Climate Feedback

Election 2010: Climate debate ‘hots’ up

Geoff Brumfiel; cross-posted from The Great Beyond

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Last night candidates from the three major parties here in the UK came to central London to debate on all matters climatic. Behind the podium were Ed Miliband, the current Labour government’s secretary of state for climate change, Greg Clark, the Conservative shadow secretary on the issue, and Simon Hughes the Liberal Democrat’s climate spokesperson.

The debate kicked off with a question about building a third runway at Heathrow, and it set the tone for the whole thing: “We’ve been very clear that we’re against a third runway at Heathrow,” Clark told the audience. Clark would rather have high-speed rail lines linking Heathrow to major cities in the south-east and continental Europe.

“What Greg didn’t tell you is that he’s in favour of airport expansion [elsewhere] in the south-east,” Labour-climate-guy Miliband retorted. He said Labour’s goal of having aviation emissions no higher than present levels in 2050 was a more ambitious target than declarations about a single runway here or there. That could only be achieved with higher taxes on air passengers, he said.

The Liberal Democrat’s Simon Hughes agreed with Miliband about expansion, but added he wanted alternative forms of transport to be “cost beneficial”. “That means lower rail fairs,” he says. How does he cover the cost? By raising the taxes on airlines flying with empty planes.

So Hughes and Miliband agree on taxes and Hughes and Clark agree on rail access and Miliband and Clark sort of agree on airport expansion. It felt like it was one of those story problems they give you in school that you solve by drawing a Venn diagram. So that’s exactly what I did (see right). Venn diagram.jpg

It really does show how this debate worked. Everyone agreed that climate change is bad, and each party had a set of solutions that looked, in many ways, like a variation on the solutions of the other two parties. Everyone agreed that the UK needs to stage a green recovery from the economic recession, that offshore wind farms were good things, and that it was the responsibility of politicians to make sure the public understood climate change.

The Guardian, which hosted the debate, dubbed Liberal Democrat candidate Simon Hughes the winner, but I’m less sure. It’s undoubtedly true that Hughes tended to stand out from his two rivals: he wholly opposed the expansion of nuclear power for example, nor was he supportive of coal-fired power plants that used carbon capture technology. But I couldn’t help but think he benefited from being in a minority party that, despite a recent surge in the polls, is unlikely to be running the next government. Hughes could say what he liked, and if his policies didn’t quite line up with reality, well it wasn’t so important—he’d probably never get a chance to enact them.

That being said, Hughes did mount a pretty convincing attack on Conservative Greg Clark. Numerous Conservative ‘back benchers’ (members of parliament who are not ministers) were climate sceptics, he pointed out. How was Clark going to enact climate policies when the majority of his party was not signed up to the official Conservative policy, Hughes asked. Clark responded meekly that climate change sceptics resided in all parties, but he was pretty unconvincing, especially when he got confused and told the crowd: “I don’t know of anyone in the shadow cabinet who doesn’t believe, as I do, in the reality of climate change and is not determined to make it happen.”

The crowd chuckled, and Clark moved on.

The other big gotcha moment came when environmental attack-dog George Monbiot laid into the three candidates for their support of expanding drilling for natural gas in the North Sea. That was a “clear contradiction” of stated goals to wean Britain from fossil fuels, Monbiot said. “Perhaps your policy in all three cases is to get as much of it out of the ground as you can, cross your fingers and then pray to God that no one uses it. Right or wrong?”

The Venn diagram pretty much overlapped on that one. All three candidates said that natural gas was a bridge between present-day technologies and future, greener ones.

As an American living in Britain, I have to say that the very exercise of watching three parties debate the environment was interesting enough all by itself. But none of them was able to whole-heartedly convince me that they were going to be able to turn Britain green.

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