It was an evening plagued by powerpoint problems and empty seats for the director of the UK’s leading climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), who had for one night ventured far from the organisation’s offices in Westminster’s Tufton Street to the small Devon town of Totnes.
For a group that boasts numerous high-profile Westminster connections — including its founder Lord Nigel Lawson, hereditary peer Matt Ridley, and multiple major Conservative party donors — its real-world impact seemed distinctly underwhelming.
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Out of the 100 or so chairs laid out in the faux-grandeur of a ballroom of a local hotel last Tuesday night, less than a third were filled. Well-meaning local organiser Ian Phillips had sent out 400 leaflets advertising the public talk, carefully avoiding the numerous notice boards around Totnes, instead selecting letterboxes and emailing other local Conservative party members. There appeared to be very few people under the age of 40 at the talk, and even fewer women.
The GWPF’s director Benny Peiser was there to regale the small audience with tales of Boris Johnson, and impart his views on the problems with the UK’s march towards a low carbon energy system. Before he began, there was a brief word from Phillips, who is a dedicated follower of the group. He pointedly explained to the audience that anyone is free to ask a question no matter what their views are — something as he claims he was denied the opportunity to do at a recent Liberal Democrat event.
Another audience member then stood up to welcome Peiser to Totnes, and guide everyone’s attention to an empty plastic box at the back of the room for collecting donations to recoup the cost of their guest’s travel to Devon — perhaps an odd request on behalf of the director of an organisation that had over £350,000 of donations listed in its latest accounts. Nonetheless, the request is repeated at the following morning’s Q&A session, where Phillips revealed organising the events has cost him £300.
Phillips greeted me with delight when I presented my credentials to him, pleased a reporter from London had come to the talk. He admitted checking the Totnes Extinction Rebellion Facebook group, where he said he found activists discussing the event, and wondered whether that might prove the story of the evening.
That turned out to not be the case, and Peiser was left in peace to take the audience on a whistle-stop tour of the new Prime Minister’s fluctuating views on climate change: from Johnson’s days espousing climate science denial in his Spectator and Telegraph columns, through to his current techno-optimism towards a problem he says he believe exists, via a recent refusal to join other party leaders in a climate change debate.
Beyond this political analysis, much of Peiser’s talk focused on his belief that energy prices rise with increased climate action; a position contrary to that of policy experts, who point to the long-term savings provided by cheap renewables and energy efficiency policies, as well as the rising costs of fossil fuels.
Nonetheless, Peiser warned that “at some point people will snap.” The idea that climate action is the preserve of those that can afford it is a recurring theme throughout his talk, along with warnings that the UK could experience a ‘yellow vests’ moment in response to higher energy costs.
The GWPF and the issue of Brexit are no strangers. The day before the talk, the GWPF put out a press release headlined, ‘Working Class and Leave Voters Favour Lower Energy Bills Over Climate Action’, based on a poll it commissioned, and which Peiser mentions several times in Totnes. The group was also named by whistleblower Shamir Sanni as one of nine organisations that met in advance of the Brexit referendum to agree campaign lines. Peiser strongly denies that the GWPF is trying to turn climate action into a culture war, however, telling me the “whole purpose” of his talk was to avoid turning climate policy debates “into a Brexit issue.”
Throughout the event, Peiser presents himself as a sober voice of reason and takes great care to place himself in the ‘middle’ of the climate debate. He simply requests governments spend more time discussing options rather than racing towards climate action, he says.
Peiser maintains this apparently middle-of-the-road approach until faced with a question from one audience member about Earth Overshoot Day and the planet’s finite resources. Suddenly, Peiser is arguing that humans have an infinite amount of resources to draw on, and won’t be running into any difficulty. The questioner storms out of the room, frustrated at Peiser’s refusal to engage with his rebuttals. His departure is accompanied by much shaking of heads at this rare attempt to counteract what Peiser is saying.
Peiser also offers no comment on the polemic from the GWPF’s Science Editor, the former journalist David Whitehouse, published on the organisation’s website the day before his talk. The blog post bemoans the “spurious accuracy” and “scientific nonsense” of global temperature data, catalysed by wide reporting of NASA analysis showing the last decade was the warmest on record – interpreted by many as a reminder of the need for urgent action.
Most of the audience clearly feel alienated by the growth of climate activism. They are a friendly and welcoming group, with many seemingly looking for a community of people that hold similar views to them in a world where climate science denial is ever diminishing. One Q&A attendee requests that everyone in the room go around and clearly state where they personally stand on climate change in an attempt to confirm that there are at least 18 other people in Totnes who agree.
The event is an insight into how climate denial exists outside Trump-obsessed media headlines and Westminster’s corridors, where the GWPF’s connections ensure it still has some influence on the debate. Climate science deniers are increasingly finding themselves in rooms like these — friendly but largely empty, and haunted by technical failures.
Image credit: Frances Rankin