Cameron's performance at Prime Minister's Questions proves that, when extreme weather strikes, political and business leaders have to engage with climate risks
Two years ago Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls used his Labour party conference speech to attack the government's failure to deliver a coherent infrastructure strategy, accusing ministers of repeatedly ducking tough decisions (I know, plus ca change). Rattling off the long list of internal coalition battles over Heathrow expansion, renewable energy and HS2, he argued that politicians had a responsibility to decide the future mix of the UK's infrastructure investment, culminating in an assertion that "we must decide how we are going to protect our country from rising sea levels and exceptional rainfall".
After the speech I remember discussing its implications with Green Alliance's Alastair Harper, who highlighted the mention of flood risk as being particularly politically canny. "There are a lot of marginals in the north and west that keep getting flooded," he noted. "There could be votes in flood protection."
I was reminded of this exchange today as David Cameron faced a gentle grilling at the first Prime Minister's Questions of the year over his government's response to some of the worst floods in living memory and its wider response to the worsening impacts that climate change threatens. Climate change may occasionally drift from the top of the political agenda, but the all-encompassing and existential nature of the risks it presents means that it has a nasty habit of forcing politicians to engage with the issue from time to time.
Responding to questions from Labour's Ed Miliband and the Lib Dems' Tim Farron on, respectively, the adequacy of Defra's flood preparedness and the link between climate change and increasing extreme weather risks, Cameron promised the government would report back on its flood resilience strategy and acknowledged that, while "colleagues... can argue about whether [extreme weather] is linked to climate change or not, I very much suspect that it is".
The Prime Minister made these assertions knowing full well that Labour's request for a more detailed response on the UK's flood preparedness is a trap designed to discomfort a Conservative Environment Secretary who does not accept that climate change is a serious risk to the UK and who has overseen real term cuts to flood resilience spending. He made these assertions knowing that his 'suspicion' that there is a link between increased incidents of extreme weather and climate change would make some of his climate-sceptic colleagues apoplectic. He made these assertions knowing that things could get very difficult politically if a fight over climate change policy highlights the incomplete nature of his modernisation agenda and the deep divisions within his party on a host of green issues.
And yet he still made them, in part, I believe, because he still regards climate change as a serious issue that requires a serious response, and in part because what else could he do? With flooded communities still facing massive disruption, soaring clean-up costs and in some cases tragic loss of life, it is the responsibility of a Prime Minister to both explain how the UK can minimise the risk presented by flooding and engage seriously with scientific warnings that these risks will escalate.
Inevitably, the UK's small but depressingly influential band of 'climate sceptics' seized on the Prime Minister's comments and set about trying to demonstrate why he is being delusional to so much as 'suspect' a link between climate change and extreme weather. But as everyone who engages honestly with this topic knows, while the link between climate change and extreme weather is complex and contested, some things are pretty close to certain. As Reading University's Professor Richard Allan explained in a post for the Carbon Brief blog today: "While individual storms or successions of storms cannot be linked directly to climate change, there are some aspects of a warming climate that are relatively well understood and have implications for the severity of impacts we suffer." What we do know is this: global average temperatures are on a long-term upward trend; the vast majority of climate scientists attribute this in large part to greenhouse gas emissions; this warming will almost certainly disrupt established weather trends, such as those shaped by the jet stream; and basic physics dictates that it will allow the air to hold more moisture, making storms more powerful and increasing the risk of flooding.
The reason the Prime Minister "very much suspects" there is a link between climate change and extreme weather is that, despite all the noises off, he understands these basic realities and was evidently listening when the UK's chief scientist recently briefed the entire cabinet on the conclusions of the IPCC report on the latest climate science. He also understands that, when climate impacts hit, voters are unlikely to be too sympathetic towards politicians who fail to engage properly with the risks they face (just as he understands that polling shows a high degree of public enthusiasm for the green economy that he once championed, before he got spooked by UKIP and his right-wing backbenchers).
In his impressive new book, The Energy of Nations (full review to follow shortly), clean tech entrepreneur and former oil industry geologist Jeremy Leggett describes this phenomenon as the "power of context" – the shift that occurs in public priorities and demands when the context of worsening climate change or an oil crisis prompts a mass realisation that the economy really is vulnerable to environmental and resource constraints. It is a riveting book that uses a history of the financial and energy scandals of the past decade to demonstrate quite how vulnerable these two all-important pillars of the economy are to the future resource and climate shocks that many informed insiders are convinced could hit in the coming decade.
As with anything to do with the energy industry and climate change risk, Leggett's conclusions (many of which warn that we are heading for a seriously tough time over the next two decades) are likely to be the subject of fierce debate, but few would argue that savvy political and business leaders need to be aware of this 'power of context'. Any business or government that claims to take climate risk seriously must also accept that when they do occur climate (and resource security) crises will only serve to demonstrate the wisdom of what advocates of the green economy have been arguing for years, namely that low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure and business models are much better protected against shocks than the current status quo. Under such a scenario those leaders who fail to manage these risks will face serious recriminations from customers and voters, just as those who have acted to alleviate climate risks will prosper.
There could be votes in flood protection after all, it just takes the power of context to see it.
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