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.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.