Last month, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme and challenged on his views on windfarms and climate change where he made the following claim that appeared to downplay the realities of the human contribution to climate change (transcript):
It is quite obvious that the climate is changing and has been changing for some years, up and down. It is obvious that there is a human element. There are all sorts of other things that affect climate change, like the sun.
Paterson has been accused of climate scepticism by environmentalists and this comment seemed to imply that he was supportive of the theory that climate change is primarily driven by solar activity, something that has been debunked.
I asked for, and was given, a copy of a presentation made to Paterson shortly after his appointment as Environment Secretary to establish how much he had been told about climate change and the human contribution.
On the 10th September, 2012, 6 days after his appointment, Paterson was given a presentation* by a team of experts on the causes, expected impact and the implications for strategic planning of climate change.
This presentation is based on IPCC reports and data from the Met Office and other respected bodies and publications. In particular the following slide makes explicit the massive influence of man made over natural factors in driving the global temperature increase.
It does appear that Paterson has gone against the advice of his department, advice of which he was informed. Regrettably though, circumspection is needed to guard against the easy temptation of partisan political point scoring. Despite the best efforts of environmental reporters and activists there is little more than gossip, innuendo and the behaviour of his in-laws to link Paterson to a climate sceptic position. Given this, the coments made on Today are perhaps better explained as the near inevitable clumsy wording that comes from doing live interviews under pressure than a climate sceptic revealing his true colours.
Besides, despite being Environment Secretary, and head of the Department of Enviroment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), reducing CO2 emissions and developing and sustaining cleaner forms of energy is the remit of the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and not Paterson’s.
This does not mean that Paterson, and DEFRA, are marginalised. Specific to its remit, it helps develop an evidence base to understand, and help mitigate, the effects of climate change on the UK’s landscape, water bodies and means of food production. Relevant to this is the original subject of Paterson’s interview on Today, and cause of much environmentalist ire, wind farms.
Wind farms is an issue that is extremely divisive for the Coalition government, and Paterson’s concerns are shared by many Tories, including John Haynes, a minister at DECC, whose own Secretary of State, Ed Davey, is trying to marginalise(£).
Given that the government have signed up to the Fourth Carbon Budget, a move to increased non-carbon based forms of energy to reduce emissions is mandatory. Onshore windfarms need not form part of this strategy, but if they are not to be used, then Paterson, and in general the parts of Government that reject them, need to present their evidence for doing so, and their planned alternatives.
I am assuming that the presentation given to Paterson is similar to those given in other departments, if so, it will contain the following slide on the impacts of increases in global temperature:
No serious politician can ignore the implications of this on the country, and, assuming no minister has explicity rejected the evidence base on climate – not something to my knowledge has happened – departmental strategic planning must have taken these temperature rises into account.
Therefore I would rather that press and environmentalist scrutiny of the government focussed less on the soap opera aspects of disagreement over windfarms, or unevidenced allegations of climate scepticism and more on demanding from ministers, of various energetic positions, coping strategies for climate change, even if they are different.
We might even be able to decide on a favoured solution primarily on the basis of evidence.