Analysis — The Climate Change Act 10 Years On: A Decade of Denialism in Retreat

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The UK‘s landmark Climate Change Act passed into law 10 years ago with near-unanimous support, setting a legally-binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. It was the the first of its kind in the world, and many others would soon follow suit.

But not everyone was celebrating the anniversary.

Denier Response

Rupert Darwall and the Spectator, now a regular home to a tranche of oddballs and denialists, were particularly fervent in their upset.

Last month, Darwall celebrated anniversary with an extraordinary article in which he railed against ‘climate unilateralism’ and moaned that “however much greenhouse gases the rest of the world puts into the atmosphere, the Climate Change Act compels Britain to almost completely decarbonise.”

Of course Britain is not involved in ‘unilateralism’ but part of a huge international accord. 195 countries have signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change including India and China. Those who haven’t – or have and then threatened to withdraw – are treated like pariahs.

Darwall has previous, his book  Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex is like a dictionary of denial cliche.

He published an excerpt from the book at theNational Review where he asserted that the statement “the science is settled. We must act” is “unscientific in its premise and authoritarian in its consequence.”

Darwall is also the author of The Climate Change Act at Ten: History’s Most Expensive Virtue Signal published by the UK’s principal climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).

With a hint of nostalgia for simpler times he writes: “Snow fell gently from the sky as 465 MPs voted in favour of the third reading of the Climate Change Bill. Only five MPs voted against: Andrew Tyrie, punished by David Cameron with the chance of any frontbench job but now chairing the Competition and Markets Authority, Ann Widdecombe, Peter Lilley, Christopher Chope and Philip Davies.”

Those MPs are quite the collection.

Chope of course became famous for objecting to a private member’s bill which would have made upskirting a criminal offence in England and Wales. Philip Davies has previously come under fire for criticising a bill relating to domestic and sexual violence, whilst Ann Widdecombe may be remembered for insisting that women prisoners be shackled to their beds during childbirth while she was prions Minister.

Darwall identifies the act as a three part failure. It is, he argues, a ‘political failure’, a failure of the ‘national interest’ and:

Above all, the Climate Change Act is a moral failure. In the 2005 general election, the Labour party pledged to abolish fuel poverty. By 2015, fuel poverty was to have been a thing of the past. By the 2017 election, any thought of abolishing it had vanished. The impact of climate policies means that fuel poverty is here to stay.”

If we can distinguish between varieties of denial, there are perhaps three camps.

The first we could perhaps most kindly call ‘mavericks’, comprised of hobby scientists and sunspot enthusiasts; the second are perhaps the ‘commercially interested’, oil barons and coal merchants who have vested interests in polluting industries they want to defend, and third the ‘economic ideologues’. This third camp is certainly where Darwall belongs.

This is an outlook that can’t disentangle the capitalist economy and its key notions of growth and development from the climate crisis. For them regulation of any sort is an anathema.

This can lead to some very strange analysis. At one point Darwall writes seemingly not just in denial of climate change but in favour of the profitability of global warming:   

…there has not yet been any credible official study on the overall costs and benefits of global warming to Britain, which, it is plausible to believe, could benefit from some modest warming.”

Such claims have been debunked in some detail by others – including Carbon Brief: “From the early 2000s, there was wide discussion of the costs and benefits of a UK CO2 target. After including the savings from using less fossil energy, the costs of meeting the Act’s goal have consistently been put at around one percent of GDP. Successive governments have viewed this as a worthwhile investment in avoiding dangerous climate change, given the very high costs of global inaction.”

Stranger still, James Delingpole has been making inroads to the American alt-right scene with regular appearances on Breitbart. Here he celebrates the 10th anniversary of the act, claiming the law to be: “the most stupid, pointless and wasteful piece of legislation ever passed in British parliamentary history”.

Delingpole, who writes for the Koch-funded Spiked magazine claims that the environmental benefits of the climate change act: “…as will become clear shortly — are zero. Or, once you consider the damage wind turbines do to birds, bats, and the countryside generally, negative.”

These claims are a staple of the denial community and have been disproved again and again. The Act legislates for the government to cut emissions, which will ultimately help to quell some of the major impacts of climate change – such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves – all of which have a major impact on the environment.

As for the birds and the bats? Multiple studieshave shown fossil fuel and nuclear power stations harm many more

Consensus

The idea expressed by Darwall that ”there was stifling conformity” on taking action to tackle climate change is a recurring one in climate science denier circles.

The theme was taken up by GWPF co-founder Benny Peiser at an event in the House of Commons to mark the 10th anniversary of the Act: “One of the problems we have faced over the last 10 years is that the BBC has taken the decision that there is no debate. No one who has a dissenting voice can ever be invited.”

This is clearly nonsense, in fact is so wrong the opposite is true.  So much so that Ofcom had to rule against the BBC for regularly inviting on climate science denialists to radio and tv ‘debates’ in repeat example sof ‘false balance’.

If the intervening years have not been kind to the denial community, it is not simply down to being crushed under a ton of carbon data and relentless studies from the IPCC. Some of the shift in public opinion has come from everyday direct experience.

As Joe Sandler Clark writes in his account of that bizarre ‘celebration’: “Records continue to tumble – to date, the earth has been warmer than normal for 406 straight months – and the last few years have seen the climate crisis play out in ever more visceral and devastating ways. While a polar bear floating into oblivion on a shard of ice might have been ignorable, California being on fire is more immediate.”

That’s a bleak way to win a political argument, and spin and greenwash are still an ever present reality. So to is a more insidious form of change, how our language evolve to create euphemism and a protective shield against change.

It’s worth noting that the current minister in charge of seeing that the Climate Change Act is implemented is no longer part of the now disbanded Department of Energy and Climate Change, instead holding the title ,”Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth.”

But this shift also signifies that arguments about the need to tackle climate change have been lost. The debate is now ‘how’ and ‘how fast’ – not ‘if’ – the UK should deal with this challenge.

The climate science deniers were wrong then, and they’re wrong now. Here’s a quick glance at how they lost the argument:

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons CC – Stuart Palley

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