Copenhagen, “Climategate” and some political auguries

With the Copenhagen climate summit now heading towards its painful conclusion, and some of the waves created in the media and wider political circles by the “Climategate” saga still with us, it is worth taking a look over how some of the major political forces in the UK have been playing their hands in recent weeks. How has “Climategate” impacted the Conservatives and the right? How has the Government responded, and how does this response figure in their wider strategy around Copenhagen? And how are environmental NGOs responding?

Splitting the Conservatives: “Climategate”’s political repercussions for the right

The timing of the UEA’s hacked emails’ publication – widely seen as a deliberate PR coup against the entire Copenhagen summit – turns out to have been far from coincidental. While the CRU was first hacked in October, according to the Times, one “source close to the investigation” into the hacking has stated that the emails “were held back for weeks after being stolen so that their release would cause maximum damage to the Copenhagen climate conference”. The “Climategate” label itself, with its overtones of corruption, cover-up, political malfeasance and investigative heroism, was itself coined in a comment on a right-wing blog, and soon taken up by the media – a victory for the denial lobby in framing the episode that few seem fully to have acknowledged.

The Conservatives’ former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis – a right-wing economic libertarian who has forged links with like-minded American groups, among whom anti-environmental rhetoric and climate change denial tends to resonate most strongly – weighed in on 2nd December in a comment piece for the Independent. Repeating the canard that “the planet appears to have been cooling, not warming, in the last decade” and claiming that the UEA emails “seemed to show” the world’s leading climate scientists “conspiring to rig the figures to support their theories”, it was an embarrassing performance, or ought to have been. For Davis, “the single biggest change in mindset that is necessary is to give more prominence to a policy of adaptation” – meaning by this everything from better sea defences to a strategy of geoengineering through “maximizing cloud reflectivity”. There is barely a hint of recognition in his commentary of the dangers reckless interventions in delicate and poorly understood natural systems pose; nor of how humanity will successfully “adapt” to the 5 or 6 degrees’ climate change towards which we appear to be accelerating. Nevertheless, Davis’s position has a seductive internal logic. If the debate on the causes of climate change really is still live, and action on the issue such a net cost to us (more robust economic assessments notwithstanding) why should action to cut greenhouse gas emissions be such a pressing priority? The atrocity follows from the absurdity.

It seems likely, however, that electoral gains stand to be made by right-wing parties from attempting to appease sectors of the public split between denial, ignorance and uncertainty, and that are – for the time being, at least – quite simply a net beneficiary of the carbon economy. UKIP’s recent embrace of leading climate denier (and all-round charlatan) Christopher Monckton suggests that that party may be attempting to appeal to some of the more ardent denialists and anti-environmentalists among Tory supporters, which – since there’s some evidence to suggest that UKIP’s threat to the Conservative Party is primarily a matter of stealing not only a right-wing fringe, but support from across the Party’s base – may well be a source of pressure.

With other former Tory luminaries such as ex-Chancellor Lord Lawson, Michael Portillo and others weighing in with similar observations, the controversy has clearly been a major bone of contention within the Conservatives. Lord Lawson in particular has recently been instrumental in forming The Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation aimed at blocking action on climate change, of which he is now the Chairman. In a supreme irony, the group itself has already been caught mangling data to fit its line – a practice also eerily reminiscent of previous high-profile climate denial efforts. Curiously, the GWPF also shares its offices with the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining – whose Petroleum and Drilling Engineering Division includes two employees of BP’s Exploration Operating Company. Its Director, meanwhile, was formerly a leading member of the Scientific Alliance, a quarrying industry front-group co-founded by a PR firm specifically to fight efforts to introduce climate change legislation. Some of Lawson’s own links with fossil fuel industry money – through his major role in corporate consultancy group the Central Europe Trust – have also recently come to light.

More broadly, however, many of the most outspoken and high-profile Conservatives on the issue have initially tended to back the deniers’ corner, its base leans in a similar direction, and a very large majority of the Parliamentary Party either abstained on or voted against the Climate Change Bill. The efforts of this newly emboldened denialist wing are undoubtedly becoming something of an embarrassment to a leadership pushing the green credentials of a “reformed” Conservative Party, and indeed seem to have engendered a kind of panic, prompting fevered attempts at damage limitation from the “moderates” of the Tory Reform Group, as well as the Party leadership. The Telegraph – effectively the Party’s house publication, and a regular propagator of climate change denial – has even seen divisions erupt, and recently published an editorial which, while clearly not unsympathetic towards the deniers’ position, adopted a general position of “better safe than sorry”.

Labour’s strategy: Make Poverty History with a coat of green paint

Since Labour suffer few comparable constraints within its own party, it should probably not be too surprising that senior figures have been keen to capitalise on this split among Conservatives – Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown both publicly attacking the Conservative denialists as “flat-earthers”. How this partial polarization along party lines will play out in the public domain can only be guessed at, though it surely raises concerns that any association between the issue of climate change and New Labour risks dragging it into that Party’s own internal implosion.

If the reflexive antipathy towards the scientific evidence and case for action is not so evident within Labour, the Tories’ internal conflict and Copenhagen itself have ensured that Labour’s efforts at co-opting the climate issue and “greenwashing” its record have begun to take the lead over David Cameron’s offerings in recent days. The repeated invocation of Make Poverty History as a model for Governmental-civil society collaboration by senior New Labour figures, combined with efforts at cosying up to the climate movement, has rather given the game away in terms of this wider strategy. As during the flawed and ultimately unsuccessful 2005 campaign, the aim appears to be the straightforward co-option of an NGO-fronted popular movement; the generation of public goodwill and favourable publicity; and the deployment of this valuable political capital as a substitute for real change. In each case, the purported goal (eradicating poverty/ tackling climate change) is set sufficiently high that failure can easily be construed as compatible with a genuine effort on the part of Government; while each case also involves a sufficiently large number of other major actors that the UK can easily disclaim responsibility in the event of an ultimate failure – particularly if the Government has been making the right noises along the way. As a result, a business-as-usual course can be maintained, concerned sectors of public opinion at least partially appeased, and the political costs any real change inevitably incurs, from the business lobby in particular, avoided.

NGOs: serious risks of co-option

How successful such a strategy on the Government’s part is likely to be will depend among other things on how much of a nuisance – how alert, vocal, independent and above all brutally honest – the climate movement makes itself, and how far it is able to mobilise public outrage in the same direction. At present its record is mixed. But co-ordinated PR stunts with Downing Street; over-hyping the level of commitment, and even assisting in the greenwashing, of the worst Governmental and corporate offenders; and glowing reports that “we know that the Government have been doing their best” inspire limited confidence. Tom Burke, former head of Friends of the Earth, has previously noted that the NGOs “got sucked in too close once Labour was elected”; he “believes one of the green NGOs’ fundamental mistakes was their naive trust that new Labour would keep its promises”. Former Friends of the Earth boss Jonathan Porritt agrees: NGOs have been “beguiled” by Labour. “Overall,” he states, “the green groups have been too reticent and have given Labour an easy ride.”

Prominent campaigning NGO Avaaz have even recently featured a picture of Gordon Brown on the front page of their website, standing outside 10 Downing Street and gazing wistfully but resolutely into the distance. The accompanying text tells us that

“Brown took a phone-call from our September 21st flashmob in London’s Parliament Square, and promised to go to Copenhagen and work for a fair, ambitious and binding treaty. Now, with the summit in danger of failure, he is one of our best hopes to champion a strong deal – and refuse to accept a weak one.”

Rather different thoughts were expressed in August by NASA’s pre-eminent climatologist James Hansen. As a consequence of the UK’s commitment to expanding coal burning and extraction, at Copenhagen, he suggests,

[The] UK will be a joke. It is moral turpitude, depravity, to build more coal-fired power plants or open coal mines, knowing what we know now. … It was one thing to dig coal when we didn’t know the consequences, but quite another thing today. …The UK would not be in a position to ask anybody else to do anything [at Copenhagen]”.

The UK has also been implicated in the recent ouster of Connie Hedegaard, the Danish climate and energy minister, who was serving as president of the conference. Rumours circulating early on at Copenhagen suggested that the Danish Prime Minister would later take over from Hedegaard – as has now happened – in an attempt to put his weight behind the “Danish Text”, the leaked document drawn up by rich nations in the “circle of commitment”, understood to include the UK, US and Denmark, which prompted a walkout by developing nations. The text hands the rich world roughly double the emissions rights allocated to the developing world up to 2050; trashes the only legally binding treaty mandating emissions reductions currently in place; hands power over finance to the (rich-world dominated) World Bank, sidelining the UN; and in return for such concessions, offers a paltry $10 billion in money for adaption to the developing world (credible estimates suggest $100 billion at least is required). Hedegaard was said to be unhappy with the Danish Text, and, as one source told the Guardian, was considered “a little too radical and just not senior enough, and the PM hates her”. A spokesperson confirmed that Brown had himself been involved in discussions regarding Hedegaard’s ouster – which he approved.

Doubtless the NGO sector has its own motives and structural limitations, which sometimes lead it to give credit where it isn’t due. As Naomi Klein recently put it:

“Serious activists have a responsibility to the truth, and sometimes NGOs are governed by other priorities, just like politicians are – it’s more important to be able to claim a success, because claiming a success means you can go raise more money, it means that you look positive and efficient and effective. I don’t think the environmental movement should be governed by those concerns.”

The temptation to try to rally a by now fairly demoralized climate movement will also undoubtedly be a strong motivating factor for NGOs, potentially leading them to buy into and even help promote much of the Government’s rhetoric at Copenhagen. If in so doing such organisations inspire false hope and lend credibility to Government’s attempts to greenwash itself, however, the price of such a strategy will inevitably be far too high.


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