Environmentalists first promoted a climate change bill when Britain was enjoying an economic boom – albeit through an evidently unsustainable housing bubble and consumer credit.
When the economic crisis of 2008 unfolded, I was a journalist at the Sunday Times newspaper and was told by Nicholas Hellen, then deputy news editor, that any environment stories were - as a result - immediately off the agenda. Consumers could no longer afford to ‘go green’.
But the momentum of the climate change legislation then passing through Parliament was enough to see it through to royal assent, with almost universal support across the political and economic spectrum. A tiny rump of free market Tories were the only MPs to voice any opposition.
The original Climate Change Bill was drafted by Friends of the Earth in 2005 as part of its Big Ask campaign. It was presented to Parliament by the then former Labour environment minister Michael Meacher MP as a Private Members’ Bill, and supported by Conservatives Tim Yeo and John Gummer (now Lord Deben).
The bill was resurrected after the 2005 general election, when almost three-quarters of MPs, representing the main political parties, signed an early day motion – only the fourth time in British history that such a proposal had received such widespread support.
Thom Yorke, the singer-songwriter for Radiohead, who were on the up at the time, was the celebrity face of the Big Ask. But the support for the legislation was almost universal. The Confederation of British Industry lent its support, as did its economic opposites at the Trades Union Congress.
Ed Miliband, environment minister at the time, was responsible for steering the bill through Parliament and – in the wake of more alarming findings from leading climate scientists – changed the draft to increase the target for carbon emissions from 60 to 80 percent.
Three parliamentary committees subjected the draft bill to extensive scrutiny, taking evidence from experts and also Lord Lawson, the one-time chancellor who created the privatised, complex monopoly running the carbon-intensive British industry.
In his retirement, Lawson had taken a keen interest in the issue of climate change, even penning a short book. The Eton and Oxford educated economist argued it would be terribly unfair to ask the poor to suffer today in order to prevent climate change tomorrow.
He argued that economic growth – which was about to come to a juddering halt – would ensure that future generations could afford to adapt to whatever droughts, storms, sea-level rises and chaos that four degrees of global warming was likely to create.
“So that is the great existential threat facing the planet,” he argued.
“The question, in a nutshell, is how big a sacrifice should we impose on the much poorer present generation in order to avoid the horror of people in 100 years’ time not being more than seven times as well off as we are today but only slightly less than seven times as well off as we are today.”
The MPs and peers at Westminster listened to Lawson’s arguments very carefully. And then, on 26 November 2008, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the bill – including the binding 80 percent cut in emissions.
But the legislation did have two unintended consequences. It served to galvanise a tiny rump of MPs opposed to any limits on the use of fossil fuels.
And it woke the slumbering coal, oil and gas monopolies around the world to the danger of climate regulations becoming law nationally, outside the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process.
The almost entirely unknown Christopher Chope, Philip Davies and Andrew Tyrie – a former employee of oil monopoly British Petroleum – were among the five Tories to act as tellers or vote against the Climate Change Act.
Ann Widdecombe, a radical right winger perhaps best known for having a pregnant prisoner handcuffed, at least had some profile.
And then, of course, there was Peter Lilley. Lilley had been an investment advisor in North Sea oil in the early 1970s and, at the same time, chairman of the Bow Group of free market Tories closely linked to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).
The year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister he was chairman of London Oil Analysts and consultant director of the Conservative Research Department. He was, in short, the bridge between wealthy oil investors and the party of government.
Lilley became a close political ally of Nigel Lawson. At the 1982 Conservative party conference, the two men conspired to continue a drastic increase in gas prices for families and businesses – just in time to sell off the fattened goose of British Gas to the City of London.
A few years later, he was rewarded by Lawson who appointed his ally as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS).
Lawson recalled in his memoirs: “I had long been trying to persuade [Margaret Thatcher] to give a job to my PPS, Peter Lilley… [due to his] high intelligence and commitment to free market principles, he would make a good minister… shortly after my resignation, Margaret put him in the Cabinet.”
Lilley would rise to the post of Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, during which time he showed his Peter by attacking single mothers – including singing during the Tory party conference in an episode that today can only be described as harrowing.
His hardline approach won him loyal friends at the IEA, which presented him in 2005 with the Arthur Seldon Award for Excellence. It is no surprise, then, that Lilley would become the main cheerleader for IEA-produced climate denial.
Against the Science
The oil analyst got hold of the Climate Change Bill regulatory impact statement before it went in front of Parliament. He claimed the benefits of the bill had been calculated at £52 billion while the costs would be at least £95 billion more.
“He was stunned,” Rupert Darwall reported in his authorised biography of climate denial. “It was probably the most expensive legislation ever put before Parliament.”
Lilley said: “I wasn’t voting against the science. I’ve never disputed the science at all. I remember thinking, 'here’s no point in hanging around the chamber and seeing this humiliating result come out’, so I went out to have a drink in the bar, and on the way I looked out the window and it was snowing in October.
“And so I went back and called a point of order – which is quite difficult to do during a debate, you have to put on a top hat and other fancy things, but the speaker let me do so – and I pointed out to the house that we were passing a measure on the belief that the world was getting warmer and it was snowing in October in London for the first time in 74 years.
“Immediately, I was told that extreme cold is a symptom of global warming. I thought that this was proof enough that this was an unfalsifiable proposition. If things can heat up and cool down and both of them prove that it’s heating up, you know you can prove anything!”
The reaction of the other MPs, he added, was “‘Oh, poo poo’ and ridicule and ‘mustn’t bring facts into our debating, we’re having a nice cosy vote, we’ve convinced ourselves that the world is getting warm and the fact that it’s getting colder outside is something to be ignored. It’s not something we are going to take into account’. And since then, of course, we’ve had lots of cold winters.”
Lawson and Lilley
Lilley and Tyrie would become the centre of a new grouping of Tory MPs. At first, this was little more than a network of tittle-tattle and self-affirmation – mostly centred on a mail-out of climate denial stories in the national press.
But soon this tightly knit group of politically motivated men grew in confidence and numbers. Lilley would encourage his former mentor Lawson to set up a new “cross party and all party” charity, stuffed with peers who were not so tightly whipped.
This new policy foundation could have political influence without being accountable to any party or indeed constituency. (Seven years later and Lilley is now one of only two active MPs sitting on the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Board of Trustees.)
The group’s aim was to fundamentally undermine the Climate Change Act and ensure that industry would never have to meet the costs of fossil fuel pollution being dumped into the global atmosphere.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press). He tweets at @EcoMontague. This article first appeared at Desmog.uk.