The forgotten crisis: Why is no one in Britain debating climate change?

| 1st October 2013

Climate change is here and now. So why are the politicians so unwilling to engage with the issue?

Alex Stevenson asks why, given the findings of the latest IPPC climate report, the issue of climate change does not appear to be on the priority lists of UK politicians.............
Countries should approach this from a question of ownership, not as bystanders

Climate change has dropped down the agenda this party conference season - and even the boldest report yet from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not proved sufficient to shake politicians out of their malaise.

While energy policy has enjoyed the limelight at the Labour conference in Brighton, the forgotten crisis of carbon emissions has barely registered in the minds of Conservative politicians gathering in Manchester this week.

Tory activists in the environment and climate change session in Manchester signalled their disinterest during a question and answer session by not raising the issue once.

It was only afterwards that climate change minister Greg Barker was tackled by one campaigner. And this activist felt passionately that the IPCC report contained some hidden data undermining its central point that humans are 95% certain to be the "dominant cause" of global warming.

"The reality is the climate system is much less sensitive," he argued. "So it is much less urgent for us to do anything about it."

Barker told the Ecologist afterwards the IPCC report gives an "unequivocal" set of data showing that climate change "is real, it's happening and there's evidence of it all around us". He appeared to be ignoring the evidence all around him of Tory politicians who remain to be unconvinced, however.

"There will always be sceptics and deniers, but I think it moves the whole 'is it real?' debate on," the minister added. "Hopefully the argument will now focus on the right response."

That is the earnest hope of diplomats representing the world's most vulnerable states - which are already being affected by climate change.

"We're not very happy about how [western] countries have been engaging with climate change," Bangladesh's High Commissioner Mohamed Mijarul Quayes told the Ecologist in Manchester last night.

Countries should approach this from a question of ownership, not as bystanders

He explained his country's Millennium Development Goals are being hit by the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change and is frustrated that western states - not just Britain - are so unconcerned.

"You are travelling in a plane," Quayes suggested. "I'm travelling economy, you're travelling business. Fire breaks out in economy. You must never think you're safe from it."

He explained that capital projects like a bridge over the Ganges face additional costs because of climate change which countries like Britain are ignoring.

"Countries should approach this from a question of ownership, not as bystanders," Quayes added. "They have aggravated the development agenda of countries who want to do it on their own."

The 2015 UN negotiations on climate change is the next big opportunity for the divided world to put together a deal.

Frontbenchers in all three mainstream parties are focused on the buildup to the Paris summit.

Ed Miliband tweeted the report was a "stark reminder of central challenge of global warming". And his shadow climate change minister Luciana Berger has made clear the opposition wants Britain to make "every diplomatic effort in the coming months to help secure a new... agreement".

Barker used similar language, saying he hopes the report would "weigh heavily" with leaders around the world.

He said: "It's robust, it's thorough and it is an urgent wake up call to the global community that climate change may have slipped down the political agenda as we've tackled the financial crisis, but it hasn't gone away - if anything it's a more urgent and pressing issue than ever."

And yet it is barely registering on the list of top issues in this year's conference season.

"Politicians are being pragmatic - they understand it's not an issue for voters," Jessica Lennard, a former adviser to Barker and now an environmental lobbyist, explained.

Issues like cost of living, the effect of spending cuts and immigration on public services, and even foreign policy crises like the Civil War in Syria appear more pressing so are getting all the attention, it's feared.

"Maybe there's a job for all of us - industry, politicians, NGOs, journalists, to get together and try and make it more of an issue for the general public, and build that popular concern we really need to make this thing happen in Britain," Lennard added.

"People are very inward-looking in times of hardship and that's natural."

Companies are equally distracted, but for different reasons. Their big preoccupation this year is the uncertain state of Britain's energy policy, after 12 months of intense debate about the country's future energy mix.

The British Chamber of Commerce's director of policy Adam Marshall said firms believe there's a need to look at all sources of energy - including environmentally friendly ones. Greening the economy is not their priority, though.

"Businesses are very concerned we don't have the diversity of supply or the transmission mechanisms to make sure we have the energy to power the needs of this country for some time to come," he said.

"To borrow a phrase from a politician, this is a marathon and not a sprint... we've got to look at what we can do today in order to help tomorrow."

Tory backbenchers seem reluctant to accept climate change has been relegated to the B-list of issues in Manchester.

But the environment and climate change section of the debate did not even take place in the main conference hall. It was sidelined to a much smaller alternative venue as anticipation for the main event of Monday morning, George Osborne's big speech, grew.

The Conservative problem, Lennard believes, is one faced by the country as a whole: a dilemma between going for growth with policies that will please their constituents, and a need to bear in mind the longer-term interests of the country by confronting climate change directly. "This has caused a complete clash of policies and ideas," she said.

The debate may have been muted, but it has not died completely. Two events are just starting to appear over the horizon: as the key UN talks in Paris approach in 2015, so too does the British general election.

Just when UK politicians are making their big promises to the country in their party manifestos, it's hoped, climate change will return to the mainstream agenda.

That is not enough for some. "Climate change is here and now," Bangladesh's Quayes, frustrated at Britain's "ostrich" attitude, insisted. "And all we've seen is a whole lot of dawdling."

Alex Stevenson is parliamentary editor of

Follow him @Alex_Stevenson


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here