On 28 October 2008, at the bill’s third reading, 463 of 466 MPs (list of names here) voted to pass the UK Climate Change Act without really having any idea what they were voting for. Now that the implications of the vote are becoming clear it’s instructive to review the question of how these 463 men and women good and true were induced to do this. This post provides a brief chronology of events, omitting a number of subsidiary happenings for reasons of space but hitting, I hope, the high (or low) points.
The UK Climate Change Act was at bottom a product of the “green revolution” that gained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s difficult to say exactly who initiated the chain of events that led to it. As good a candidate as any, however, is Sir Crispin Tickell. Sir Crispin, a dedicated environmentalist, was British Ambassador to the United Nations between 1987 and 1990, and he is reported to have been the man who persuaded Margaret Thatcher to deliver her seminal speech on climate change to the UN in 1989. In the light of her later pronouncements it’s certainly difficult to see the Iron Lady coming up with this on her own:
The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases. We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.
A year later Thatcher set up the Hadley Centre to study these portentous issues in more detail, and the UK climate change bandwagon was off and running.
Then came the 1992 Rio Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Conference, at which the UK reaffirmed its commitment to saving the planet and committed to a small emissions reduction. Larger events were, however, taking shape in the background, chief among them the study initiated by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in August 1997, which “reviewed energy prospects for the 21st century and their environmental implications”. The Commission’s conclusions were published in its 22nd report, “Energy – the changing climate” on 16 June 2000:
As a contribution to global efforts to prevent climate change running out of control, the United Kingdom should plan for a reduction of 60% over the next 50 years in the amounts of carbon dioxide it produces by burning fossil fuels. This is one of the key conclusions of a major report published today by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The report – Energy – The Changing Climate – explores what that will mean for industry and ordinary households, and how government policies need to change. Speaking at Westminster this morning, the Chairman of the Royal Commission, Sir Tom Blundell, said: ‘Recklessly causing large-scale disruptions to climate by burning fossil fuels will affect all countries. It is the poorest that would suffer most. We cannot expect other nations to do their part in countering this threat – least of all if they are much less wealthy – unless we demonstrate we are really serious about it.’
And shortly after that came the Nottingham declaration, launched on 25 October, which was eventually adopted by no fewer than 300 councils:
Evidence continues to mount that climate change is occurring. Climate change will have far reaching effects on the UK’s economy, society and environment. We welcome the • Social, economic and environmental benefits which will come from combating climate change. • Recognition by many sectors, especially government and business, of the need for change. • Emissions targets agreed by central government in the programme for delivering change as set out in the Climate Change – UK Programme.
And what emissions targets did the central government agree to? In November 2000 the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published “Climate Change – The UK Programme”, which endorsed the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 60% recommendation:
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP)’s report Energy – The Changing Climate, published in June 2000, reiterated the importance of preparing for the longer term. It highlighted the steep reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed if the world is to avoid large scale disruptions to its climate. It recommended that the Government should adopt a strategy which puts the UK on the path to a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The 60% reduction was of course just a target, not a legally-binding commitment. But within eight years it had become one, and the steep reduction had become even steeper, increasing from 60% to 80%. The first step on the path towards a binding commitment was taken on 24 May 2005, when an early day motion was presented to parliament by six MPs (Meacher (sponsor) Baker, Chaytor, Drew, Gummer & Llwyd):
That this House agrees with the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser that climate change is a threat to civilisation; welcomes the cross-party agreement in favour of major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and particularly in carbon dioxide emissions, by 2050 …
And who was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser with whom the House agreed? Sir David King, who once claimed that “Climate change is a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism”
Because of the interposition of the 2005 elections the early day motion never came to a vote, but there are nevertheless three noteworthy things about it:
1. It was supported by no fewer than 412 MPs – already an overwhelming majority.
2. It was drafted by Friends of the Earth, which is how the 60% cut recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution ultimately became an 80% cut:
7 April 2005, We (Friends of the Earth) draft a Bill which says the Government has to cut the amounts of carbon dioxide being released by us by 3% year on year. This would mean an 80% cut by 2050.
3. It was drafted under the supervision of a young lady named Bryony Worthington, whose assistance in drafting the bill had been requested by David Miliband:
Google “Bryony Worthington YouTube” and you will see the video of a young climate activist, now known as Baroness Worthington, describing how she first conceived the idea of such a policy when she was campaigns director on climate change for Friends of the Earth. She describes how, when David Miliband became environment secretary, desperate not to be “out-greened” by the Tories, he called on her to head a small team in his ministry tasked with urgently drafting such a Bill.
“Desperate not to be out-greened by the Tories”. It was around this time that the Tories realized that going green gets votes, and so the rush to out-green Labour began. In April 2006 the Tories came out with their “vote blue go green” manifesto, the introduction to which could also have been drafted by Friends of the Earth:
At our Spring Forum in Manchester, I made it clear that Conservatives intend to lead a new green revolution in Britain. It’s an ambitious aspiration but we’re already making a start. We have to think globally and act locally …
Next came the study that put the lid on things – the Stern report of 30 October 2006:
Unabated climate change could cost the world at least 5% of GDP each year; if more dramatic predictions come to pass, the cost could be more than 20% of GDP. The cost of reducing emissions could be limited to around 1% of global GDP; people could be charged more for carbon-intensive goods. Each tonne of CO2 we emit causes damages worth at least $85, but emissions can be cut at a cost of less than $25 a tonne. Shifting the world onto a low-carbon path could eventually benefit the economy by $2.5 trillion a year.
In short, climate change threatened the world with financial disaster but the world could save $2.5 trillion a year by fighting it – an economic trade off no reasonable person could refuse. Neither could the MPs. In November 2006, shortly after the Stern report came out, the Independent canvassed all of them to obtain their views on climate change. Only the M – to – O responses are still accessible, but all 42 MPS on this list, who include George Osborne and the Milibands, stated or implied that climate change was a major threat and a number referenced the Stern report. (It’s also interesting to note how often the phrase “greatest challenge” crops up; almost as if the MPs had copied it from the same document. Maybe they did.)
And at about the same time David Cameron (who had also been proselytized by Bryony Worthington the year before) referenced not only Stern but even went so far as to pay tribute to Al Gore in a 4 Oct 2006 speech to the Conservative Party Conference:
We saw in our debate on Monday the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth – sustainable prosperity. The Stern Report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp. But it will also say that the price of inaction gets higher every day. So I will not pretend to you that it will be easy. That there will be no pain or sacrifice. If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.
By the end of 2006 the die was obviously cast. All three major parties (including the Lib Dems) had decreed that climate change was an incipient disaster and that drastic emissions cuts were the only way of stopping it, and the party rank and file were behind them (412 MPs had supported the 2005 early day motion more than a year earlier). A Climate Change Act of some sort was already inevitable. All that was needed was to goad Parliament into activity, iron out the details and get one passed as quickly as possible.
All of which Friends of the Earth did very effectively with their “Big Ask” campaign, which included street demonstrations, marches, a concert (attended by David Miliband and David Cameron), mass lobbying of MPs – nearly 200,000 people contacted their MP in one way or another – and high-level wheeling and dealing. But arguably their greatest success was to have Bryony Worthington appointed lead author of the team which drafted the 2008 Climate Change Act. It is in fact probably not going too far to say that Friends of the Earth wrote it.
And on 28 October 2008, at the bill’s third reading, Ed Miliband paid them tribute:
I end by paying tribute not to those in the House, but to those outside it: those who saw the dangers of climate change and the actions that needed to be taken long before the politicians did. I pay tribute to the scientists who detected the problem, the campaigners who fought to bring it to public attention, the green movement that mobilised for change, and above all, the members of the public who wrote to us in record.
And the rest is, as they say, history.
So what went wrong? Well, nothing really. We’re just looking at the scientific/democratic process in action. Supposedly the best scientists in the land told the government that climate change was a threat that could be eliminated only by making drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and the government took them at their word and responded accordingly, although perhaps going a little overboard at times. And the rank and file MPs, having no better information to go on, went along. The collaboration between the government and Friends of the Earth was, shall we say, unusual, but the government was at liberty to solicit the opinion of whomever it liked, and in pushing their agenda on the government Friends of the Earth were doing no more than exercising their democratic privileges.
So let us pose the question another way. Who was to blame?
In part the government. The Climate Change Act passed almost unanimously even though none of the MPs who voted for it – including cabinet ministers – had any idea how greenhouse gas emissions were going to be cut 80% by 2050 or whether it was even possible to do so. (Cost was not a major issue because the Stern report had shown that cutting emissions would save money.) Also largely unaddressed was the question of why the UK, which was responsible for less than 2% of the world’s emissions, should be the only country in the world to commit to drastic and binding emissions reductions. Ed Miliband gave this answer at the bill’s third reading:
It will make us the first country in the world to enshrine in law binding climate change targets that are stretching and ambitious, as they need to be—80 per cent. by 2050. They provide a scale of ambition that will enable us to play our part, with authority, in seeking a global agreement in Copenhagen at the end of next year. As Friends of the Earth has said, “the world’s first climate change law will also be a world class climate change law”.
The UK may indeed have played its part with authority but it didn’t save the Copenhagen climate conference. And there’s Friends of the Earth again.
But the lion’s share of the blame has to be shouldered by three scientists – Tom Blundell (a biochemist), David King (a physical chemist) and Nicholas Stern (an economist). The doomsday scenarios of Blundell and King were, and for that matter still are, on the fringes of mainstream scientific opinion and weren’t, and still aren’t, supported by any of the IPCC’s assessment reports. Yet their pronouncements, particularly those of King, had a profound effect on government and public attitudes, as later did those of Stern, who used speculative economic models to convert speculative climate scenarios into frightening levels of economic damage (5% of current world GDP represents about $US 4 trillion/year and 20% about $US 16 trillion/year). Had objective scientists been minding the store at the time the 2008 Climate Change Act would have been more in tune with reality, or quite possibly never enacted into law at all.