ill conceived nonsense and is pandering to the green lobby.
    Ignoring the very fact that whatever we do will have minimal to no effect on global average temperature is reprehensible and misguided. We should have the honesty to admit that there is little we can do right now to change the climate and should be diverting the enormous investment in
    a CO2 witch hunt into research and development of other forms of energy.

  5. tcprag says:

    I would like to comment on this piece but have reason to believe that contrarian viewpoints are not being allowed through. Am I correct Professor MacKerron? If so, perhaps you would like to explain your motivation for suppressing debate.

    • Mike says:

      Well, given that all the commenters are reactionary, backward types who are attacking a moderate rebuttal to Paterson’s nonsense, youre clearly wrong. But if you just want to regurgitate more of nutty Nigel’s twaddle, there’s no need – they”ve already done that.

  6. Robert Jones says:

    The Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP has hopefully kicked off a long-overdue examination into the shameful folly that led to the creation by the last Labour administration of the UK’s crippling Climate Change Act (2008). Global warmists persist in making outrageous claims based entirely upon flawed predictions from computer models without a shred of factual evidence or evidence-based trends. Those AGW doubters, like Owen Paterson and many other cool heads, are simply seeking a reasoned discussion, supported by facts, so that common sense can enter the fray and sensible solutions for our energy shortcomings can thereby be devised. Is this really so hard for the warmists to understand and support, or are they more concerned about revenue streams or some more sinister political ambitions?

    I’m now off to continue the fight to stop a wind turbine being built in the middle of the unspoilt Somerset countryside. A Mr Robin Hanbury-Tenison wrote to the Daily Telegraph last week to comment that his 15kWh wind turbine cost him £60K three years ago and earns him £10K a year. So he will have earned £200K by the time the subsidy stops in 2030. He calls this a fair return on his investment. Somehow I can’t see pensioners and those in fuel poverty sharing his glee.

  7. Regarding Green Taxes.

    The cost of production of electricity from coal and gas is around £50/MWh. For onshore wind the strike price is around £100, for offshore wind around £150. Depending upon the time the units were installed, domestic solar is around £1480.

    As the proportion of so called renewables increase, then the amount of green taxes will also increase.

    Note also that DECC has just cut its estimate of future natural gas prices.

    And further note that the earth has not warmed for the past 18 years; our global contribution to global CO2 emissions is small and our effect of temperature is smaller still (note that temp response to increasing CO2 concentration is not linear). SO, why are we crippling our economy, destroying jobs and killing the elderly in winter by pushing up energy prices higher than they need to be.

  8. The cost of production of electricity from coal and gas is around £50/MWh.

    Are you sure? According to this (Table 4) the difference between (for example) coal and onshore wind is not quite as big as you suggest.

    And further note that the earth has not warmed for the past 18 years

    Try looking at more than one dataset. Most suggest that the surface has indeed warmed over the past 18 years – probably at between 0.05 and 0.1 degrees per decade. Additionally, the climate as a whole continues to accrue energy.

    • Dr F C Aris says:

      Your quoted table does ladle on a ‘surcharge’ of about £50/MWh for carbon so you might just be right!

      But hey! I hereby declare levy on all windfarms for damage to wilderness landscapes of £100/MWh. See: job done! On shore windmills are not cost effective!

      If the earth has warmed on any dataset you can pull out of your straw sock by more than a gnat’s dick and you claim that’s significant then I suggest you take a statistics course.

      • But hey! I hereby declare levy on all windfarms for damage to wilderness landscapes of £100/MWh. See: job done! On shore windmills are not cost effective!

        So, I might be right but you conveniently make something up so that I’m wrong again. Convenient that.

        If the earth has warmed on any dataset you can pull out of your straw sock by more than a gnat’s dick and you claim that’s significant then I suggest you take a statistics course.

        And if you think that because the 2 sigma confidence interval intercepts zero that you can claim that there’s been no warming, then you should look up the definition of type II error.

    • Dr F C Aris says:

      I’d just like sigma to exceed the measurement resolution – that would be a good starting point.

    • Dr F C Aris says:

      And there our physics ends.

      I’m not here to provide a turorial on measurements, resolution and errors.

  9. Dr F C Aris says:

    The Sussex Energy Group!

    an oxymoron that rivals that of the

    Socialist Workers Party.

  10. Lewis Deane says:

    Professor Gordon MacKerron,

    It seems strange that, even if the contrary arguments come from alleged ‘right-wing nut jobs’ (I’m actually a ‘left-wing nut job’!), all funded by those ‘evil’ Koch brothers (the fantasy bete noir of American greenies), the only reply is just that ad hom. Almost as bad as using the red herring of SMRs, which was your ‘trick to hide’ the hollowness of your own arguments, a sounding brass and nothing more. But this is quite typical, the shallowness of argumentation, perhaps, on all sides. Oh for a grown up discussion! Not to be found here!

    • Mike says:

      We could have a grown up discussion if you wrote a grown up sentence. And also if all the reactionarys took the trouble to get the latest data on tumbling renewables costs and the huge subsidies on fossil fuels.

  11. Paul says:

    The title of this blog post describes Paterson’s speech as unremarkable, yet the first sentence states that it was extraordinary. It appears that it is the professor’s blog post that is nonsensical.

    The most nonsensical part is the denial of the fact that green taxes have pushed up energy bills.

  12. J S says:

    I take your point about ‘common sense’. Mine tells me that we actually do not need windfarms, and furthermore that we can scarcely afford them. They threaten the stability of the grid, threaten our access to electricity via such proposals as ‘smart meters’, and they divert resources from more sensible methods of massive energy generation. The farms also add to our energy costs, degrade our landscapes and seascapes, and transfer money from relatively poor people to a few relatively rich ones in exchange for these various harms.

  13. kolnai says:

    Mike’s a boy, ain’t he? Throughout this discussion ‘And Then There’s the Physics’ keeps his temper with ‘DR F C Aris’, though they go past each other on occasions.

    This is simply not good enough for ‘science-is-settled Mike’.

    He wants an end to these ‘reactionary types’ who insist on free speech. So he lets loose with the usual labels, clichés and stereotypes -‘nutty Nigel’ etc.. But, um..isn’t it ‘reactionaries’ who want to close down debate?

    If that’s right, the only ‘reactionary’ is…….Mike.

    Oh dear

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