Climate change blues: The Tories’ green retoxification confirmed
'Vote blue, go green,' the Conservatives told voters in the 2008 local election campaign. But Owen Paterson's startlingly frank disavowal of climate change this week marks the final demise of the Tories' green detoxification.
It's only in this particular set of circumstances that once-senior Conservatives can be persuaded to reveal their true colours. Paterson, as environment secretary, served in a critical job where sensitivity to the decarbonisation agenda was essential. Eyebrows were raised over his dogmatic adherence to the badger cull, despite the equivocal nature of the scientific evidence. Three months ago he was sacked – and made clear he was not happy about it. Now he has spoken out against the policies he voted for.
Here's the key extract from his speech on Wednesday night:
"In pursuing the current decarbonisation route, we end up with the worst of all possible worlds. When there is a shortfall in electricity production, emergency measures will have to be taken – what in Whitehall is known as 'distressed policy correction'. Bluntly, building gas or even coal in a screaming hurry. The UK ends up worse off than if it adopted less ambitious but achievable targets. Reining in unrealistic green ambitions allows us to become more 'green' than the Greens. We are the only country to have legally bound ourselves to the 2050 targets – and certainly the only one to bind ourselves to a doomed policy. In the absence of a legally binding international agreement, which looks unlikely given disagreement within EU member states and the position of the Bric countries, the Climate Change Act should be effectively suspended and eventually repealed."
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Paterson attacks climate science, too, saying "many policymakers still have to catch up with the facts" and noting "the forecast effects of climate change have been consistently and widely exaggerated thus far". He cites the reappearance of a supposedly extinct snail to reinforce his argument that the "academic integrity of science" is being imperilled.
Such a clear rejection of the orthodoxy of climate change – in particular, the Climate Change Act 2008 which legislates to ensure greenhouse gas emissions will fall to 80% of their 1990 levels by 2050 – should be of serious concern to environmentalists. So too should Paterson's comments about the 'green blob', a variation on Michael Gove's theme. To a right-winger, an unmoveable 'blob' of experts, academics and practitioners is the left-winger's equivalent of the Establishment: frustratingly cohesive, resistant to change and fundamentally wrong.
Its existence is worrying because it implies there is an alternative. The brief era of climate change consensus is in danger of ending prematurely; that's the real significance of Paterson's comments. His views form part of a growing undercurrent of climate change scepticism on the right of British politics which environmentalists are yet to fully counter.
Climate change has stalled in the last 18 years says Owen Paterson. Unless, you look at an actual graph that is. pic.twitter.com/Mt3UrIkd8l
— Anthony Painter (@anthonypainter) October 16, 2014
In parliament, the sceptics mostly come from that troublesome section of Cameron's backbenches which opposed their leader's moderating agenda.
• Christopher Chope has argued there's no point pursuing decarbonisation because the rest of the world's going to continue pumping out emissions regardless.
• Peter Lilley has been a leading critic of the Stern Report and a troublesome voice on the energy and climate change select committee.
• Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury committee, has said there is "little evidence to support the view that the correct response [to climate change] at this time should be to rapidly decarbonise the economies of the world".
• John Redwood has shrugged his shoulders at humanity's ability to affect the Earth's temperature.
• David Davis has argued that "we should not sacrifice Britain's economic recovery on the altar of climate change".
These are the usual suspects who have resisted Cameron's modernisation agenda for years. On climate change, though, they reflect a growing body of opinion which isn't fully represented in the Commons. In the first decade of the century the percentage of Brits who were prepared to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment slipped from 43 to 26. The 2009 email hacking revealing dubious practices by climate change scientists at the University of East Anglia didn't help either. It's thought to have done huge damage to what Douglas Carswell, then a Tory MP, called the "lunatic consensus".
Carswell's subsequent defection to Ukip reflects the deep suspicion many Kippers feel towards decarbonisation. This is a policy are where the frontbench consensus in Westminster simply doesn't match up with the questioning views of many ordinary people. The threat posed by Nigel Farage's party in the looming general election is providing a big incentive for Tories within government to put the brakes on the policies they committed to long ago. I've privately spoken to former ministers who have said their biggest achievement in this government has been scuppering this or that green measure.
A Met Office map showing the extent of climate change
All of this takes us back to Paterson, and the spotlight his comments shine on attitudes to climate change among senior Tories in the government he's now left. You would never see Cameron or George Osborne railing back from their very public support for the Climate Change Act in 2008. They couldn't possibly afford to make such a drastic U-turn. But that doesn't mean they don't feel the threat of Ukip, or feel the pressure of growing public cynicism.
Former Environment Minister Owen Paterson: "Let's rip up the Climate Change Act". Bravo! Well said that man.
— Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) October 12, 2014
Public rhetoric – like promising to lead the "greenest government ever" – is one thing. Deeds in government, not words, are what Cameron should really be judged on. And in the latest report from the environmental audit select committee, that judgement has been entirely negative. It found ministers haven't made satisfactory progress in any of the ten environmental areas it identified. Three areas – air pollution, biodiversity and flood protection – were judged to have actually deteriorated since 2010. Progress on climate change was judged to be unsatisfactory.
The policy may have been disappointing, but there has at least been some progress. Officials at the Department for Energy and Climate Change are institutionally devoted to the issue, by definition. What's really concerning are the noises coming out of Whitehall – not the public rhetoric, but the embarrassing private noises.
A Downing Street official talks about "green crap"; the chancellor reportedly refers to the "environmental Taliban"; now we have Paterson attacking the Climate Change Act. They reflect a slow and worrying shift away from consensus. It is a troubling development that imperils more progress in the next parliament. Who can confidently say Paterson and his cohorts will not drag a future Conservative government still further away from decarbonisation in the five years to 2020?