‘Climate change? People get very emotional about the subject. It’s not all bad’: Owen Paterson accused of being irresponsible after he plays down the dangers of global warming

Environment Secretary says major UN report suggests threat has been overblown and indicated his confidence that humans would be able to adapt to consequences of climate change

Britain’s leading climate scientists have accused the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson of being “irresponsible and immoral” – as well as incorrect and misleading – after he played down the dangers of global warming – and even suggested the process had its advantages.

Speaking on the fringes of the Tory party conference, Mr Paterson said that a major UN report into climate change published on Friday suggested the threat of global warming had been overstated and indicated his confidence that humans would be able to adapt to its consequences. “People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries,” he said.

“Remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer. It would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north into some of the colder areas. I think the relief of this latest report is that it shows a really quite modest increase [in temperatures], half of which has already happened. They are talking one to two-and-a-half degrees.”

 Mr Paterson, who is in charge of “adaptation” – the process of preparing Britain for the effects of climate change, added: “I see this report as something we need to take seriously but I am relieved that it is not as catastrophic in its forecast as we had been led to believe early on. What it is saying is that it is something we can adapt to over time, and we are very good as a race at adapting.”

Scientists yesterday expressed their disbelief at the Environment Secretary’s comments. Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University, one of the lead authors of the report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said: “A modest increase, half of which has happened already? This is not consistent with the report at all, which says that, under a business-as-usual scenario, the temperature will have risen by between 3.2C and 5.4C by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial times.

“I find it very worrying that this person is charged with adapting [Britain] to climate change. I think it is a good idea for whoever is planning for adaptation to have a realistic understanding of what the science is saying.”

Mr Paterson was also criticised for his assertion that there could even be advantages to global warming. Professor Andrew  Watkinson of the University of East Anglia, one of the leading research institutions into the science of global warming, said that, while deaths relating to temperature changes and UK agriculture were an important issue, the problems relating to climate change were much broader and deeper than that.

“It sounds as though he’s being somewhat complacent,” he said. “Looking at Owen Paterson’s stated priorities, adaptation is not one of them and it ought to be at the top of Defra’s [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] list,” he said.

Professor Watkinson accused Mr Paterson of taking a parochial view. “This is a global concern. So while Britain may be able to adapt its agriculture, you need to look at food security across the globe,” he said.

Professor Kevin Anderson, of Manchester University and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, added: “It’s a deliberately partial reading of the report. Either that or he has not read the report properly or does not understand the significance of the emissions scenarios. These tell us that business as usual will give us a 50:50 chance of a 4C temperature rise.

“His view that we can muddle through climate change is a colonial, arrogant, rich person’s view. Many people will die in the developing world where the changes will be felt the most and it is irresponsible and immoral to suggest that we as a species can adapt to climate change,” added Professor Anderson.

Asked to respond to accusations that he is a climate sceptic, Mr Paterson assured The Independent that he was not. “It is quite obvious that the climate is changing. It is also clear there is a human element which we should not ignore,” he said. “But, equally, there are all sorts of other things that affect climate change. This is an area of science which should be approached rationally and with an open mind,” he added.

Many believe Britain has an Environment Secretary whose heart isn’t really in global warming

Owen Paterson’s comments will have done little to combat a growing conviction among many working in energy and climate change that Britain has an Environment Secretary whose heart isn’t really in global warming.

Asked to respond to widespread accusations that he is a climate sceptic, Mr Paterson assured The Independent that he wasn’t.

“It is quite obvious that the climate is changing and has been changing over the years. It is also clear there is a human element which we should not ignore,” he said.

Mr Paterson then added.

“But, equally there are all sorts of other things that affect climate change. This is an area of science which like any other should be approached rationally and with an open mind,” he said.

There will be many who believe Mr Paterson is more wedded to the second half of his statement than the first.

They will point to the fact that Mr Paterson did not mention climate change or global warming once in June when he launched his campaign to promote genetically modified foods – though he did emphasise how effective such crops could be in a “sustained drought” situation.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Secretary Ed Davey would probably point at Mr Paterson’s views on wind power. In an interview this month, Mr Davey said: “I’ve had Owen Paterson making noises against wind, and you know that’s not what the agreed coalition position is…Owen Paterson would cull wind turbines faster than he can cull badgers,” he said, referring to the Environment Secretary’s involvement in the highly-controversial badger culling programme.

Tom Bawden

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