"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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".