Johann Hari: Now Cameron jilts the environment

He is opening the oceans off the Shetland Islands to deep-sea drilling, and promising Big Oil tax breaks to drill, baby, drill

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Back when David Cameron was first trying to rebrand the Conservative Party, he touched down on the melting Arctic tundra to be photographed looking pensive and hugging huskies. He promised to lead "the greenest government ever". "Vote blue, go green," his posters said. Some of us were sceptical, because the only time he had ever publicly discussed global warming before was in a statement where he mocked wind farms as "giant bird blenders". Now, two years later, he was building one on his house.

But I hoped I was wrong. Preventing the biosphere from unraveling shouldn't be a left/right issue: rising sea levels and super-charged hurricanes will displace lefties and Tories just the same. So what happened?

Deep breath: Cameron has put the man most to blame for the worst environmental disaster in living memory in charge of his cuts agenda, and appointed a man who has faced accusations of wriggling out of cleaning up a environmental atrocity to run his party's finances. He has slashed programmes to prevent global warming first and hardest. He has decreed that the Department of Transport will take the hardest cuts, which will shutter much of our public transport network and force far more people on to smoggier roads. And he has appointed an oilman to ensure we begin deep-water drilling, Gulf of Mexico-style, off the coast of Britain – just as every newscast in the world is showing how well that turns out.

Let's start with the personnel. The Prime Minister thought the best person to be his 'Cuts Tsar' was John Browne. You might remember him – he was the head of BP, until he was forced to resign in 2007 because he was shown to have lied in court testimony. He does indeed have experience with cutting. Browne arrived at BP promising to do exactly what Cameron is promising to do to the British state – "produce more for less". He said you could slice out great chunks of staff and provide the same standard of service.

The workers he sacked included BP's specialist engineers. As the investigative reporter Tom Bower has written: "Hundreds were fired and replaced by sub-contractors... Browne ditch[ed] BP's in-house expertise, which could second-guess every technical operation on land and under the sea."

The consequences were soon clear. BP's Texas City refinery blew up, killing 15 workers, and the official investigation found that BP "tolerat[ed] serious deviations from safe operating practices, and [showed] apparent complacency toward serious safety process risks at each refinery". Browne carried on cutting anyway, in a process Bower argues "led directly to the current catastrophe."

So the Prime Minister believes the best person to oversee his cuts agenda is an oil man whose last cuts job destroyed the Gulf of Mexico, possibly forever. It's an inspiring model to apply to our schools, hospitals and transport.

At the same time, Cameron has appointed a reclusive tycoon called David Rowland, who has a history of being severely condemned by environmentalists, to run his party's finances. In 1989, he bought a US company that had several years before built a smelting plant in Idaho that poisoned the local waters and caused acute breathing problems among the local children, until it was forcibly shut by the US government.

Rowland bought it as they were ordering the company to pay for the $100m clean-up – and he was accused of moving the company's assets overseas and engaging in a fiscal tango to get out of paying. Rowland denies the allegations, saying they are "unsubstantiated and false" and "it is not now, nor has ever been, [our] intent... to sidestep any responsibilities". But clearly, for Cameron, being reviled by environmentalists is no deal-breaker when making senior appointments.

This approach to the environment has seeped, like a slick, over Cameron's policies. He commissioned another oil man, Tim Eggar, to go and ask the world's oil companies what they want from his government. They won't let me see the findings. But we know oil companies received big tax cuts in the Budget, and the Government's subsequent energy policy paper says life needs to be made "simpler [and] clearer" for oil companies to drill in British waters. Even though it is our addiction to oil that is causing and worsening global warming, the paper says: "We need policies designed for hunting [oil]... We need policies that offer the right incentives to explore for and extract the remaining reserves of oil and gas, and to keep existing fields open for as long as possible."

It pledges to open the oceans off the Shetland Islands to deep-sea drilling. Yes – that's the deep-sea drilling you've seen in every newscast for the past month. Cameron is promising Big Oil tax breaks to drill, baby, drill.

At the same time, projects designed to provide alternatives to oil are being axed. The Financial Times headline put it bluntly: "Climate projects face axe from Cable." (Remember: Saint Vince is a former oil man himself, who worked for Shell through its worst atrocities, including working intimately with the Nigerian military as they were murdering democracy activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.) Some of the very best programmes are expected to go. For example, Mitsubishi and Siemens pledged to come to Britain to make offshore wind turbines if the Government made a £60m upgrade to our ports to make it possible – but Whitehall whispers are that it will be abandoned. Britain will miss out on a headstart in one of the great growth industries of the twenty-first century.

Under Cameron, many more people will have no choice but to engage in more environmentally destructive behaviour: if 40 per cent of our spending on trains and buses goes, much of the system will sputter to a halt, and the roads will jam. He promised to require all power plants to meet the standards of a modern gas plant – which would condemn monsters like Kingsnorth – but now civil servants say no such pledge will be in any legislation. Even Cameron's one green measure so far, opposing the new terminal at Heathrow, turns out to be a trick: his close ally, the London Mayor Boris Johnson, simply wants to build another airport just as big nearby. Vote blue, turn oil black.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. A survey of Conservative parliamentary candidates before the last election found that 91 per cent did not believe anthropogenic global warming is even happening. Tim Montgomerie, the voice of the Tory grassroots, bragged back then: "I'm confident the sceptics are going to win. [Cameron has] lost the battle already." But was Cameron's "conversion" ever more than a PR stunt? Yes, it helped to detoxify the Conservative brand – yet, given power, he is choosing to retoxify the real atmosphere.

Cameron is making these dark decisions just as an important new book, Turned Out Nice by the science writer Marek Kohn, lays out the best evidence for how global warming will affect Britain this century if we let it rip. It's a picture of a shrinking, sweltering, malaria-plagued island inundated by climate refugees from the parched parts of the world that have been rendered increasingly uninhabitable. They will look back at this period – and the preceding years, when New Labour's record was almost as bad – and curse us, unless we build a mass movement to change the country's direction.

The evidence is plain. Yes, David Cameron hugged the huskies in opposition. But as soon as he got into government, he walked them into the Downing Street garden, and shot them in the head.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

For further reading: 'The Weather Makers', by Tim Flannery (Penguin, 2006); 'Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet', by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate, 2007)

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