Tories’ scepticism about climate change melts after winter floods – in their constituencies

John Gummer tells Tom Bawden a thawing in attitudes is down to recent bad weather and a tide of scientific evidence

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Senior Tories have shed their scepticism about climate change after winter floods wreaked havoc on rural constituencies and scientists debunked key sceptic arguments, according to John Gummer, the government’s top independent climate advisor.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Gummer – life peer Lord Deben – acknowledged that the rise of the climate-sceptic UK Independence Party meant environmentalists might have to “fight more” for green causes in future.

But he said that this was offset by a growing acceptance of the dangers posed by climate change among Tory MPs and members who had previously been reluctant to take the issue seriously.

“There is a countervailing thing happening. There’s less of the climate dismissing in the Conservative party now than there was six months ago,” said Lord Deben, a former Tory Environment Secretary under John Major in the mid-1990s.

As chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, he is now in charge of the independent panel set up by the government to advise it on tackling global warming. “This is partly the floods and partly down to the facts of climate change – the realisation that this is not something that’s going to happen but something that is already happening,” he said.

Large swathes of the south of England were under water for weeks at the start of the year, with the area around the Somerset Levels hit hardest.

John Gummer chairs the Committee on Climate Change (Rex) John Gummer chairs the Committee on Climate Change (Rex)
Many of these were Conservative strongholds, such as Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’ Runnymede and Weybridge constituency in Berkshire.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset; Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton in Devon; and Henry Bellingham, Tory MP for North West Norfolk, were among the other Conservative MPs whose constituencies were hit by floods.

“It’s noticeable the pressure has changed. I’ve noticed it in my conversations, on my Twitter feed and in the letters I get. Things have shifted,” said Lord Deben.

“I feel less concerned about that [opposition to dealing with climate change] than I did six months ago,” he said. He noted among other things a change in dinner-party conversations with “people who you know have always been questioning of it now becoming less so”.

“The concerns that people didn’t believe two or three years ago seem to be happening – every time they open the newspaper they see these events like the flooding – no one thing proves the case but all of them together give a very clear indication that things are changing,” he said.

Lord Deben said his case had been helped by the debunking of two “artificial hurdles” to acknowledging and dealing with climate change.

The first is the so-called “pause” in climate change, a slowdown in the rate of warming in the past decade-and-a-half, which sceptics had pointed to as evidence that it was not an issue.

However, two independent scientists reported in November that global temperatures over the past decade had almost certainly risen two-and-half times faster than Met Office scientists had assumed when they had to estimate Arctic warming, because of a lack of surface temperature records in the remote region.

When the latest estimates of Arctic temperatures are included in the global temperatures, the so-called “pause” in global warming all but disappears.

The other artificial hurdle concerns Antarctic ice.

“It was comforting to think that while ice was melting in Arctic, it was growing in Antarctica – that was their [sceptics] favourite one. But the latest news from Antarctica, with such very accurate data, has got rid of that one as an argument. As each hurdle is knocked down things just shift enough to feel less worried about it.”

The shift in the Conservative party’s climate change sentiment also comes after a series of authoritative reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided the strongest evidence yet that global warming is already happening and that humans are responsible.

Lord Deben acknowledged that there is still considerable opposition to climate change, pointing to a front page article in The Times last week which he dismissed as “ridiculous”.

The article claimed that a paper by Lennart Bengtsson, professorial research fellow at the University of Reading, had been rejected by Environmental Research Letters because of a reviewer’s concern that it would damage what the newspaper called climate scientists’ “cause”.

In the paper, Professor Bengtsson casts doubt on the estimate by the IPCC that the average global temperature will rise by 4.5C if greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are permitted to double. Professor Bengtsson told The Times that “some scientists are mixing up their scientific role with that of a climate activist”.

But following the article’s publication he distanced himself from suggestions that there was a “systematic” cover-up of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics’ work was being “deliberately suppressed”.

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