The past few weeks have been a political whirlwind for the UK…
We very narrowly voted to leave the EU, which shocked everyone, even the people who had been campaigning for it for months. The prime minister resigned (after reportedly complaining ‘why should I do the hard shit?!’ to his aides) and Labour promptly imploded into a backstabby messy coup. Meanwhile the Tory leadership election was equally backstabby and brutal but with an efficient speed that bizarrely saw Theresa May become prime minister without anyone voting for her. Meanwhile the value of the pound fell of a cliff and billions of pounds in that ethereal realm known as the stock market vanished. Oh, and a chilling wave of hate crime also hit the country in the wake of the shock Brexit vote. It’s all basically been just shocker after shocker for the last four weeks.
As if all that wasn’t enough to deal with, one of Theresa May’s first moves, on her first full day in office, was to axe the department of climate change.
I just about fell over when this happened, on 14th July.
Why would anyone even consider getting rid of the department that deals with the single biggest threat to humanity in the 21st century? Let alone prioritise its demise as one of the first things to do?
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is no more. There was no consultation, or Parliament debate, no time for a petition. May just literally went in and axed it, no questions asked. I should point out though, the government does still claim to be tackling climate change. The Climate Change Act of 2008 still stands, and the Paris Agreement is still a thing (although the UK hasn’t ratified it yet, and everything’s a bit different now as we were lumped in with the EU when it was hashed out).
The business department has now been expanded into the ‘Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’ (BEIS) and has technically absorbed all the responsibilities that DECC had. However as you can see, climate change is clearly not classed as top priority given it didn’t make it into the title. Ed Miliband was quick to point out why this matters.
DECC abolition just plain stupid. Climate not even mentioned in new dept. title. Matters because depts shape priorities shape outcomes.
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) July 14, 2016
The Green Party, New Economics Foundation, Greenpeace and other green groups unsurprisingly reacted with alarm, saying the move was downgrading the status of climate change and sends a very bad signal to business and the international community. CEO of ClientEarth James Thornton told the Guardian:
“At a time when the challenge of climate change becomes ever more pressing, the government has scrapped the department devoted to tackling it. This is a statement of disregard for one of the most challenging economic, social and environmental issues humans have ever faced”.
There are two main explanations for May’s bizarre decision to scrap DECC mere months after the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.
The ‘generous’ one is that climate action is now ingrained in all policy to such an extent that it has become obvious, and that the new BEIS department will integrate climate action into all areas of the economy. I suppose it’s possible May could see climate change as ‘obvious’ as almost all politicians and businesses at least give it platitudes, and few people deny we need to do something about it. Even more ‘generously’, she could have been thinking climate strategy needs to be integrated into all business and industrial strategy rather than just being siloed with energy – essentially a more radical climate action plan than we had before.
This explanation is so generous it’s actually hopelessly naive. We do need climate change to be fully integrated into economic policy and all other areas of policy, but there will clearly be many cases when business interests and climate action point in two directions, and a hard-right Tory government will blatantly choose the ‘good for business’ option, even when it’s bad for climate change. Fracking springs to mind. Also, May clearly understands the value of giving big, ‘obvious’ and timely issues their own department, because she just made one for Brexit.
The other explanation is that Theresa May simply does not give a damn about climate change, and would rather throw a bone to the extreme-right climate-sceptic fringe of her party who have been wanting to scrap DECC from day one. This sadly seems a lot more likely to me, because one of her top priorities – perhaps the top priority – is unifying the Conservative Party, which was so furiously divided over the Brexit battle. Sickeningly, David Cameron is actually considered a “moderniser” by old-fashioned Tory backbenchers who have been grumpy about things like wind farms and gay marriage. Pleasing these kinds of people would result in terrible policies, but would prevent a backbench rebellion, which May is clearly concerned about. She awarded three of the top jobs – Foreign Secretary, Brexit Minister and International Trade Minister – to Boris Johnson, David Davies and Liam Fox, respectively. Greenpeace’s investigative journalism arm EnergyDesk, reports how all three have links to climate sceptics and the fossil fuel lobby, and have generally voted against environmental protection.
The one glimmer of hope in this is that the new head of the BEIS department, Greg Clark, is widely considered to be quite green – for a Tory, anyway. He did specifically underline his commitment to climate action in his opening statement, published on gov.uk and various news channels:
“I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change”.
Great to hear, but politicians of all stripes – especially Tories – are very good at reassuring words that they know people want to hear. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Another piece of good news is that amid the Brexit chaos, Amber Rudd (the then climate and energy secretary, before DECC was axed) announced the UK’s new climate target. A 57% carbon cut by 2032, compared to the 1990 baseline. This is considered by experts to be quite ambitious and in line with the science. It’s legally binding under the 2008 Climate Change Act, which is still valid post-DECC. However, putting it into action will now be the responsibility of BEIS.
The demise of DECC and the government’s shift to the right pose a real risk of derailing the UK’s climate action, but that isn’t inevitable. Citizens and civil society need to be even more on the case and more vocal than ever to hold this new government to account and ensure climate action stays at the top of the agenda.