Snow blankets London for Global Warming debate
How Parliament passed the Climate Bill
Snow fell as the House of Commons debated Global Warming yesterday - the first October fall in the metropolis since 1922. The Mother of Parliaments was discussing the Mother of All Bills for the last time, in a marathon six hour session.
In order to combat a projected two degree centigrade rise in global temperature, the Climate Change Bill pledges the UK to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The bill was receiving a third reading, which means both the last chance for both democratic scrutiny and consent.
The bill creates an enormous bureaucratic apparatus for monitoring and reporting, which was expanded at the last minute. Amendments by the Government threw emissions from shipping and aviation into the monitoring program, and also included a revision of the Companies Act (c. 46) "requiring the directors’ report of a company to contain such information as may be specified in the regulations about emissions of greenhouse gases from activities for which the company is responsible" by 2012.
Recently the American media has begun to notice the odd incongruity of saturation media coverage here which insists that global warming is both man-made and urgent, and a British public which increasingly doubts either to be true. 60 per cent of the British population now doubt the influence of humans on climate change, and more people than not think Global Warming won't be as bad "as people say".
Both figures are higher than a year ago - and the poll was taken before the non-summer of 2008, and the (latest) credit crisis.
Yet anyone looking for elected representatives to articulate these concerns will have been disappointed. Instead, representatives had a higher purpose - demonstrating their virtue. And for the first 90 minutes of the marathon debate, the new nobility outdid each other with calls for tougher pledges, or stricter monitoring. Gestures are easy, so no wonder MPs like making them so much.
It was all deeply sanctimonious, but no one pointed out that Europe's appetite for setting targets that hurt the economy has evaporated in recent weeks - so it's a gesture few countries will feel compelled to imitate.
The US Senate has Senator James Inhofe, but in the Commons, there wasn't an out-and-out sceptic to be found. It was 90 minutes before anyone broke the liturgy of virtue. When Peter Lilley, in amazement, asked why there hadn't been a cost/benefit analysis made of such a major change in policy, he was told to shut up by the Deputy Speaker.
(And even Lilley - one of only five out of 653 MPs to vote against the Climate Bill in its second reading - felt it necessary to pledge his allegiance to the Precautionary Principle.)
It fell to a paid-up member of Greenpeace, the Labour MP Rob Marris, to point out the Bill was a piece of political showboating that would fail. While professing himself a believer in the theory that human activity is primarily the cause of global warming, he left plenty of room for doubt - far more than most members. The legislation was doomed, Marris said.
MP Rob Marris
Marris had previously supported the 60 per cent target but thought that 80 per cent, once it included shipping and aviation, wouldn't work. We could have a higher target, or include shipping and aviation, but not both.
He compared it to asking someone to run 100m in 14 seconds - which they might consider something to train for. Asking someone to run it in ten seconds just meant people would dismiss the target.
"The public will ask 'why should we bother doing anything at all?'"
Out of bounds
The closest thing to a British Inhofe is Ulsterman Sammy Wilson, Democratic Unionist Party, who'd wanted a "reasoned debate" on global warming, rather than bullying, and recently called environmentalism a "hysterical psuedo-religion". Wilson described the Climate Bill as a disaster, but even colleagues who disagree with his views of environmentalism are wary of the latest amendments.
The Irish Republic is likely to reap big economic gains if it doesn't penalise its own transport sector as fiercely as the UK pledges to penalise its own in the bill. Most Ulster MPs were keenly aware of the costs, and how quickly the ports and airports could close, when a cheaper alternative lies a few miles away over the border.
Tory barrister Christopher Chope professed himself baffled by the logic of including aviation and shipping. If transportation was made more expensive, how could there be more trade?
"As we destroy industry we'll be more dependent on shipping and aviation for our imports!" he said.
"When the history books come to be written people will ask why were the only five MPs... who voted against this ludicrous bill," he said. It would tie Britain up in knots for years, all for a futile gesture, Chope thought.
However, Tim Yeo, the perma-suntanned Tory backbencher who wants us to carry carbon rationing cards, said it would "improve Britain's competitiveness". He didn't say how.
Lilley impertinently pointed out that no cost/benefit case had been made for handicapping shipping and aviation. It was the first mention in the chamber of the cost of the commitments being discussed. Estimates put the total cost of the Climate Change Bill at £210bn, or £10,000 per household - potentially twice the benefits.
Quoting Nordhaus, Lilley noted that Stern ("Lord Stern - he got his reward") had only got his front-loaded benefits by using improbable discount rates - and then only half the benefits of making drastic carbon reductions will kick in by the year 2800. The government has said it wasn't using Stern's discount rates to calculate the cost of shipping and aviation restrictions, but a more sensible and traditional rate of 3.5 per cent instead - yet it refused to reveal the costs. Lilley asked:
"I ask the house - is it sensible to buy into an insurance policy where the premiums are twice the value of the house?"
Stop right there, heretic.
Liilley was "building a broad case on a narrow foundation", the Deputy Speaker told him. "I really must direct him to the specific matter that's included in these clauses and amendments."
Earlier, the Tories had said they would be tougher on carbon than Labour, and the Lib Dems the toughest of the lot. Much more representative of the tone of the debate was Nia Griffith, the NuLab MP for Lanelli.
Her comments are worth repeating (Hansard link to follow today) because language tells us a lot - not only about the bureaucratic ambitions of the exercise, but how the modern politician thinks about governing.
Griffith told the House that the Bill was "a process not an end in itself", and had great value as a "monitoring tool".
MP Nia Griffith
"It's the targets that make us think," she said. She also used the phrase "raise consciousness" - as in, "it must raise consciousness amongst nations that follow suit."
In other words, if you take a gesture, then pile on targets and penalties, you will change people's behaviour. Maybe she hasn't heard of Goodhart's law.
Yesterday, however, it seemed that the only MPs exhibiting enough "consciousness" to actually think - and ask reasonable questions about cost and effectiveness of the gesture - got a good telling off.
The Bill finally passed its third reading by 463 votes to three. ®
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The Met Office - one of the keenest advocates of the theory of man-made global warming - predicted this weather for London yesterday.
At 9pm, after snow had been falling for three hours in the city, we learned that, "BBC Weather forecasters say... an area north west of London will get more snow through the evening and it is likely to move further south".
Weather isn't climate, of course. But you can still be equally hopeless about predicting both.