Huhne calls for greater political backing of climate action

By Ed King

Chris Huhne believes the green agenda could stall unless politicians remind the public of the dangers climate change poses to their quality of life.

Speaking to RTCC, the UK’s former Secretary of State for energy and climate change said it is vital the reasons for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are fully explained – otherwise governments risk losing support for moves to decarbonise their economies.

While events like Superstorm Sandy have reopened the climate debate in the USA, Huhne argues that hoping random weather events will change public opinion is not an effective or economically viable strategy.

“There is no doubt that events like the hurricane that hit the whole of the east coast are more likely and are more ferocious as a result of global warming, and therefore we need to wake up to these threats and understand what’s going on,” he said.

“Scientists can see that but every so often it’s important that the political class highlights that as well to their voters. We are not getting involved in putting wind turbines on hilltops all the way across the UK because we want to annoy the Women’s Institutes of sundry villages in rural Britain.

“We’re doing it because there is a genuine threat to our national life and civilisation which we need to meet, and I think we need to make that case.”

That case was made by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when he endorsed Barack Obama as US President, citing his support for tackling climate change.

Some estimate Hurricane Sandy could have cost the USA over $100 Billion

It was a significant intervention that did not necessarily reflect the facts on the ground – neither Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney have focused on climate change in the presidential race.

A particular problem is that backing green issues is seen by many critics as an assault on the economy, forcing regulations on industries and making them less competitive. These fears have been played on by the fossil fuel lobby in Washington, which provides substantial levels of funding to the Republican and Democrat parties.

This line of argument has seeped into British politics, and Huhne also talked of his “frustration” at the lack of focus on the economic benefits of green growth, arguing as he did while Secretary of State that the opportunities of a low-carbon economy outweigh the upfront costs.

And he says for the UN climate talks to see real progress at COP18 in Doha this case must be made in the developed and developing world.

“I find it quite frustrating that what I see as real opportunities for growth are being downplayed,” he said. “There is a terrible residual tendency to assume that all of these negotiations are a zero-sum game, when inevitably someone has to lose.

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“If you get into that mindset things become much more difficult. In fact, as Nick Stern has admirably shown over many years there are substantial opportunities in tackling climate change and those economic opportunities are by no means there just for the rich countries.”

Whatever the economic case, if Romney wins the election the USA will have a climate sceptic President in the White House, which would effectively blow any hopes of a globally binding climate deal in 2015 out of the water.

Should Obama win and China remain committed to a low-carbon agenda, Huhne says he is confident that the foundations he helped lay in Durban last December will be built on, provided all sides demonstrate “genuine good faith”.

“This is the 11th hour – we all have to step up to the plate”, he said. “There are always short term political reasons why there are problems in one year or the other – and we have to manage the process through those short term political problems.”

Support for science

Huhne remains optimistic that an Obama victory could see veteran climate campaigner John Kerry installed as Secretary of State – which would ensure the argument for action was made from the very top of government.

So far that voice has been lacking in the UK. Despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge in 2010 to lead the ‘Greenest Government’ ever he has yet to give a major speech focusing on the environment.

An increasingly vociferous section of his Conservative party have been calling for the green agenda to be slashed, claiming the science is dodgy and the costs are extravagant.

Huhne was involved in a number of fierce battles with this lobby while in office, and believes that while the sceptic movement enjoyed a resurgence during his own tenure in government, this will be temporary.

“The science is getting clearer and clearer, and is less amenable to genuine scepticism than was the case five years ago or ten years ago – we have to make that point,” he said.

“Policy has to be based on a rational assessment of what our opportunities and threats are. There is obviously a chance that all of the scientific conclusions that the IPCC and others have documented turn out to be wrong, but it would be total folly in my view given the likelihood they are right not to pay a relatively modest insurance premium to make sure we can deal with the issues – particularly when that insurance premium gives us economic opportunities moving forward.”

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