On 'Climate,' Boris Johnson's Losing Wager

Tom Finnerty20 Apr, 2024 5 Min Read
Blaise Pascal: Wanna bet?

Aside from Pierre Poilievre's keynote address, the highlight of the recent Canada Strong & Free conference was a panel, moderated by our very own Founding Editor John O'Sullivan, in which former British prime minister Boris Johnson and former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott batted back and forth about the issues of the day.

The panel opened with a lengthy discussion on foreign policy, on which the two ex-P.M.s were in general agreement. Hamas is bad, we -- and by "we" they seemed to mean America -- should be doing more to support Ukraine, etc. But it was hard to get a good feel for Abbott's positioning on these topics as, true to form, Johnson rarely stopped speaking. Questions for the panel were dominated by Boris, questions for Boris were dominated by Boris, and questions for Abbott were dominated by Boris. Johnson ensured that the spotlight was trained on him, a talent which propelled him to the top of the greasy pole of British politics over the course of many years, until eventually everyone got sick of it and he got the boot.


In any event, at some point the conversation turned to an area on which they disagree, namely "climate" policy, with O'Sullivan pointing out that Boris had "made net-zero almost a flagship policy of [his] administration, after Brexit," and called on Johnson to defend himself:

My question to you is this: If net-zero is a policy which you passionately believe in and want to succeed, how do you deal with the fact that the sacrifices it requires and calls for are just not going to be accepted by the electorate? That's becoming clearer every day. And furthermore, it's hard to justify those sacrifices when, in the case of Britain for example, we're responsible for less than one percent of world carbon emissions, and secondly, in the case of the British, they are contributing so little compared to what the Chinese and others are doing.

Johnson immediately seemed flustered. He knew that, surrounded by Canadian conservatives who recognize that energy is the backbone of their economy and who rightly associate net-zero with Justin Trudeau and his activist cronies, he was unlikely to get a friendly reception. So he tossed out a few quips with an eye towards turning down the temperature, mentioning that in his former days as a climate skeptic journalist he used to joke that you could cover Britain with wind turbines and “it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding,” and suggesting that Canada could "definitely do with a bit of global warming" because of its frigid climate.

But eventually he came to the meat of it -- Boris had changed his opinion on "climate change," he said, because once he got into power, he "got the scientists in," and "really put them through their paces."

And in the end I thought, well look, here's what I really think about this. It's possible it's a load of nonsense. But it's also possible -- and I've got to be humble, I did no science after about the age of about thirteen -- so I had to be humble in the face of what these scientists were telling me.... And so I said I'm going to take a bet. A Pascal's Wager! You remember Pascal's Wager? I said "I'm gonna believe in this, because if I'm wrong, I haven't really lost anything much. But if I'm right, well, it will have saved humanity a great deal of misery, because if you have an exponential warming of the world, it could be very very serious indeed.

It is hard to describe exactly the feeling in the room when it dawned on everyone what Johnson was getting at with his Pascal's Wager reference. We "haven't lost anything much" if we spend trillions of dollars -- engaging in what Sir Iain Duncan Smith called the "largest engineering project ever undertaken -- in order to transition the global economy from safe, reliable energy sources like oil and natural gas to utterly unproven-at-scale sources like wind and solar? To say what he meant is to disprove it. It's madness.

Furthermore, one can hear in his reasoning echoes of Johnson's utterly authoritarian Covid 19 response. For the first few days he seemed to be leaning towards a Swedish-style, "let the virus run it's course" response. But then the scientists came in and said that millions will die if he went that route, and Johnson caved without a second thought. Except, of course, he never really believed it, as evidenced by the maskless office party which ultimately was the proximate cause of his ouster from office. Pascal's Wager has certainly done a great deal of damage to Britain since Boris entered public life, a fact which might have brought some satisfaction to that French polymath.

Abbott: "Folly of the first order."

Luckily for all of us, Boris's shame was Abbott's gain. When Johnson finally gave up on his meager defense -- he went on for a good long while saying nothing in particular after the above -- Abbott stepped in and said that Boris shouldn't have let the so-called experts off so easy. ("Well, I don't have your scientific confidence, Tony," Johnson shot back.) Abbott continued:

There are obviously factors in climate change way beyond mankind's carbon dioxide emissions. Because if mankind's carbon dioxide emissions were the only things that mattered, we would never have had the Ice Ages, we would never have had previous periods of climate change. So I want to make three points. First, there is no "climate emergency." Second, it's far from clear that that mankind's carbon dioxide is the only or even the main factor in climate. And third, trying to turn the world upside in order to reduce our emissions to net-zero by a particular date I just think is folly of the first order.

The thing is that thus far the Green Agenda has given us much higher power prices, and in the process we have effectively deindustrialized by exporting most of our emissions intensive industries to countries which are less fastidious about this than we are, at least one of whom, China, is our great geopolitical competitor.... My mantra when I was prime minister was this: That climate does change, that we have to accept that mankind might be making a difference, and that we should be trying to reduce emissions... but not if it means big job losses, the end of manufacturing in [our] country, and massive attacks on people's cost of living.

By the end of the climate exchange -- and there was a good bit more, give it a watch below -- it's safe to say that the crowd, which had initially been a bit star struck by Boris, had fallen in love with Abbot by the conclusion. That was because, though a less flashy figure, Abbott actually stood for something. Meanwhile, Johnson ultimately showed that he was all fluff. Johnson broadcast something which was apparent to anyone who watched him closely as prime minister -- that beyond the quips and the bit of charm, the ruffled hair and rumbled tie, that there's not much there at all.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.


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