Flooded out: Blackett Close in Staines-Upon-Thames. Photo: Getty
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Leader: As this winter’s floods remind us, climate change matters

In the short term, ministers will rightly focus on addressing the immediate threat to homes and lives. Once this danger has passed, we all have a duty to ensure that the UK is better able to live with and withstand the consequences of climate change.

In recent times, our political leaders have given the impression that they regard climate change as a matter of marginal importance. When David Cameron was first elected as leader of the Conservative Party, he used to claim that to “vote blue” was to “go green”. He now reportedly vows to “get rid of all the green crap”. Nearly four years after entering Downing Street, the Prime Minister has yet to make a major speech about climate change or attend a UN environmental summit.

Emboldened by his silence, Conservative climate-change deniers have rushed to fill the void. The energy minister Michael Fallon has compared global warming to “theology” and the 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.” (Nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since 1998.)

For his part, the Chancellor, George Osborne, encouraged by his intellectual mentor Nigel Lawson, has repeatedly posited a false choice between growth and green investment, clumsily arguing that saving the planet “shouldn’t cost the earth”. Even Ed Miliband, a former climate change secretary and a committed environmentalist, now rarely mentions the subject in his speeches and interventions. The common view in Westminster is that it is not a priority in an era of squeezed living standards.

Yet, as the Met Office’s chief scientist, Julia Slingo, said of the extreme weather that has caused the floods in the south of England, “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

Politicians cannot control the weather but this banality should not obscure the fundamental truth that the decisions they have taken have left Britain less prepared than it should be. Against the advice of scientists, who warned of the increased risk of flooding because of climate change, the government has cut real-terms spending on flood defences every year since 2010. This year, it will reduce the budget for the Environment Agency by 15 per cent and remove 550 staff working on flooding. Over the same period, it has ended the obligation for local authorities to prepare climate adaptation plans and has cut the number of officials responsible for the issue in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 38 to just six. All of these decisions were justified under the government’s deficit-reduction plan, but as Mr Cameron’s surprise declaration that “money is no object” (isn’t Britain “bankrupt”?) demonstrates, they have proved to be a false economy.

In the short term, ministers will rightly focus on addressing the immediate threat to homes and lives. Once this danger has passed, we all have a duty to ensure that the UK is better able to live with and withstand the consequences of climate change. Within the next decade, the UK faces the prospect of food shortages, more floods, extreme heatwaves and mass refugee flows. As the events of recent days show, a strategy for managing climate change is also a strategy for defending living standards.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.