The politics of Nigel Lawson’s argument on climate change, set on in his book An Appeal To Reason, is roughly as follows. Britain contributes only a small percentage of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, developing countries will continue to carbonise their economies, and thus all over-rapid decarbonisation is likely to achieve in Britain is to shift those emissions abroad. In other words, the planet won’t be saved but voters will be hit – particularly poorer ones who simply can’t afford energy bills that rise faster than prices.
Decarbonisation should proceed as briskly as possible, given our dependence on energy supplies from dangerous and unstable parts of the world. But this raises the question of how brisk briskness can really be, especially in the context of our fragile growth, the threat to living standards, and the plight of poorer voters. Whatever one believes about the human contribution to climate change – and indeed about whether global warming is taking place at all – Lawson’s take on the politics of the issue is very shrewd.
What’s more important isn’t so much Huhne’s politics as his policies. It’s true that his dash for windmills is supported by David Cameron, who since his earliest leadership days has seen industrial decarbonisation as political decontamination, and that the Energy Secretary’s plan was signed up to by both parties in the Coalition Agreement. But the bright young generation on the Conservative backbenches will be thinking about the future and have an eye on abroad – on Australia, for example, where a carbon tax is causing a Labour Government grief.
Conservative leadership abroad in the Anglosphere, and sometimes elsewhere, is very cool about global warming. It stresses adaptation and technological innovation rather than mitigation alone. There is an example here for those Tory MPs to follow. Conserving the environment is about more than the global warming debate. We don’t want soil to be eroded, water to be exhausted or species to be lost. We don’t like badly designed buildings and estates, or landscapes that are despoiled by wind farms – a reminder that environmental considerations can cut both ways.
Huhne’s speech, shorn of its ploys to bolster support from Liberal Democrat activists and gambits to evade blame for rising energy bills, essentially offered more of the same. Conservatives, faced with the orthodoxy about man-made global warming, have tended to date either to concede it, as the party leadership has done, or confront it, like a combative band of right-wing bloggers – and very few MPs, with the notable exception of Andrew Tyrie, Lawson’s former special adviser, during the last Parliament.
So there is space for enterprising Tory MPs to fill the gap that Tyrie’s election to the chair of the Treasury Select Committee has left. No less importantly, they have a chance to remind voters that enviromental protection is multi-faceted, and that the word “conservative” is only a stones-throw away from the word “conservation”. Not so long ago, the struggle for social justice was seen as of little interest to the right in Britain. Iain Duncan Smith’s work at the Centre for Social Justice changed all that. It provides an example to follow: we need a new CSJ, green-style.