‘Rude’ and ‘touchy’ climate sceptics losing UK battle, says Lord Deben

Conservative peer questions Lord Lawson’s care for poor, claims his budgets while chancellor suggest otherwise

(Flickr/  Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group)

Lord Deben pictured in 2013 (Flickr/ Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group)

By Ed King

The head of the UK’s independent climate change watchdog has dismissed suggestions the recent bonfire of green regulations is a sign the government is adopting a more sceptical stance on global warming.

This month’s budget saw taxes on clean energy hiked, purse strings for fossil fuels relaxed, incentives for cleaner cars weakened and a move to privatise the country’s flagship Green Investment Bank.

Lord Deben told RTCC he was assured chancellor George Osborne “gets it” on climate change, arguing it was “not unreasonable” to review taxes designed to promote low carbon energy.

The head of the Climate Change Committee – which tracks government progress towards a 2050 goal to slash emissions 80% on 1990 levels – added he felt climate sceptics were now “less and less credible” within governing circles.

Deben said his fellow peers Lord Ridley and Lord Lawson – longtime critics of UK efforts to tackle global warming – were “dogmatists” repeating what he termed a “pre-rehearsed line”.

Lawson, founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic think tank and Ridley, a Times columnist who owns a coal mine, have repeatedly called on government to reconsider its carbon cutting plans.

“Their influence is less and less I am happy to say. The facts of science, life and measured views of people like Pope Francis are undermining them. They have become just rude instead of arguing and they are so touchy.”

Lord Lawson’s branding of the recent Papal Encyclical on the environment as “junk science” was evidence of a man “who hasn’t listened for years,” he said.

“You can’t possibly have confidence in a man who thinks he can improve the Pope’s ethics.”

The former chancellor’s claims that climate action would hurt the world’s poor were odd, he added, given leading development charities Oxfam, Save the Children, Action Aid and Christian Aid all support slashing fossil fuel use.

“I have yet to see any element of Lord Lawson’s budgets which suggested the poor were high on the list of priorities,” he said.

“I noticed the proportion of national aid that went to the poorest nations when Lord Lawson was chancellor was significantly less than it now is… and I noticed that he and his friends were opposed to the 0.7% (GDP) aid target.”

“There is no evidence in past history of a great interest in the improvement of the poor.”

Budget issue

Former UK climate chief Ed Davey told the Guardian prime minister Cameron “may as well hug a coal power station” as a result of the recent budget, while green commentators were equally incensed.

But Deben defended the raft of proposals from an administration that has quietly dropped its ‘greenest ever’ moniker in favour of cutting short term costs.

“The thing we have to accept about this government is that there is not a place for woolly good-heartedness,” he said.

“[Osborne] does understand and does believe in climate change but he has a fundamental antagonism to the sort of loose thinking that means that people can’t add up.”

Deben refused to be drawn on the specifics of the budget but said he wanted to see the under-threat zero carbon homes policy to be retained.

He also stressed the need to explain how much the move to ban new onshore wind – the UK’s cheapest large-scale renewable energy source – would cost.

More work also needed to be done to explain to the public the vast levels of subsidies lavished on the domestic oil, gas and coal sector, he said.

According to a 2014 IMF report the UK spends 0.5% of its GDP in the form of tax breaks and hand outs to fossil fuel energy generators. The OECD estimates that between 2010-2011 this added up to £4.3 billion.

“Any fool can make a profit if he sells his product at low cost and that’s exactly what the fossil fuel industry is doing,” he said.

The former Conservative environment chief added a “proper” carbon price was needed to remove those subsidies and create a level playing field for renewables. The UK’s carbon floor price is £18 a tonne of CO2.

“There are a lot of free marketeers who mean by the free market the market we have got… it’s not free.”

Green criticism

Still, Deben said green groups were also to blame for the lacklustre debate and progress on climate action in the UK, lamenting the lack of effective grassroots action to influence MPs.

Anti-fracking campaigns had proved themselves to be “powerful and influential” he said, but this citizen group model which influenced local lawmakers had not been replicated across the country.

“My own view is that green groups have not been community groups,” he said. “They have been collections of enthusiasts, mainly aimed at influencing government.

“They have done lots of good work but as for getting their members to actively deal with these things I just don’t think they have been good at it.

“I keep on saying this. I don’t want any member of parliament to go to his weekly surgery without at least one person raising the issue of climate change – and it’s not difficult to do that… but where are these much vaunted numbers?”

Campaigners had to accept that some Conservative MPs received “bollockings” from irate constituents over onshore wind, he added, influencing the government’s decision to oppose the technology, which is the cheapest form of low carbon electricity in the UK.

“I like them – I have no problem… but we never managed to win the battle.”

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