"The majority of colleagues don't really understand the science": Tory MP

  • 27 Mar 2012, 16:00
  • Ros Donald

Many of the UK's parliamentarians have too poor a grasp of scientific principles to fully understand the consequences of climate change for the future, according to one Conservative MP.

Over recent months, there has been increasing level of opposition to green policies from some parts of the Conservative party, with 101 MPs writing to Prime Minister David Cameron expressing opposition to windfarm expansion in the UK and the Chancellor, George Osborne, asserting that "environmental laws" are "piling costs" on consumers and businesses.

What's at the root of these shifts - and is there a danger that the cross-party consensus on the need for the UK to reduce its emissions could break down in this country?

Speaking to Ed King from the website Responding to Climate Change, Dr Philip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell and a member of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, said the combination of an economic recession and a "healthy ignorance of scientific principles" mean that maintaining the consensus on cutting carbon is not a given in the future.

He said:

"The problem is that the majority of colleagues don't really understand the science, to be blunt. As a consequence, particularly at times of economic recession and difficulties throughout the globe, it's rather difficult to sell policies which actually add costs to business and consumers."

Lee said while MPs and the public in the UK tend to agree humans are contributing to climate change:

"there's work to be done to persuade colleagues across the parties - but mainly in my own party - that [...] we need to do something about it.  Even Nigel Lawson, who is running a campaign against any sense that man is responsible for climate change, admits CO2 levels have gone up."

According to Lee, events such as the leaked emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia have contributed to doubt about what will happen as a result of climate change. He said from his point of view, there is a sense among his colleagues and the wider public that the evidence from climate modelling and other disciplines about future problems such as sea level rise "doesn't add up".

Climate policy in a downturn

Lee's comments underline the fact that among the majority of MPs in government who agree that anthropogenic climate change must be addressed, the policy measures we could use to do so are still very much up for debate. 

Lee said he is firmly of the opinion that subsidies for renewables will cost the country, expressing frustration at the government for inplementing them while the UK economy is in "distress". "Government intervention has got to be economically realistic and it's got to work," he said, adding that he does not think UK policies have always lived up to those criteria.

But the question of how the UK is to cut carbon emissions without subsidies for new and emerging technologies still remains. Looking to plans for the UK's energy future, Lee believes that that shale gas has "muddied the waters" when it comes to planning the UK's energy mix, predicting it will "flood the market with cheaper gas". Nuclear, meanwhile, is not as unpopular as expected. He said: "All the communities living near nuclear power stations want them replaced".

In a world where the energy mix will be predominantly fossil fuel-based, Lee says carbon capture and storage techniques (CCS) will be a "game changer" in cutting emissions - especially in China, which is currently "locked" into a high carbon growth path. He argues that international meetings to agree CO2 targets will be futile unless countries agree on the means to exploit CCS.

Emissions cuts on the international stage

The committee has been focusing on China's decisive role in the reduction or otherwise of the world's carbon emissions:

"[T]he reality is that 5 million people are living on two dollars today and they want a better life, [which today means more high carbon consumption]."

Lee believes that unless China can switch from unabated coal-fired electricity production, the world can forget measures such as emissions trading. He also argues that the fact that China is an autocracy means that the government, which is already having to deal with desertification and water shortages, can implement sweeping carbon-cutting measures that would never be possible in democracies such as Britain or America - adding that there is "little evidence" any strategies to change behaviour in the west have succeeded on "any level."

Asked what we can expect from forthcoming meetings - Rio+20 in June and Cop 18 in Qatar - Lee said he expects the EU to drive progress at the negotiations. The problem, however, is that: "There are billions of people who don't yet have what we take for granted."

Pay now, gain later

Lee believes that the UK will also have to start implementing longer-term plans to combat the vagaries of the electoral cycle. One analogy he gave was the problem of planning for an ageing population as illustrated in the adverse reaction to measures in the budget on Wednesday that reduced pensioners' tax credits. In the same way, anthropogenic climate change means people will have to "accept they might have to take a hit now for their grandchildren to have a world worth living in".

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