In response to recent events such as Typhoon Haiyan and the floods in Britain, David Cameron has affirmed his belief that man-made climate change is a threat that must be tackled. He said during his trip to Sri Lanka last year: “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.” But a significant number in Cameron’s party, including, remarkably the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the Energy minister Michael Fallon, take the reverse view, continuing to question the existence of anthropogenic climate change at all. Fallon has described climate change as “theology”, while 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.)
At today’s PMQs, Ed Miliband seized on this divide. After asking Cameron to confirm his position on climate change (“one of the most serious threats,” replied the PM), he quoted Paterson and Fallon’s sceptical comments and demanded to know whether Cameron was “happy to have climate change deniers in his government”. In response, Cameron simply ignored the question and quipped that he was pleased Miliband’s “new approach” included praising his stance on climate change. Miliband’s well-delivered reply was that he had “gone from thinking it was a basic part of his credo to it being a matter of individual conscience”. He ended: “If we’re to properly protect the British people against the threats they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in his government on the issue of climate change. Doesn’t he need to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change?”
To this, Cameron responded by listing the policies the coalition has introduced in this area, including “the Green Investment Bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables, the investment in nuclear”, and declared: “he talks a good game but he actually didn’t achieve anything when he was in office”. Given that Miliband was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary who passed the Climate Change Act (mandating an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050) the last comment was particularly inappropriate and Cameron’s other remarks show why this was a smart line of attack. By forcing the Cameron to brandish his green credentials, Miliband is driving a wedge between him and the climate change deniers in his party. Few Tories will have enjoyed being reminded of the Lib Dem-friendly measures he listed. The PM’s refusal to acknowledge the chasm between his views and those of many Tories also allows Miliband to present him as a “weak” leader, unable to enforce collective responsibility in his government.
Earlier in the session, Miliband challenged Cameron to correct his claim that flood defence spending had increased since 2010 after the UK Statistics Authority confirmed that it had fallen (in both real and nominal terms). In defiance of the nation’s senior number crunchers, Cameron continued to insist that it had risen, but only by ignoring inflation and by including non-government spending (as Miliband noted). In a sure sign that he was losing the argument, Cameron resorted to the age-old charge that the opposition leader was dividing the country and had “misjudged the mood”. It was a line of attack reminsicent of those deployed by Gordon Brown at his weakest moments during the recession. Cameron appeared both evasive and arrogant. The abiding impression was of a man whose words, on climate change and flood defences, cannot be trusted.