Do the Tories care about climate breakdown? The next two months will reveal all

In 2015 the Cameron government scrapped vital laws and policies to tackle climate change. May could reverse these decisions in weeks, if she wanted to.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 May 2019, 8.07am
World's End bar in Dumfries, Scotland, one of the parts of the UK battered by storms and floods in 2015
Danny Lawson/PA Images

The UK public attitude to climate breakdown has changed substantially in the last month. The schools strikes and Extinction Rebellion have shifted the conversation, along with a series of reports from climate scientists that remind us that the problem is getting worse. An Oxford Research Group report published earlier this week analysed both developments and reminded readers of the historic significance of nonviolent action, so often forgotten but effective in some of the most significant movements of the last century.

The women’s suffrage movement, the Gandhian movement in India and the start of decolonisation, the US civil rights movement and the many citizen movements in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s all had major nonviolent elements. It is true that in all cases there were other factors at work as well, but it is unlikely that any of them would, by themselves, have led to change at the rate it actually happened.

The ORG report also reminds us of the climate science developments. 2019 is already on track to be one of the three hottest years since accurate records were first kept in the late 1800s, joining 2016 and 2017 in that trio. And at least as significant is the news that ocean heat content has set a new record as the warmest since records began in 1940.

The significance of this latter element is two-fold. First, oceans absorb over 90% of atmospheric heat as water is a able to absorb more heat energy than many liquids for a given increase in temperature (i.e. it has a high specific heat). The buffering effect of this means that ocean temperatures are a very good guide to climate change as they are less susceptible to seasonal and annual variations. This means that the ocean heat content tells you what is really going on.

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The second is that warmer oceans mean worse tropical storms in the short term and a long lag phase in temperatures even if we do succeed in curbing global warming. Those storms include the highest landfall windspeeds ever recorded (Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013), three category 5 hurricanes hitting the Caribbean and Central America in 2017 and successive cyclones, Idai and Kenneth, devastating southern and northern Mozambique in recent weeks. And this morning Cyclone Fani, India’s biggest storm in decades, has made landfall.

In the few days since ORG published its report, there have been two further developments in the UK which may help us see whether politicians really will act. The House of Commons accepted a Labour Party challenge to declare a “climate emergency”. And a day later the independent Climate Change Committee published its report that the UK should revise its aims for decarbonisation to reach nett zero by 2050. While the latter is a tougher target then before (80% reduction) the real question is will the current government actually change its policies or is it mostly just talk?

Previous experience is not encouraging. Just over three years ago parts of the North of England near where we live (along with Scotland and other parts of the country) experienced devastating floods that caused huge damage. Earlier this week my wife and I went through one of the worst-affected valley towns, Mytholmroyd, and more than three years later much of the town centre is still affected by huge civil engineering works aimed at bridge re-building and flood prevention.

A view days after the flooding, which was over the Christmas holiday period, I wrote an Open Democracy column asking why no-one was making the connection between extreme weather events and climate change. I then offered a possible reason for the neglect:

“One explanation for this hit me between the eyes just over four years ago. Doing research on international security, especially in the Middle East, means occasional invitations to speak at oil-and-gas industry conferences. On one particular occasion I stayed for the whole of an intense twenty-four-hour “retreat”, just out of the interest of learning more about how fossil-fuel insiders thought about their industry.

Chatham House rules mean that I can’t name the person, but let us just say that a senior figure with absolutely impeccable connections with the Conservative-led government spoke at a session on environmental issues. Addressing those insiders, he was absolutely blunt. They were not to lose any sleep whatsoever about the government’s attitude to green issues – it was simply a matter of going through the motions for the sake of public appearances.

The government did not believe in this climate-change stuff and was fully on the industry’s side. Indeed, he gave the very firm impression that this was one of several areas where being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats was a real pain, something to be endured but also resisted where possible.”

The political background to this is that the previous Labour Government had put through the Climate Change Act in 2008, establishing the aforementioned Climate Change Committee and charging it with providing “independent advice to government on building a low-carbon economy and preparing for climate change”.

It also set in law the requirement to move to the 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, and before Labour lost the 2010 election it took a number of initiatives that included fiscal measures to encourage renewables. Most of those survived the changeover to the Conservative-led coalition government in June 2010, largely because the Conservatives depended on the Liberal Democrats for government and they supported these moves.

Come the 2015 election and the Conservatives won on overall majority and in the first three months in power, while the Labour Party was engaged in a bitter internal fight for a new leader, the government dropped must about every climate-related move that it could. This was neatly summarised by Michael le Page in a piece for New Scientist, published just before the latest widespread UK floods.

There were substantial cuts in support for solar power with layoffs for thousands of industry staff and a further £1 billion of subsidies for North Sea oil while excluding onshore windfarms from a subsidy scheme from April 2016. They also entailed reduced incentives for low-emission vehicles, the scrapping of the "green deal" in support of energy-efficient homes and the privatisation of the Green Bank.

Perhaps the most marked change of all, hardly noticed outside the building industry, was the scrapping of the "zero carbon homes" plan. Under it, all new homes from 2016 were meant to be carbon-neutral. It was seen as a change that would have had a steady cumulative effect and would also have done much to change the psychology of home ownership, whereby homeowners are motivated to upgrade their houses and thus also increase their value, sustainability, and sales potential.

What this grim state of affairs now gives us, though, is a clear way of knowing whether this government is really serious about responding to climate breakdown. If it is, then its first step will be to reverse all those policies, changes which it could make in a matter of weeks. In addition, the most powerful indicator of intent would be to cancel the third runway at Heathrow and other planned airport expansions.

There is very much more that could be done, and quickly, by a genuinely committed government. Indeed, all of them could be implemented before the end of the current parliamentary session in July. If they are then it will be a reasonable start and a clear indication of serious intent. If they aren’t, then that will be a clear reason of the need for a Labour government as soon as possible, especially as Labour has already made it clear that it is prepared to implement rapid change.

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