UK politicians 'failing to rise to the challenge of climate change'

Matthew Taylor Environment correspondent
Winter Hill wildfire, near Bolton in Lancashire. ‘Anyone who read the news’ could see mounting evidence of the effects of climate change, Lord Deben said. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/REX/Shutterstock

The government’s official climate change adviser says politicians and policymakers are failing to rise to the challenge of a rapidly warming planet and will be judged harshly by future generations unless they act now.

Lord Deben, chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), said “anyone who read the news” could see mounting evidence of alarming trends – from melting polar ice to record heatwaves and rising sea levels. He called on politicians to “make the connections” between these events and act with more urgency.

“The thing that I want to bring home to policymakers is that this is increasingly urgent and that these things will be laid at your door if you don’t recognise that and act accordingly.”

Deben compared the threat posed by climate change to the black death, adding: “With the black death, where one in three of the population died, we did not know how it happened, how it spread, so we were not responsible.

“With climate change we do know and so we are responsible. So it is no good saying ‘oh well, it will all work out one way or another’. We are responsible, and if we don’t take on that responsibility we are shoving it on to our children and no parent should do that in any circumstances.”

John Gummer, Lord Deben, compared the threat of climate change to the black death. Photograph: Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

Lord Deben’s intervention comes as record high temperatures are being set across much of the world, intensifying concerns about climate change.

In the UK the heatwave has contributed to wildfires but environmentalists have expressed exasperation at the government’s environment policies – especially the decision to push ahead with Heathrow expansion and, on the same day, the cancellation of a huge tidal lagoon project in south Wales.

Critics said it revealed that much of the governing class – including those Labour MPs who supported the government’s Heathrow expansion plans – had failed to grasp of the scale of the threat posed by climate change

Lord Deben praised some politicians, including climate change minister Claire Perry, but warned there was a widespread lack of urgency.

“Anybody who has been reading the newspapers will know there is a serious issue about Arctic ice, there are serious issues about Antarctic ice … the current hot period we are experiencing in Britain at the moment does remind us that we have had most of the hottest years we have had in the past 10 to 15 years.

“If you add all that to the rising of the sea levels and what is happening to the permafrost, you put those things together – [you] can’t put down any one of them to this year’s global warming, but you can put all of them down together to climate change in general.”

Historically low sea ice in the Bering Sea

The CCC’s annual report, published last month, found the UK is on track to miss its legally binding carbon budgets in 2025 and 2030, due to lack of progress in cutting emissions from buildings and transport.

It also said ministers were spurning low-cost options, such as onshore windfarms, home insulation and tree-planting, meaning people would end up paying more than needed to fight climate change.

Climate scientists have warned that there would be more wildfires like the one on Saddleworth Moor across northern Europe because of climate change.

Deben said that while no one individual weather event could be attributed to climate change the signs of a planet in crisis were undeniable.

“This is extremely urgent because these things are now happening much more often and – in aggregate – it is clearly because of climate change.”