This DeSmog UK epic history post details the 2003 heatwave in Europe and the pivotal moment it played for climate denier Lord Lawson.
Lord Nigel Lawson and his second wife, Thérese, made £1 million from selling their idyllic six-bedroom mansion and its surrounding ten acres of land in Northamptonshire during the housing boom.
The retired couple then bought and renovated, at great cost, a serenely picturesque neo-classical Armagnac house just outside Vic-Fezensac in the heart of the grape-growing region of Gascony in the south of France.
The grand old 1870s vintage mansion stands well back from the quiet country road with a swimming pool, row of cypresses and a formal bed of roses decorating the sun-dappled grounds.
On His Own
By 2003, Lawson had separated from his wife and was living by himself, while his neighbours seldom spoke to him on account of the fact he spoke such poor French. Kate Weinberg, of the Telegraph, had the pleasure of visiting the former Chancellor at his chateau.
“To spend a day with Lord Lawson is to spend a day with someone who is used to being on his own”, she reported. “For the man who kept his distance from his colleagues in the Conservative Cabinet, who fell out publicly and bitterly with Margaret Thatcher over Europe, and who won – at best – the respect, but never the love, of the British people, it seems that being unpopular is both a fact of life and an article of faith.”
Lawson told Weinberg: “I frequently had to be prepared to say something that I knew would mean large numbers of people would vilify me and say the most appalling things. If you are confident enough to face a barrage of hostility you can make things happen.”
Simionato Angel, a Post Office official, lives within sight of Lawson’s “magnificent” home. “There are antiques which are really really beautiful. Paintings, everything.”
However, the neighbours are rarely, if ever, invited in. “I’ve known him for 10 years. He’s not a very warm person but I’ve got nothing to say to him as he’s nice and polite. His head is somewhere else. The language handicaps him. He can’t communicate.”
Lawson may have been preoccupied with his business. As hancellor, he sold British industry to the highest bidder because private industry, the argument goes, is more efficient than state bureaucracy. But, as chairman of the Central Europe Trust, efficiency does not seem to have been the priority.
During 2003, the venture capitalists reported a loss of £815,000 with turnover falling to its worst result since 1991. Charles Jonscher, the chief executive, saw his salary rise to £188,000 and dividends of £195,000 to the shareholders, including Lawson.
Jonscher told me the company was, in fact, doing well and the loss was just something accountants like to report. There was some good news. Lawson’s firm was engaged in talks with the Polish petrochemical conglomerate Grupa Lotos about financing its proposed $540m modernisation project.
The summer of 2003 was yet another record-setting year for global average temperatures and, during August, much of Europe suffered one of the deadliest heatwaves in living memory. More than 35,000 people died as a result of the extraordinary heat: 15,000 in France alone.
Continental Europe suffered raging forest fires, while the great rivers dried to a trickle. The months of June, July and August were by far the warmest ever recorded at the time in western and central Europe, with temperatures 3.78°C higher than the long-term average.
Professor Phil Jones, Director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, told reporters the extreme heat had to be directly attributed to global warming.
“This is quite remarkable,” Jones told the Independent. The newspaper concluded: “It was the summer, scientists now realise, when global warming at last made itself unmistakably felt.”
Lawson rather enjoyed his summer in the large, airy old house with its pool and handyman. “As it happens, I spent the summer of 2003 in south-west France myself, and found it perfectly tolerable, but it was clearly a hardship for some.”
The English émigré may have formed a different view had he spoken to any of the farmers who were trying to survive from the ever-parched land that surrounds his home.
Elaine Canezin, who regularly sold Lawson £600 cases of his favourite locally produced Armagnac, has seen local lakes dry up and the grapes burst on the vines because of the increasing temperatures. Recently, she has lost 20 percent of her crops to the dry summers and is thinking of ending production of her Armagnac.
She told me that Lawson “is very much in a hurry… this man comes here quickly, he writes the cheque, he doesn’t come in the house, and, hop, goodbye he’s gone!”
She added: “There’s less harvesting in the last few years because it’s hot. Very little rain. When we water the flowerpots, the water overflows because it doesn’t absorb.”
Another neighbour, Isabelle Callaret, has a document bearing the royal seal of King Louis XIV proving that her family has been farming in the region since 1709, and she has lived in the same farmhouse since she was born in 1977.
Farms in the area used to grow vines, cereal and corn crops, and graze cows. But, the lack of rain has limited what they can grow. She has been forced to take out “very expensive insurance” because of the erratic weather, which often destroys her crops, even though each year her young family barely break even.
During the summer of 2003, she lost almost everything as crop fires raged around her house. “It was awful. It burnt so much, I don’t know how much we lost.” If such heatwaves were to become more frequent, she would have to give up farming.
“It’s already quite hard,” she said. “If we lose a year, we have nothing left; that would be terrible. Losing a year could mean shrinking.”
Mr Seguin works on a farm a short drive from Lawson’s home. He said: “I almost died and, like a lot of farmers, we struggle because it’s too hot in Bordeaux.”
As the local farmers struggled to survive the heat, Lawson appears to have had a brainwave: that climate change was not happening.
Years later, his Global Warming Policy Foundation now places great emphasis on the fact the global average temperature on the surfaces of the land had not risen for a decade. But, this cannot be the reason he first became a sceptic.
Next up in the DeSmog UK history series we meet David Henderson, who accidentally became one of the IPCC’s fiercest opponents.
Photo: The Telegraph via Creative Commons