John Gummer: 'Climate change should be the top priority for governments of the industrialised world'

The Monday Interview: Conservative MP
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The Independent Online

John Gummer, the Conservatives' Mr Climate Change, was out driving yesterday, in a seven-seater four-by-four, the type of vehicle whose owners were punished in Gordon Brown's budget for damaging the environment. The Gummer household has two cars, and on this occasion, he took out the larger and more expensive of the two.

Mr Gummer was the most "green" minister in the last Tory Cabinet. He was an architect of the Kyoto agreement on climate change, and now heads the sprawling network of committees and sub-committees who are advising David Cameron on the "quality of life". Can we conclude, therefore, that Mr Gummer is roaring hypocrite?

Actually, no. Although he has never been on any list of politicians the left loves most, Mr Gummer is consistent in his politics, and his religion, though that takes him to positions that look contradictory from a distance. When he was chairman of the Conservative Party, 20 years ago, he was the scourge of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). His views on abortion and euthanasia are downright illiberal. When the Church of England decided to ordain women priests, Mr Gummer entered the Roman Catholic Church.

But on the biggest issues of the moment - Iraq and climate change - he thinks and talks exactly like - well, like The Independent reader he secretly is. Last weekend, he was on the air waves defending the citizens of Blackburn and Liverpool who demonstrated against Condoleezza Rice's visit.

All these seemingly inconsistent views fit into a pattern, rooted in his religious beliefs. He views climate change as the most important issue confronting the human race. That and his obdurate opposition to abortion belong together, as do his opposition to the CND and to the Iraq war, and all spring from his committed Christianity.

"I think it's right that people should make their antagonism to the Iraq war known," he said. "Otherwise the United States doesn't realise how much damage it has done under this administration. The war is immoral and illegal. It was sold to us on a false prospectus. Tony Blair didn't in any normal understanding of the phrase tell the truth."

His unbending opposition to women priests did not result from any hostility to feminism, he insists. It was theological. "I believe that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and I am therefore bound to be a member of it, if I want to be a Christian. The historic position of the Church of England was that it had no doctrines of its own, it merely had the doctrines of the historic Catholic Church. When it decided to change that, it became - in my view - a sect. It wasn't that I changed, the church changed. By what authority is that change made? Can it change two thousand years of belief by a two-thirds majority of the Church of England general synod in England?

"I'm rather liberal on most of these issues, but I am not liberal on capital punishment, or abortion. I think both are wrong in all circumstances. I'd say the same of euthanasia. I think that a society that ceases to stand absolutely four square in defence of human life is a society that has lost its soul."

He is also not liberal when it comes to being served sub-standard coffee either, by the way. It was brought to us as we were discussing the Kyoto agreement, in the house in Queen Anne's Gate that doubles as an office and the Gummer London residence. Kyoto was momentarily forgotten. "What coffee did you use?" Mr Gummer exclaimed. "Could you possibly - I'm sorry to ask you - could you get me a clean cup? This is such disgusting coffee, I can't bear it!"

Back to climate change. "This is the biggest threat that human beings have had. This is the stuff of the Genesis myth. This is about how human beings handle knowledge. "

Mr Gummer thinks the governments of the industrialised world should have it at the top of their political agendas to limit their own carbon emissions. Only then can they call on developing nations like China to adopt similar measures.

He is furious with Labour for abandoning its target to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent in the two decades up to 2010. But he is also wary of what he calls "knee jerk" reactions, like proposals to tax cars off the road, or use the tax system to make air travel unpalatably expensive. Defending that four-by-four, he says there are six people in the Gummer family, and he represents a large, rural constituency, with some rough roads. He uses it only when he needs to. The Gummers' other car is a Fiat Panda, but they use public transport whenever they can.

"We have to distinguish between things which people think we ought to do because they are in themselves good, and things which we do because they are going to achieve an end. The campaigners for constantly increasing taxes on fuels kid themselves that they are talking about an effective measure when really they rather like it because they are punishing someone. I'm more interested in trying to solve the problem."

This will be music to David Cameron's ears. The Conservative leader wants to fight the next election on two apparently contradictory premises - low taxes, and the environment. Mr Gummer thinks that there are a whole range of practical things, from developing clean coal technology to rewriting the rules about house building, which can deliver what Mr Cameron wants.

If he succeeds, he will have earned the leader's lasting gratitude. And, by the way, Mr Gummer is 65, but he describes himself as "young". He has no thoughts about retiring.