Cameron finally challenges the Tory climate change deniers

The PM says "scientists are giving us a very certain message" but will his policies match his rhetoric?

Since telling the public to "vote blue, go green" in 2006 and pledging in opposition to lead "the greenest government ever", David Cameron has had little to say on climate change. In the three and a half years since he entered No. 10, the PM hasn't made a single speech on the subject, nor attended a UN environmental summit. Emboldened by his silence, Tory climate change deniers have rushed to fill the void. Energy minister Michael Fallon has described climate change as "theology" and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has declared: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." [The 12 warmest years have all come in the last 15.] Tory MPs have put forward a bill to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and George Osborne has repeatedly posited a false choice between growth and green energy investment.

But confronted by the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, which some attribute to climate change, Cameron has found his voice again. He told reporters during his trip to Sri Lanka:

"There is no doubt there have been an increasing number of severe weather events in recent years. And I'm not a scientist but it's always seemed to me one of the strongest arguments about climate change is, even if you're only 90 per cent certain or 80 per cent certain or 70 per cent certain, if I said to you there's a 60 per cent chance your house might burn down do you want to take out some insurance? You take out some insurance. I think we should think about climate change like that.

"Scientists are giving us a very certain message. Even if you're less certain than the scientists it makes sense to act both in terms of trying to prevent and mitigate.

"So I'll leave the scientists to speak for themselves about the link between severe weather events and climate change. The evidence seems to me to be growing. As a practical politician I think the sensible thing is to say let's take preventative and mitigating steps given the chances this might be the case."

Admirable words, but will they be supported by policy? At present, the UK's greenhouse gas emissions are rising, not falling, with investment in clean energy at a seven-year low and Britain forecast to miss its carbon reduction targets. Against the advice of the climate change select commitee, Cameron refused to include a 2030 decarbonisation target in the energy bill, despite an estimated saving of £958 to £1,724 for each household and the potential creation of up to 48,000 new jobs.

More recently, in an attempt to counter Labour's proposed energy price freeze, he has pledge to "roll back" green taxes, with no apparent consideration given to the environmental consequences. The energy and climate change commitee warned in response: "Backtracking on these legally binding contracts will damage policy credibility, seriously undermine investor confidence and could increase the cost of capital for new energy investments – thus pushing up energy bills".

But with the PM's green conscience stirring again, is he about to perform another volte-face? As ever with Cameron, one can never be sure what he really believes.

David Cameron gestures during a press conference held on the second day of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.