Ahead of next week’s party conference, leading Tories tell RTCC where they stand on climate science, policy and scepticism
By Megan Darby
Climate change is a divisive issue on the right of UK politics.
One in five Conservative MPs say man-made climate change is “environmentalist propaganda”, according to a recent poll – showing a far more sceptical stance than Labour or Liberal Democrat counterparts.
Conservative former chancellor Nigel Lawson is the most vocal climate sceptic around, using his Global Warming Policy Foundation to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Recently sacked environment secretary Owen Paterson is to give the GWPF annual lecture next month.
Yet it was a Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, who was in New York this week showing his support for a global climate deal.
He promised when he took power to lead “the greenest government ever” – a clear statement of intent, whatever you think of his delivery.
And you can’t talk to a green Tory for long before they bring up former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Not best remembered as a tree-hugger, she nonetheless led calls for international action on climate change at the UN.
With the Conservative Party Conference coming up in Birmingham next week, RTCC spoke to three influential members of the party who are convinced of the scientific case for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
They have joined the advisory board of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), which aims to promote an informed debate on the issues.
Michael (now Lord) Howard is perhaps most famous for a 1997 grilling by Jeremy Paxman in which he was asked the same question 12 times – and declined to give a direct answer.
The interview was to do with crime. That Tory touchstone issue, along with immigration, lower taxes and clean hospitals, formed the centrepiece of the party’s (unsuccessful) 2005 election campaign under Lord Howard’s leadership.
He also promised, when Conservative leader, to “reassert Britain’s global leadership on climate change”.
His experience as environment secretary in John Major’s government, one of several ministerial roles in his career, gave him some authority on the matter.
Lord Howard tells RTCC: “I have accepted the science ever since I was environment secretary and attended Rio back in 1992. I have not changed my mind.”
Before the earth summit in Rio, Howard travelled to Washington to persuade then president George Bush Senior to get on board. Bush did indeed show up, although he agreed to emissions cuts only on a voluntary basis.
While he backs the ECIU’s efforts to increase public understanding of climate science, Lord Howard is reluctant to be drawn on the political or policy implications today.
“I have largely retired from active politics,” he says. “I don’t envisage myself as a leading proselyte for climate change.”
On Lord Lawson and his followers, Lord Howard will only say: “They have very firm views and they are entitled to those views.”
As for policy solutions, he offers: “In response to the challenges posed by climate change, you have to take a series of balanced decisions on what is an appropriate mitigating step and what is not. You have to evaluate rather carefully the costs of each measure.
“There is ample scope for differences of view on each mitigating measure. I have always thought much more attention should be given to nuclear power, for example. By no means everyone who accepts the science on climate change would agree with that. It is a broad church.”
Burning oil and gas is a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, which cause climate change.
Lord Howard does not see the two roles as contradictory and says ECIU is well aware of his involvement with the Somalian oil venture.
He says: “No-one suggests there is not going to be a need for oil in years to come, as part of the mix. It is perfectly legitimate to find that oil.”
“There is a lot of disinformation that flies around,” says Richard Benyon, explaining why he agreed to join the ECIU advisory board. “I thought this was a good way of making sure we get a balanced debate.”
He is prepared to be a little more outspoken against sceptics than Lord Howard, saying: “There are certain people who paint a rather simplistic view of issues like climate. They seem to be quoted out of all proportion to their expertise.”
GWPF director Benny Peiser has a sports science background, notes Benyon. Peiser emails MPs about three times a week “telling me how terrible the prevalent view of climate change is and how we should all ignore it and everything will be fine”.
On the other hand, Benyon and other Conservatives have met leading scientists who “quietly explained to us how serious all this is”.
On the GWPF’s founder, Benyon says: “I disagree with Lord Lawson. I thought he was an outstanding chancellor and he has got a brilliant mind, but I disagree with him on this.”
Benyon spent three and a half years as an environment minister before he was shunted to the backbenches in a reshuffle last October.
In stark comparison to his senior colleague, Owen Paterson, who was sacked in July, Benyon bowed out graciously. He wrote in his local paper that “good people need to be promoted”.
Paterson, on the other hand, took a column in the Telegraph to decry the influence of the “green blob” – his dismissive term for environmentalists and renewable energy advocates.
He praised Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and Canada’s Stephen Harper – both known for backtracking on climate action – and announced a think-tank he said would campaign against climate change regulations.
Benyon says Paterson is not a climate change denier, although he tactfully admits: “There may be a difference in belief about what should be done about it.”
The environment department has helped Cameron push through a green agenda, Benyon says, with measures to value “natural capital” and promote landscape-scale conservation.
“It is a frustration we have not been prepared to shout more about our achievements,” he adds, with the environment often seen as a lower electoral priority than jobs, schools and hospitals.
“The environment is fundamental to our economy. You would not be able to have schools or hospitals if you had a completely trashed environment.
“Sometimes you have to look above the warp and weave of politics to see there are macro issues.
“Climate change is one of the great challenges of our generation. If we don’t take it seriously, we will be making a big mistake.”
He is confident the party’s leader shares this view. “One of the reasons I supported [David Cameron] right from the start is he is somebody who gets this.”
As a backbench MP, Graham Stuart is engaged with the debate as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which scrutinises government policy.
He is also the chair of Globe International, a non-partisan network that aims to help legislators develop laws on climate change, natural capital accounting and forests.
“I have heard from lots of scientists over the years and I recognise the risks which the science suggests we face if we cannot find ways of limiting our total emissions,” says Stuart.
While he is convinced there is a need to act on climate change, he has “a lot of sympathy” for the sceptics in his party.
Peter Lilley, who was one of three Conservative MPs to vote against the UK’s Climate Change Act in 2008, and Lord Lawson “are not idiots and are not dishonest,” says Stuart.
He speaks to RTCC the day after a poll commissioned by PR Week claims to show the majority of Conservative MPs are sceptical of climate science.
Of 57 Conservative MPs surveyed, 53% said the theory of man-made climate change had not been “conclusively proved” and 18% said it was “environmentalist propaganda”.
Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were much more likely to agree with the third option, that it was “an established scientific fact” climate change was largely man-made.
Stuart is fuming. The poll is “specious and unhelpful,” he says. It “further alienates and solidifies a sense that the climate issue is one used by the left for its own purposes”.
The latest IPCC report says it is 95% certain human activities are causing climate change – not quite conclusive proof.
When people say things like “the debate is over”, that is a “red rag” to his colleagues, says Stuart, who pride themselves on being independent thinkers.
“There are colleagues who feel such is the vitriol, the partisan way that so much of the conversation is conducted, that they suspect it is some kind of left wing plot…
“Some of my sceptical colleagues think this left wing conspiracy will keep the poor poor. They have reason to believe that is a risk. They don’t deserve to be derided for that.”
He said measures to address climate change must be “affordable and politically acceptable”, making it a priority to bring down the costs of renewable energy.
“It is so important to get the right messages out there and focus on building a broader consensus on the need for action.”