The government should be raising public awareness of climate change. Photo: Getty
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We need a change in the law on information about climate change impacts

The failure by government to make the public aware of how climate change is affecting the UK exposes a loophole in key legislation.

The UK Climate Change Act should be urgently amended to force the government to tell the public about the mounting risks they face from flooding, heatwaves and other impacts.

With growing evidence that global warming is already affecting the UK, government departments and agencies are utterly failing to ensure people understand how their lives and livelihoods are being threatened by rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

Several deaths and more than £1bn in damage resulted from flooding caused by heavy rainfall earlier this year during the wettest winter on record.

The year from January to October 2014 was the rainiest such period for the UK since records began in 1910. This is part of a pattern, with four of the five wettest years, not including 2014, having occurred from 2000 onwards.

Over the same period, the UK has also experienced its seven warmest years on record, and the period to October this year was the hottest we have ever had.

As the Met Office has pointed out, the UK appears to be receiving heavier rainfall because the atmosphere is warmer and wetter.

Climate scientists have estimated that the probability of an exceptionally wet winter in the UK has increased by 25 per cent due to climate change.

Yet despite the mounting toll of death and destruction, Government Departments are extremely reluctant to inform the public of the dangers they face from climate change.

Yesterday, for instance, the Department of Energy and Climate Change led the government’s participation in a global "Tweetathon" about climate change.

According to the DECC’s webpage, the aim was “to talk about the impacts of climate change and the action that can be taken to tackle it – both in the UK and globally”.

Several government departments and agencies, along with academic institutions and businesses, took part in the "Tweetathon", but very little of the discussion was about UK impacts.

Amazingly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is supposed to lead the Government’s efforts to make the UK more resilient to climate change, only produced two tweets from its official Twitter account, neither of which mentioned how the UK is being affected.

This was just the latest demonstration that Defra and the rest of government are failing to make the public aware of the risks they face from climate change, with potentially severe consequences.

In July, the annual report by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change highlighted the fact that 55 per cent of people living on floodplains falsely believe that they are at no risk of flooding, and warned that the “current lack of awareness of local flood risk may be inhibiting local engagement, and willingness to contribute towards community-level flood risk management solutions”.

The report also drew attention to research showing the UK public wrongly thinks that the occurrences of heatwaves and hot days are decreasing in the UK, which helps to explain why “the uptake of measures to increase cooling capacity in existing homes is currently very low”.

According to the "Heatwave Plan for England 2014", there were 2,000 excess deaths during the heatwave in August 2003, 680 more fatalities during a shorter hot spell in summer 2006, and about 300 additional people died from the effects of heat in 2009.

Yet a series of answers to parliamentary questions over the past few weeks reveals confusion and muddle about what the government is doing to raise public awareness.

DECC claimed it would be too difficult to calculate how much has been earmarked for communications, but suggested that the creation of a “cross-government communications group” which will “help to promote unified and consistent messaging on climate change across the government’s communication channels”. It has not met since August.

Meanwhile, Defra was only able to cite £1.6m spent on the Environment Agency’s Climate Ready Support Service, which does not even target the public.

Of course, the former Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, was a well-known denier of climate change risks, and savagely cut back the budget for building resilience.

After being sacked from the cabinet by David Cameron earlier this year, Paterson delivered a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, calling for the Climate Change Act to be suspended or scrapped.

However, he neglected to mention that while he was Environment Secretary he had exploited a loophole in the Act to avoid talking in public about the impacts of global warming on the UK.

The Act, which was passed by Paterson and all but five other MPs, requires the Environment Secretary to deliver both a climate change risk assessment and a national adaptation programme.

However, the Act does not explicitly oblige the government to communicate with the public about the risks of climate change.

As a result, Paterson was able to put his own ideological beliefs ahead of the public interest by refusing to make a single speech about climate change impacts during his entire period at Defra.

His successor, Elizabeth Truss, has yet to speak publicly the issue of climate change impacts since she became Environment Secretary in July, although she has attacked the installation of solar panels on farmland.

It is clear that the loophole on the Climate Change Act must now be closed to ensure that the Environment Secretary and other members of the Government communicate with the UK public about the risks they face from the impacts of global warming.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.