Greener than thou

Blair and Howard have turned the climate change debate into a game of environmental one-upmanship.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

With the sudden flood of top-level warnings about imminent environmental doom, one could be forgiven for thinking that new scientific discoveries had been made about the link between global warming and climate change. But nothing much has changed – in terms of the science, that is.

The recent speeches by UK prime minister Tony Blair and Tory leader Michael Howard, describing climate change as one of the greatest threats facing humanity, were driven more by green one-upmanship. Such is the moribund state of politics that the way to attain the moral high ground, without attracting ridicule, is to play the environmentalist trump card.

Talking to business leaders and environmental groups in central London on 14 September, Blair tried to improve his tarnished image as a world statesman by outlining his ‘determination’ to use the forthcoming chairmanship of both the European Union (EU) and the G8 group of leading industrial nations to ‘revitalise international action’ on global warming (1).

Desperate to get in first, Howard announced at a Green Alliance event on 13 September that a future Conservative government would be best placed to take the lead in persuading the rest of the world to ‘join the battle against climate change’ (2). Perhaps he had a point, of sorts. After all, former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher did more to reduce UK CO2 emissions than any prime minister since, albeit by default – by pushing through the closure of Britain’s coal mines. But, like Blair, Howard had no radical measures up his sleeve, instead highlighting the need to improve household energy efficiency and encourage technologies such as wave and tidal power.

As Simon Jenkins wrote in The Times (London), ‘if they really believe in the Apocalypse, only one technology is currently available to hold it at bay and that is nuclear power. All else is hypocrisy’. After all, Blair himself said that ‘to acquire global leadership on this issue Britain must demonstrate it first at home’. Improving household efficiency and building a few wind turbines or solar panels is hardly going to make much of a difference in the long term to global CO2 emissions.

But this doesn’t matter much, since neither Blair nor Howard set out to drive through radical policy changes. Instead, their speeches were dominated by empty rhetoric and a high dose of eco-moralism.

They chose an opportune moment to up the stakes in relation to green doom-mongering – in the midst of daily headlines about the death and destruction caused by hurricanes in America. Blair noted that ‘A recent survey by Greenpeace showed that 78 per cent of people are concerned about climate change’. Knowing that it would strike a popular chord, Howard and Blair emphasised the disastrous effects of recent volatile weather conditions, and warned of more devastation to come as a result of global warming.

But few climatologists would agree that a link has been established between global warming and recent ‘extreme’ weather conditions. Edward Rappaport at the US National Hurricane Centre points out that, in terms of the number of hurricanes, recent years have been relatively quiet, but ‘now we’re back at an active year’ (3).

Dr Mark Saunders, a weather expert at University College London (UCL) and a leading authority on predicting and tracking storms, told Brendan O’Neill on spiked recently that ‘the past four years have been unusually quiet for hurricanes…. We knew this would be an “active” year, we predicted that’ (4).

In fact, the number of category five storms (those with the strongest wind strength) in the Atlantic Ocean hasn’t increased in recent years. As Saunders notes: ‘If anything there is a slight downward trend in tropical storms over the past 50 years. It’s not a significant downward trend, but it is downward rather than upward.’ In terms of loss of life the deadliest hurricane occurred in 1900, when 8000 people were killed, mainly in Texas. In costs terms though, one could argue that recent hurricanes have been more destructive. The costliest hurricane to date occurred in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew swept through one of the most densely populated areas of Florida.

BBC weatherman Peter Gibbs argued that neither the frequency nor the intensity of hurricanes has been linked to global warming. He said: ‘There are in fact so many other factors which influence the development of hurricanes, such as the influence of El Niño, seasonal Saharan rainfall, wind shear, to name a few, that it is very difficult to pinpoint any effect that global warming might have.’ (5)

What we need is more research into, and a better understanding of, the possible effect of global warming on global weather conditions, and a sober debate about how to meet the world’s future energy needs – not more political posturing.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

(1) PM’s speech on climate change, 10 Downing Street, 14 September 2004

(2) Full text: Michael Howard on the environment, Guardian, 13 September 2004

(3) Scientists see if global warming causes hurricanes

(4) ‘Extreme weather? It’s the norm’, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) The science of hurricanes, BBC News, 13 September 2004

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Topics Science & Tech


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