Tory retreat on climate change is senseless

Published in The Guardian (October 29th, 2012)

The year after David Cameron became Tory party leader, he did something party leaders normally never do: he spoke at a fringe meeting of his party conference, such was his passion for the subject under discussion. I remember it well, since I asked him to do the debate and chaired the event.

The issue was the environment. Cameron disarmed an audience filled with green activists, impressing them as he batted back questions.This was, after all, the cause so central to his drive to decontaminate the Conservative party image; remember those husky pictures, the green logo, the exhortations to “Vote Blue, Go Green”.

Within days of taking office, Cameron declared his coalition would be “the greenest government ever”. For all the froth of his detractors he can confidently back up this claim, the tone set from the start with support for the 10:10 campaign. Labour argued it was impossible to meet the target yet Whitehall exceeded it; within one year, it cut emissions by 13.8%.

It is logical for Conservatives to set the pace on the environment; it is about conservation of resources, after all, while reducing Whitehall’s carbon footprint cut government spending with lower energy bills. Margaret Thatcher, a scientist by training, was admirably far-sighted on this subject, warning 24 years ago of the danger greenhouse gases posed to the planet. By painting his party green, Cameron was true to her legacy.

With each passing day, evidence grows that Lady Thatcher was right to raise the alarm. Most worrying was the extent of Arctic ice melt this summer, outpacing even the most dire predictions. September was the 331st consecutive month in which the globe’s temperature exceeded last century’s average; the odds of this happening by chance are greater than the number of stars in the universe.

Given this rising tide of evidence and the overwhelming strength of scientific opinion, it is strange the Conservatives appear to be developing cold feet. There is a growing internal backlash against the green agenda, one threatening to torpedo both the public trust in politicians and the party’s stuttering modernisation project.

Most visible was the promotion of Owen Paterson to the environment portfolio – a man hailed by ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie as the only senior British Tory who could easily win election as a US Republican. If that is not enough evidence against him for this job, he claims to be a “realist” on global warming, opposes wind farms and wants to cancel green energy plans.

After hearing Paterson’s risible speech to party conference earlier this month – which failed to mention climate change – one green-minded minister said to me: “Well, at least the battle lines are clear now.” But his was not the only alarming move: John Hayes, who has also opposed wind farms, was moved to energy minister while Peter Lilley, one of the most hardline sceptics, was appointed last week to the Commons energy and climate change committee.

Meanwhile the chancellor George Osborne is leading attempts to cut subsidies for renewable energies, abandon decarbonisation targets and embark on a huge expansion of gas power plants and shale gas development. The dispute inside the coalition over the forthcoming energy bill is so heated there has already been one special meeting of the “quad” group of senior ministers, with another pencilled in for this week.

To his credit, Cameron mentioned green issues three times in his conference speech – unlike Ed Miliband, who despite being a former climate change minister ignored them in his own party address. But the prime minister is supporting Osborne on the energy bill, hoping a ban or tax on plastic bags will underline sufficiently their green credentials (although even this minor measure is causing concern that it might be seen as adding to the cost of living).

Ill-informed loudmouths have long opposed policies to tackle climate change. Sadly, their views appear to be gaining ascendancy, such is the Tory leadership’s desire to appease the right, combined with the fear of appearing elitist by endorsing measures that might affect the cost of living. “It has become a totemic issue,” said one senior Tory. “Either you are a tough Essex man in touch with the people or you are dismissed as an effete metropolitan toff.”

The environment is far from the first concern of focus groups, although there is clear support for green policies. But if you believe humans are causing climate change, there can be no issue of comparable importance. Regardless, the debate has moved on in recent years: it is no longer about shackling business but about supporting a booming green economy that employs more people than the car and telecom industries combined, with huge export potential to the fastest-growing parts of the world.

China alone is investing £1 trillion in the low-carbon economy over the next five years; little wonder foreign secretary William Hague has emerged as an unlikely cabinet champion. Meanwhile such is the political prevarication, global energy giants are threatening to withdraw massive investment in Britain. To be anti-green now is to be anti-growth.

Cameron has not given a speech on the environment since taking office. Yet along with health, this was the issue most personally identified with his transformation of the Tories. We saw the damage caused by bungled health reforms; imagine the dismay and distrust caused by shooting badgers, stopping wind farms, supporting airport expansion and strangling the green economy.

There is a danger the short-term search for favourable headlines blows away any long-term sense of strategy. This is why the prime minister must demonstrate his continuing passion for green politics, which played such a prominent role in making him his party’s first prime minister for a generation. Whether politically, economically or scientifically, it would be senseless and self-defeating to give ground on this crucial cause.

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