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.