A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The UK: end-of-term political review with respect to climate change and carbon claptrap.....

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, seems to be exhausted, and he is currently fighting for his 'legacy' on many fronts, with both Old Europe and New Europe; with the anti-Iraq War brigade, who will never forgive him, whatever else he achieves; with the rumbling Left of his own Labour Party; with his Chancellor, Gordon Brown (whose vaulting ambition may well o'er leap itself); and with the great intractables and bottomless pits of education and the National Health Service (NHS). With respect to climate change, Blair has learned painfully the stark realities of international politics, a politics in which the US, Australia, and a group of fast-developing countries all take a different view from that of his ever-sanctimonious, but largely failing, EU partners. Despite the genial efforts of Margaret Beckett, his Secretary of State, Blair increasingly exhibits declining energy for this issue, and he is delaying, yet again, the vital (and urgent) decision on nuclear power, following a disastrously pusillanimous energy white paper issued during his last administration. Blair's leadership of the G8 and of the EU finish this year, and both are looking bedraggled, although Blair undoubtedly deserves credit for focusing the world's attention on the plight of Africa.

And the longer-term prognosis? I should expect little further of any real significance on climate change. The economics are, at last, receiving serious scrutiny. More importantly, the New Year will be absorbed (and absorbing) with bruising domestic encounters, especially on education, the NHS, civil rights, and a range of other proposals, many bitterly contended by his own Party - and not just by the usual suspects. In addition, Cabinet unity will be strained, John Prescott, his once loyal Deputy, having, only this morning, broken ranks over education policy. As 'President' Blair nears the end, intriguing and manoeuvering with respect to the next 'Court of 10 Downing Street' will become endemic among ministers, Brownites versus Blairites.

Secondly, David Cameron has risen to power in the Conservative Party largely by avoiding spelling-out any detailed policies. He has devolved the initial stages of policy-making to various policy groupings, the environment ('Quality of Life' issues) having been allotted (most short-sightedly many think) to the Kyoto-loving and burger-touting John Selwyn Gummer and to the nuclear-power-loathing 'eye candy', Zac Goldsmith. Superficially, this is depressing, but the party and press are already hinting at dissent. I do not see a Conservative Party opposing a return to nuclear power, and, if they support wind farms, for example, they will enrage much of their rural hinterland. I also think that the harsh truths of international climate-change politics will soon begin to constrain any 'Little Britain' tendencies that might be tempted to surface. Moreover, business, in the past a natural Conservative supporter, will take kindly neither to further carbon taxes, curbs, and red tape nor to a Conservative leader, however young and dynamic, who starts to espouse authoritarian, socialistic, 'command-and-control' measures.

Moreover, Cameron has already been caught out on air over the shallowness of his climate-change politics, and by Today's big beast, John Humphrys, too. When asked what kind of action he would support, Cameron limply came up with biofuels. Humphrys was swift to make a jibe about this, noting, quite correctly, that many environmentalists [including, I might add, souls at the Environment Agency] believe biofuels to be extremely bad for the environment (and for biodiversity). It was not a good start on the details, and Cameron lamely replied that this was why he was setting up a policy group. All this leads one to question Cameron's experience, not to mention the wisdom of basing 'policies' on liberal-elite, metropolitan dinner-table chat and on a rather crass attempt to win over the wetter, 'beards-and-sandals' supporters of the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems).

And then, thirdly, we have Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Lib-Dems, a man who appears increasingly to be a lame duck, one badly wounded politically. Inevitably, Kennedy is the burgeoning subject of media speculation and risible commentary and excoriating cartoons. This is not entirely his fault. Kennedy is, somewhat wearisomely one guesses, trying to hold together a 'party' which is visibly splitting between the authoritarian 'Green' lefties, mentioned above, and true Gladstonian liberals. The sense in Westminster is that Kennedy will not remain leader for much longer, and that, for him, it is very much the Season of "Look behind you!" On the environment, the Lib-Dems inhabit Toytown. They are charmingly utopian in their approach to climate change and to energy, but they can't be taken as a serious contender for government. Until the Lib-Dems learn to face up to harsh political facts (like nuclear power), they will make little serious progress. They are even split over issues like wind farms, glibly supporting them nationally, while often opposing them locally. The thought of the Lib-Dems in power is terrifying.

All other parties require no comment, as they mainly add to the gaity of the nation, but little else. The Green Party is rather like the Lib-Dems, but with even more Green wellies and flowers in the hair.

Many people to whom I talk thus feel disenfranchised. The wishy-washy political consensus over climate change is sapping adult, serious debate in the UK, especially with regard to the economics of the issue and to energy. The last thing we want is a cross-party agreement on the subject. We are crying out for some hard-headed politicians to take a tough, realistic look at climate change and energy. Kyoto isn't working, and, in truth, the Protocol has presided over a massive increase in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. The Montreal conference will make no change to this. There is even evidence that carbon trading is resulting in an increase in emissions. Yet, UK politicians feel bound to continue to mouth the rhetoric of Kyoto. Accordingly, the political gap between fact and rhetoric grows ever wider - a chasm of carbon claptrap. And this is a chasm eagerly exploited by all the big energy companies, who will happily play 'global warming' every which way, chasing the money wherever it politically pops up.

By contrast, in the real world, it is increasingly obvious to any objective observer that the focus of debate has already shifted to adaptation to inevitable climate change, to technological innovation and transfer, and to the countries of the Pacific Rim, from India and Indonesia, through China, to Brazil and Mexico.

Tony Blair knows this, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, he now lacks drive, being hog-tied by domestic battles and EU squabbles. The 'Little Britain Green' stance taken by David Cameron is potentially a disaster, and it does make one wonder about his inexperience and to question whether he is too enmeshed in thirties-year old, Notting Hill agenda-setting. Moreover, how does this stance square with his comments about needing more roads, about making the UK more competitive, and about cutting red tape for business? Meanwhile, back in Toytown, the Lib-Dems are plunging into pantomime, and, if they are not careful, they could well be blown away, along with with their utopian wind farms.

Thus, beyond a world-weary, but still driven, Mr. Blair, climate-change politics in the UK has something of the nursery about it. We are crying out for a brave, senior politician who can openly declare that the Kyoto Protocol is a disaster and that we must put our efforts into maintaining a viable and flexible economy, one that can support technological innovation and transfer, which can sustain economic growth, and which can adapt to climate change, whatever it throws at us [see: the following comment and economic critique, December 19]. We need a politician who can ignore the daily dose of doom served up by 'newspapers' like The Independent, with Britain, at one-and-the-same-time, one might add, turning into an Arctic tundra, a Mediterranean olive grove, a land of flood, a land of drought,and one with more species - er - or fewer species. We need a politician who truly cares for the environment sensu lato (including the urban environment), not one who is blown off course by every environmentalist whim, stunt, and shock-horror.

And the bottom line? We need a politician who will provide us, urgently, with an energy policy that will work and who will energise Britain for the future.

Philip, time to speak out, and for some political bravery. Carbon claptrap is warping British politics. Late lunch.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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