After the deluge - Britain's new politics of climate change

| 20th February 2014
Can we talk about climate change now? Flooded Oxford residents take to the streets. Among their problems, sewage contamination of flood waters and non-flushing toilets. Photo: Adam Ramsay.

Can we talk about climate change now? Flooded Oxford residents take to the streets. Among their problems, sewage contamination of flood waters and non-flushing toilets. Photo: Adam Ramsay.

Floods, giant waves and billions of pounds of destruction to the UK's homes, businesses and key national infrastructure could revolutionise climate politics, writes Jonathon Porritt. But no thanks to the increasingly pathetic BBC!
Listening to mad old Tory say climate change doesn't exist always reminds me that many such wanted to surrender to Hitler on Day One.

There is now a distinct possibility that the recent flooding and extreme weather will transform the politics of climate change here in the UK.

That may seem like a pretty dodgy prediction - given that the polls would seem to indicate, right now, that around 50% of people in the UK are still not persuaded that today's weather is directly linked to climate change.

That remains the case, I suspect, partly because the immediate debate about that potential linkage has been so lamentable.

And I'm not just getting at those parts of the UK media whose grasp of science is completely obscured by their ideological world view - including most of our right-wing newspapers.

The real disappointment for me has been the BBC

For the most part, in the early weeks, the BBC clearly discouraged any discussion about climate change: stick to the stunning visuals and increasingly horrendous personal stories.

And then they spiced it up with a bit of blame-game politics, but no attempt was made to step back and reflect on what that told us about the complex weather / climate relationship. 

And then, after all that soft-shoe shuffling, the BBC's 'flagship' Today Programme tees up a quite ludicrous debate between Nigel Lawson (former Chancellor of the Exchequer, political street-fighter and spinner, and notorious climate denier as front-man for a shady 'think-tank' called The Global Warming Policy Foundation) and Brian Hoskins (brilliant, gentle climate scientist who knows little about the dark arts of the media, let alone dealing with the likes of Lawson).

It was pathetic!

The BBC has rightly been castigated by all and sundry for its continuing failure to do justice to the science of climate change on any kind of consistent basis.

Why pick Lawson anyway? For all we know, The Global Warming Policy Foundation is funded directly by oil, gas and coal companies - who have something of a vested interest in manipulating media coverage.

I can say that because I know Lawson won't sue me: if he did, he'd have to reveal where the Foundation's money really does come from, which he has hitherto refused to do - despite the Foundation being a charity, with all the tax benefits that such a status confers (he knows a thing or two about that, of course). 

The point is that he's not a scientist - let alone a climate scientist. His last book on climate change was laughable. He's an apologist for the continuing use of fossil fuels. And yet still the BBC insists on wheeling him out (with others of his ilk) to talk about the science of climate change, ostensibly in the name of 'balance'.

Listening to mad old Tory say climate change doesn't exist always reminds me that many such wanted to surrender to Hitler on Day One.

BBC - here's a simple proposal for you

I have a simple proposal for Tony Hall (DG of the BBC) to consider: honour your commitment to balance by pairing 'like for like' protagonists on climate change.

With someone like Brian Hoskins, insist on an equally eminent scientist to provide the opposing scientific view, however hard that may be given that there are very, very few scientists in that category.

With someone like Nigel Lawson, insist on an equally streetwise polemicist - of whom, I'm happy to report, there are many. All of whom would rip Lawson to pieces in just a few exchanges.

My good friend, Jeremy Leggett, describes Nigel Lawson as a 'mad old Tory' intent on upping the stakes. He tweeted as follows last week:

"Listening to mad old Tory say climate change doesn't exist always reminds me that many such wanted to surrender to Hitler on Day One."

How high a price will the Lawson cohorts make us pay?

Even I'm not sure I'd compare Lawson to that generation of Nazi-appeasers, and a predictable firestorm followed. But his point is still valid: how high a price will we all pay for the combined impact of this malign cohort of climate deniers on the media and on public opinion in general?

A question I'd love to hear an answer to from David Cameron. Lawson, Lilley, Pickles, Paterson, Osborne and 100-plus climate-denying Tory backbenchers gleefully fill the space that Cameron leaves them.

Last week, when everybody was asked about the link between the floods and climate change, he used the following kind of line: "Whatever your views may be on climate change ... "

No, no, no! You're the Prime Minister. You have an obligation to pass on to people what your scientists pass on to you in every single briefing you get: that this stuff is for real, right now, caused by our emissions, and we'd better get on top of that challenge.

Cameron's government: 'squabbling and inconsistent'

In his usual calm but incisive way, Nick Stern's article in The Guardian last week hit that nail right on the head:

"Squabbling and inconsistent messages from Ministers, as well as uncertainty about the possibilities of future governance, are already eroding the confidence of business. Government-induced policy risk has become a serious deterrent to private investment."

Which brings me back to my opening prediction: that Cameron's short-sighted, self-serving prevarication, Lawson's ignorant posturing, the BBC's cowardly defence of 'balance', and the Lib Dems tragic inability to call the Tories' retreat on the whole green agenda, will all be swept away in the politics of the post-floods aftermath.

Sleepwalking into a national security crisis

We need that debate - about what to do, not whether to do it - out there all the time at every level. As former climate diplomat, John Ashton, put it in a recent speech:

"You can't transform a country by stealth. It requires consent in a democracy that means an explicit political choice. It requires mobilisation, and therefore a call to arms.

"It requires honesty about the burdens, and support for measures to help those whose communities and livelihoods depend on the high-carbon economy."

The Kraken wakes

And maybe we're just seeing the first signal of this 'mobilisation' in the article by Ed Miliband, Labour leader, in this week's Observer.

After more than three years of being sadly somnolent, if not entirely silent, in providing any kind of serious leadership on climate change, he has at last woken up himself ("never waste a good crisis", do I hear you say?) in issuing a very stern warning that the UK is now "sleepwalking into a national security crisis".

At last! Now he has to make it a top priority in planning for the General Election campaign, and then we might at last begin to see some real headway on the politics of climate change in the UK.



Jonathon Porritt has been an environmental campaigner since 1974, and is still hard at it nearly 40 years on. His latest book is The World we Made.

This article was first published on Jonathon Porritt's blog under the title 'The New Politics of Climate Change'.

Petition: To the media: please debate the constructive responses to climate change, not its existence (38 degrees).


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