A senior figure in the British Conservative Party said recently that the “rational thing” in relation to efforts to meet the UK climate change targets is to “move away from the current high-cost mitigation efforts, efforts which also involve huge investments in unproductive renewables, huge changes in lifestyles as well as crushing economic growth.”
According to the right-wing Daily Telegraph, “Lord Frost said mitigation should be pursued by ‘investing in effective energy production, nuclear, gas, other technologies as they emerge, and meanwhile spend the manageable sums that we need to on adaptation so we can adjust to the perfectly manageable consequences of slowly rising temperatures as they emerge.’” Lord Frost was the chief British negotiator on Brexit and remains an influential figure on the right of his party.
It’s rare to find delusional thinking about climate change set out so frankly. It is a good opportunity to see just how wrong Lord Frost is.
The biggest fallacy is that the consequences of global heating are “perfectly manageable.” Let’s assume that Lord Frost is, in fact, the stereotypical English xenophobic his opponents describe and that we can ignore the disappearance of low-lying island states, the desertification of the Sahel and a hundred other impacts beyond his sceptered isle. The British and Irish islands are at very high risk of short, medium and long-term harm from climate change.
There is no mitigation for the most immediate threat. Specialists are scouring marshes across southern England for signs of colonisation by the tiger mosquito. These are the mosquitoes that carry dengue fever, Chikungunya, West Nile fever and Zika virus. None are currently transmitted in the UK. All-cause serious — sometimes fatal — illness and, maybe most to the point for Lord Frost, all-cause serious economic loss. This mosquito has not been bred in the UK in recorded history but has already been established a couple of hundred kilometres away in France. If these mosquitoes could be managed, Filipinos would not be dying of dengue, Brazilian babies would not be born with Zika-induced birth defects, Florida would not be on constant watch for West Nile outbreaks and millions of Chikungunya patients in Latin America would not be battling heart failure.
A transformative effect might occur in the next 20 years. The north of London is on the 51st parallel; so is the border between Québec and Labrador, where Labrador’s capital sits. London rarely drops below zero centigrade (32 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter: five centimetres (two inches) of snow halts trains and closes airports. Labrador City, only a bit north of London, has a mean high of about -16 C in January and a mean low of about -26 C (-15 F). The average snowfall in Labrador City in November is almost 40 cm (about 14 inches). Admittedly, Labrador City is a long way inland and London is close to the coast, but the big difference is the Atlantic Meridional Circulation, better known as the Gulf Stream. A study in Nature in July 2023, said it might shut down between 2025 and 2095 if greenhouse gasses rise at their current pace. Lord Frost’s name might become eponymous because the UK could not easily or otherwise manage an average temperature drop of even five degrees centigrade.
Summers will be worse. According to a UK Met Office study in 2020, peak summer temperatures of 40 degrees C will be common by 2100 if global heating continues on the trajectory implied by Lord Frost’s proposal to keep using oil and gas as the world currently does. Lord Frost is right when he said that many more currently die as a result of the cold than as a result of heat. Historically, about 2,000 people a year have died of heat-related illnesses in the UK. But, a thousand extra people died during just three days of a heatwave in 2022 when the temperature briefly reached 40 degrees. Could the UK manage this with air conditioning and structural changes to buildings. Of course, but if the UK were good at these things, there would be no excess winter mortality from the cold — the vulnerable would have homes and be able to heat them.
A political journalist says that when Lord Frost explained the Brexit deal he had negotiated to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Johnson is alleged to have replied, “F***ity, f***, Frostie”. That reaction may seem mild if the UK government listens to Frost’s advice on climate change.