Storms Whip Up Policy Debate On Climate Change

  • Date: 14/02/14
  • Pilita Clark and Jim Pickard, Financial Times

The UK’s extreme winter weather has fast become a flashpoint in the debate over whether climate change is already affecting weather systems, and how governments should respond to it.

When huge seas smashed into a sea wall in the Devon resort town of Dawlish and left a rail track designed in the 1800s swaying in mid-air last week, global warming sceptics around the world paid attention.

This was no example of how climate change is wrecking structures that have stood for a century, according to a lengthy article posted on the popular US site Wattsupwiththat, a showcase for climate science critics.

“The real story is that an already inadequate sea wall structure which carries the mainline railway has taken numerous hits from waves and storms since its inception and has become steadily weakened,” the item said.

“The line was clearly built to a budget in the 1840s and the measures needed to compensate for its problematic location have only sporadically been implemented ever since.”

The article underlines how the UK’s extreme winter weather has fast become a flashpoint in the debate over whether climate change is already affecting weather systems, and how governments should respond to it.

The debate is not just rhetorical for ministers such as the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, Ed Davey, whose multibillion pound programme of green energy subsidies is frequently attacked by Tory climate sceptics as a waste of money.

“We can see around us today the possible consequences of a world in which extreme weather events are much more likely,” Mr Davey said in a speech on Thursday that accused Conservative party “fringes” of “parroting the arguments of the most discredited climate change deniers”.

This “wilfully ignorant, head in the sand, nimbyist conservatism” was creating a “diabolical cocktail” threatening the UK’s entire climate policy structure, he said.

His comments drew a swift riposte from Michael Fallon, Conservative energy minister, who told the Evening Standard: “Unthinking climate change worship has damaged British industry and put up consumer bills.”

Mr Davey has made similar attacks in the past, but his comments may have more resonance at a time when the public is focused on the flooding that has submerged 5,800 homes and crippled rail networks.

The number of people who think the “environment” is the biggest cause of concern in the UK has jumped from 6 per cent to 23 per cent in a month – on a par with welfare – according to pollsters YouGov.

Still, this is unlikely to sway prominent Conservative climate policy critics such as Lord Lawson, the former Conservative Chancellor.

“There has been all sorts of bad weather in the past. This is nothing new,” he told the FT yesterday, adding that neither he nor climate scientists really knew if the climate was changing.

“They don’t know and I don’t know. The jury is still out. It may change and it may not and if it does change we need to intelligently adapt to it, which is what mankind has done all along,” he said.

“Every prediction so far that the alarmists have made has been falsified,” he said, adding that while increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere undoubtedly warm the planet, it is unclear by how much, or how natural forces affect such changes.

Such claims are shared by other Tory MPs, such as Peter Lilley, and there is much speculation about whether Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, agrees.

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