As the dignitaries gather for the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, dark clouds are gathering over environmental policies. Copenhagen itself has been presaged by troubling signals that it will be harder than usual to get agreement. These will probably be resolved, but it is debatable whether that will make any real difference. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the international community promised cuts by 2000. In Kyoto in 1997, they promised even greater cuts by 2010. Neither happened.
The row about whether global warming exists gets even more virulent. The case is not helped by the fact that the planet appears to have been cooling, not warming, in the last decade. Last week, the row was fuelled after a hacker revealed emails between the world's leading climate scientists that seemed to show them conspiring to rig the figures to support their theories. So it is unsurprising that more than half the public no longer believe in global warming.
Today, the economic climate makes people question whether we can afford the expense of these policies. The UK's environmental policy has a long-term price tag of about £55bn, before taking into account the impact on economic growth.
The fixation of the green movement with setting ever tougher targets is a policy destined to collapse. The ferocious determination to impose hair-shirt policies on the public – taxes on holiday flights, or covering our beautiful countryside with wind turbines that look like props from War of the Worlds – would cause a reaction in any democratic country.
This adverse reaction will be reinforced if, as predicted, we suffer power shortages in the next decade. Lights going out around Britain could be an electoral off-switch for environmental policy. This will happen at the same time as fuel bills rise by 30 per cent.
Paradoxically, the Government's strategy is going to have a number of deleterious consequences for the environment. Biomass fuels will increase atmospheric pollution in the countryside, with harmful effects on health. The Government's own estimate of this policy-led pollution says it could cost as many as 1,750,000 man-years in lost or shortened lives.
Similarly, the wind strategy is encouraging the building of large clusters of enormous wind turbines in the countryside that will scar the landscape, and whose noise levels could ruin people's lives. The planning blight alone will afflict hundreds of thousands of families and damage the value of many homes – and all with enormous taxpayer subsidies.
We often worry, properly, about the potential effects of global warming on the poorer parts of the world. We should also worry that cutting the world's growth will condemn millions of people to continuing poverty in the decades to come.
So what do we do about it? Much environmental policy is beneficial to the public. It is intelligent to conserve resources, to insulate homes, to encourage lean-burn engines and efficient power generation. Along with the sensible use of renewables, this is worthwhile in its own right. It will have the important side-effect of reducing our dependence on energy sources in unstable parts of the globe.
There is also a pressing need to protect elements of the natural world under immediate threat.
So is there a middle way in environmental policy? Can we devise a mixed policy that has realistic prospects of success in cutting carbon dioxide production at less-than-crippling cost, and also acts to accommodate the effects that we cannot prevent? Is there a smart green alternative?
Just to pick one example, micro-generation is a technology which is often overlooked. Micro-combined heat and power systems just about to enter the market would provide the same heat as a regular boiler, produce most of the electricity needs of the property, and cut carbon emissions by anything up to 50 per cent.
This sort of local power generation has a number of benefits. It avoids the waste associated with transmitting from central power stations; it would keep running through any blackouts; and it could make a major contribution to domestic reductions in carbon emissions in the long term.
Like it or not, a major increase in nuclear power must also be central to any sustainable future energy policy. It will be costly in the short term, but it will be a reliable ongoing source of power, and is a true zero-carbon option with enormous benefits for climate change.
But the single biggest change in mindset that is necessary is to give more prominence to a policy of adaptation. This should range from basic lo-tech ideas such as reversing the policy of abandoning sea defences, to very hi-tech developments, such as maximising cloud reflectivity – the technology for which is still some way off, but should not be dismissed.
Many of the people signed up to the green movement instinctively believe in statist, regulatory, dirigiste regimes. They forget these approaches have failed many times before – or perhaps believe the sheer importance of the cause will carry them through policy weaknesses. But the importance of the issue should make us doubly careful to get the policies right.
To date, too many discussions on this matter have degenerated into infantile mud-slinging and virulent name-calling. It is simply unacceptable for one side to describe the other as deniers, with its deliberate holocaust connotations, and the other side to essentially call their opponents liars. This issue is too important for the argument to be reduced to the level of an adolescent political spat, and it is time we engaged in this debate on a properly adult level.
The writer is a Conservative MP
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