The Anti-Democratic Climate Assembly

by | Jan 29, 2021

I have written a report on the UK Climate Assembly for the Global Warming Policy Forum, published today. Here’s the press release.

London, 29 January: The UK Climate Assembly, which claimed to have delivered a mandate for a green revolution, could not have delivered a mandate of any kind, according to a new analysis published by the Global Warming Policy Forum.

According to the report’s author, Ben Pile, the Assembly was set up to deliver a preordained result:

“It was in no way a democratic process. Almost everyone involved with convening the assembly, and almost everyone who spoke to it, was involved with environmental campaigning to some extent. Most can be linked to a small group of wealthy environmental funders.”

Pile says that the Assembly was actually set up because the public were unpersuaded of the case for radical action.

“Politicians agreed the net zero target without debate and at best lukewarm public support. The Assembly was an attempt to provide a justification for strong policy measures, but it is ridiculous to suggest that a project like this could deliver some sort of a mandate. The assembly was an attempt to sidestep the democratic process.”

You can download the report here.

I wrote a fair bit more than is in the report. A few sections which didn’t make the final cut was some discussion about the background to the Climate Change Act. As I have long argued here, MPs have put all their horses before all their cars: they believed that they could generate public support for their policies after they had been turned into law, and they believed that the technology required to make their plans a reality required laws to make them viable. Here is a passage summarising that view.


The problem of public opinion vs cross-party consensus

Public opinion has long beset politicians’ climate policy ambitions. In December 2008, then Environment Secretary in the Labour government, Ed Miliband is quoted in the Telegraph,

“When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here”[i].

Miliband’s frustration that climate policies lacked popular support was surprising first for its coincidence with climate activist group, Plane Stupid’s occupation of Stanstead Airport runway, which pitched green activists against the public. Second, it came just days after the Climate Change Act had received Royal Assent on the 26th November 2008. The Bill’s almost entirely unopposed passage through Parliament contrasted with the public’s lack of interest. But Miliband’s concern was pragmatic, rather than for the democratic deficit created by legislation with such far-reaching consequences. Government now faced the prospect either of having to persuade people to ‘Act on CO2’ – as  government campaigns to communicate “the seriousness of climate change to the public through TV, press, radio and online advertising” put it[ii], or enforcing draconian legislation on an unwilling population.

Celebratory accounts of the history of the Climate Change Act reveal that Friends of the Earth (FoE) had produced a draft Climate Change Bill in 2005, organised around the principle of a “top-down” carbon-emissions “budget”, reducing each year[iii] [iv]. The group had organised a campaign, the “Big Ask”, in which 200,000 people wrote to MPs asking them to support the bill. Consequently, an Early Day Motion in the next Parliamentary session drew the support of 412 MPs[v].

Though impressive, 200,000 letters are fewer in number than the votes won by Green Party candidates in that year’s general election. Moreover, by the standards of the era, this sum is dwarfed by other demonstrations of public will, such as the 2003 anti-war marches, which drew crowds estimated between 1 and 2 million[vi].

This contrast is significant to understanding the development of flagship policies of the era, which is characterised by a tendency towards voter apathy. From a relative high of 77.7 per cent in 1992, General Election turnout fell to 59.4 in 2001 rising only slightly to 61.4 in 2005. The candid history of the development of the Climate Change Act offered by its designers[vii] explains that a Labour Party under new leadership was keen to draw a line under its recent history. Similarly, the Conservative Party, also under new leadership, was keen to ‘detoxify’ its image. Parties competed to champion the seemingly safe ground of ‘saving the planet’, in an era regarded by many as politically sterile.

In this era, government and oppositions parties, and public bodies drew heavily from campaigning organisations to formulate policies and to promote them to the public. In 2006, then new leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, held a press conference at Greenpeace’s London headquarters at which he told journalists, “I passionately believe that a greener world will actually be a safer world”[viii]. Nearly nine years later, the consensus between green organisations and political parties was cemented by Parliamentary lobbying campaign, the Green Alliance, which asked party leaders to sign a pledge, committing to “work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act”[ix].

The political problem of this was identified in 2006 by Professor Mike Hulme of the UEA and Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. On Hulme’s view, campaigning organisations, politicians and scientists, “are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change”, concluding that “The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change”[x]. And just as Hulme observed, climate alarmism failed to align the public with the political consensus.

To the extent that the 2005-2015 era can be characterised by the public’s political appetites, it was manifestly defined, not by the urgent cause of saving the planet, but on the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union. The 2008 Climate Change Act received almost unanimous support from MPs, but on the basis of little public pressure. Politicians, struggling with their parties’ images in an era of disaffection and disengagement, instead seem to have been persuaded by campaigning organisations to create far-reaching policies that now exist on the wrong side of a democratic deficit. With no sense of the public’s willingness to accept draconian policies, this deficit created a climate policy impasse, which was further eclipsed by Brexit, leading to green campaigning organisations’ impatience.

[i] Ed Miliband urges ‘popular mobilisation’ to tackle climate change. The Telegraph. 8 December 2008. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/3681149/Ed-Miliband-urges-popular-mobilisation-to-tackle-climate-change.html

[ii] About ACT ON CO2. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20101006102515/http://actonco2.direct.gov.uk/home/about-us.html

[iii] The Big Ask: How you helped make climate change history. Friends of the Earth. 2017. https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/big-ask-how-you-helped-make-climate-change-history

[iv] The Climate Change Act (2008). Institute for Government. 2018. https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/climate_change_act.pdf

[v] CLIMATE CHANGE EDM #178. UK Parliament. May 2005. https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/28373

[vi] Iraq war 10 years on: mass protest that defined a generation. The Guardian. February 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/15/iraq-war-mass-protest

[vii] Bryony Worthington speaking at the CDKN Action Lab. Youtube. April 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3xseCcfMZY

[viii] David Cameron goes up on the roof at Greenpeace. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6V85RzlCvE

[ix] Cameron, Clegg and Miliband sign joint climate change agreement. The Green Alliance. February 2015. https://www.green-alliance.org.uk/leaders_joint_climate_change_agreement.php

[x] Chaotic world of climate truth. Mike Hulme. BBC. November 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6115644.stm

 

1 Comment

  1. dai davies

    G’day Ben,

    Noticed that you were blogging again and came to see what you were saying. In your first new post you said that everything had already been said. Beg to differ. Almost nothing has ever been said about the magnitude of the greenhouse effect which is, after all, the central issue. There isn’t even a meaningful definition let alone a direct measurement, which I believe is possible.

    Check the front page of my (remnant legacy) website, http://brindabella.id.au, for my recent summary of the situation. Click through to Radiative Delay for calculations.

    Cheers,

    dai

    Reply

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