Lord Donoughue: Labour must ditch its climate change obsession

Posted On: 
5th December 2016

The cost of tackling climate change is falling most heavily on Britain's working families. If Labour does not speak out it is UKIP who will benefit, writes former minister Lord Donoughue 

In 2008, I was one of the many members of both houses who unquestioningly voted for Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act, with its legal commitments to rapidly decarbonise the British economy. The measure was not properly costed (now forecast at upwards of £360bn by 2050). I had not studied the Bill. This seemed a noble, if eye-wateringly ambitious, project: to ‘save the planet’. Who could object to that?

I decided to study climate change. The more I explored it, the more I began to question what was being claimed by the evangelical climate change movement, and especially how the Labour party was responding. I was also intrigued by the growth of the ‘save the planet’ movement, in a period when Marxism and Christianity were falling further into discredit.

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People on the liberal left of politics often now lacked a motivating belief. Climate change offered to fill that faith void. It was an easy political ‘good’, providing policy objectives linked to fashionable green environmentalism around which ‘well intentioned’ people, reading the Guardian and listening to the BBC, can unite.

It also appealed to what is now helpfully termed ‘virtue signalling’, whereby declared support for some good cause by the well intentioned is a clear signal of moral righteousness, even superiority. The trouble is, as Anthony Crosland once said, “good intentions often lead to bad policies”.

My initial conclusions are simple: that the climate is indeed changing – it always has; that the planet is in an upward warming cycle – as it has been several times, before cooling again; and that carbon emissions do have a relationship with global warming – though the degree of this sensitivity has not been conclusively established. So I am certainly not a ‘denier’, like some nasty neo-Nazi denying the clearly proven Holocaust.

But those are not the real questions which should concern policymakers. They are whether the globe is warming at an unprecedented rate, which will accelerate and seriously damage our planet. And whether carbon emissions, if responsible, can be controlled by political action to limit or reverse those alleged new trends.

Observational evidence so far gives no answers to those questions which justify the alarmist predictions. Factually, our global temperature has increased by only some 0.8°C since proper official records began nearly 140 years ago – and has seen virtually no further warming at all this century. Alarmists proclaim that 2016 is our ‘hottest year’ (implying ‘ever’). But those 140 years of a warming cycle are a mere drop in the ocean of climate history.

The prediction for a scorching planet later this century is based on computer model forecasting. It may happen, but there is no evidence for it. These model forecasts, published in the UN IPCC reports for 20 years, show ranges of predicted temperature growth for this century – none of which have so far happened. Our temperatures have been below the most cautious forecast.

Many predictions of specific environmental damage from warming have not emerged. Polar bears have not disappeared, but are at a recent peak number. The Arctic is melting, but parts of the Antarctic are icing over. Ocean levels are rising, as they have for centuries, but not at alarming levels.

Claimed ‘weather extremes’ have no proven basis. Mass migration is not caused by climate change; it is linked to war and relative poverty. The dogmatic claim that a ‘universal consensus among scientists’ supports the alarmist observations has not survived factual scrutiny. Beware climate scaremongering.

Further influencing me in this debate has been the aggressive and ad hominem style shown by many climate change arguers. Anyone questioning their case on factual or financial grounds risks abuse. Being radical Labour (63 years’ membership), I resist bullying orthodoxies. 

I also ask who pays for this expensive policy of precipitately decarbonising our energy economy – and is it working? The current programme is paid for disproportionately by our poorer working people through their inflated energy bills. These green taxes are punitively regressive. 47% of the recent large increase in domestic energy costs is due to green taxes – and those levies are scheduled to rocket by 2020.

The sacked steelworkers at Redcar and Port Talbot are also paying the price: made redundant partly because of the green taxes on their energy costs (double that on their European competitors) rendering them uncompetitive. Their jobs are taken by factories in Asia with few, if any, green taxes – and high carbon emissions!

It seems odd that Labour pursues climate policies whose costs fall most heavily on those who traditionally supported Labour. No wonder some of the Labour vote has left to Ukip and Brexit.

The reasons are complex, but the obsession of Labour’s recent liberal leadership with elitist issues such as climate change is one of them. Polls show that climate change ranks very low among the concerns of working people. Job security, frozen pay, immigration and housing shortages concern them far more.

Labour needs to reposition on climate change. It should not ignore it; if evidence shows dangerous warming developing, we should make proportionate responses. We have time for that. But the ‘insurance’ case is not convincing. The price currently being imposed is not justified by the evidential risk.

Anyway, dangerous climate change will be countered only on a fully international level, including the main emitters, China, India and the US. With Trump in power, they may do little. Indeed they are opening more coal-fired generators than we ever had to close. There is no sense in the UK damaging its economy and its consumers with high energy costs in pursuit of some fanciful ‘moral leadership’ of the world, when we emit less than 2% of global carbon anyway. That is fatuous ‘virtue-signalling’.

Meanwhile, Labour could reconstruct a sensible climate policy, based on the evidence as it develops. Adopt practical measures which are desirable anyway: better coastal defences and use of floodplains, greater energy efficiency, the use of efficient renewables (not silly and expensive windmills), the use of small nuclear plants and the extraction of cheap and relatively clean shale gas from our bonanza reserves.

We should retreat from the punitive 2008 legal emissions targets and accept that an energy efficient economy is crucial to the wellbeing of the British people. The costs of sensible climate adaption should rest on progressive direct taxation.

Labour should make a realistic appraisal of the climate situation and get back in touch with its natural support among working people.   

Lord Donoughue is a Labour peer, and a former farming minister and senior No.10 policy adviser