Tuesday’s decision to support a third runway at Heathrow airport is just the latest in a string of decisions since the Tories were elected in May 2015 that should finally demonstrate that Britain has no intention of meeting its climate obligations. Immediately on taking office, the Tories embarked on a bonfire of subsidies designed to cut the renewable energy industry off at the knees; just at the point when it was becoming profitable. Then came the decision to ride roughshod over local opposition to fracking. The closure of the Department for Energy and Climate Change came in the summer, followed by the decision to approve the Hinkley Point C nuclear white elephant in North Somerset.
In the furore following the Brexit referendum result, most people will have missed the UK government’s refusal to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. Nor will many have noticed the huge shift in subsidies and tax breaks to corporations drilling for oil and gas in and around the British Isles. These, too are a deeper indication that the UK government has simply given up on climate change.
One of the things we recently learned from the US presidential election campaign is that politicians are quite literally two-faced. As Hillary Clinton explained to her Wall Street backers, there is the policy position that we pretend we are pursuing in public, then there is the real position that only the financial elites are allowed to know about. It turns out the British Prime Minister said the same thing to a similar audience in the City of London ahead of the Brexit referendum. It is not unreasonable to believe that our political leaders have a similar double standard when it comes to climate change. There is the fluffy green rhetoric that garnishes government press releases and political speeches; then there is the actual practice of allowing multinational corporations to continue raping the environment.
Management theorist Anthony Stafford Beer famously cautioned us that “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Heathrow airport and the surrounding transport network already generates illegal levels of pollution, just as fracking produces dangerous levels of methane and pressurised water nuclear reactors generate far too much unmanageable radioactive waste. Yet those are what the system does. Wind farms, solar arrays and tidal turbines have a broadly positive impact on the environment (although there is still pollution in their manufacture and deployment). But these are precisely the things that the Tory system stopped doing.
So how do we square the government’s claims to be actively combatting climate change with their adoption of energy policies that add significantly to the problem? Two answers spring to mind. The first if that our politicians and civil servants (few of whom are scientists) have spent too much time watching science fiction shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek. This is because the only possible way in which the UK can play its part in keeping global warming below the 2oC upper limit is by deploying some Star Trek technology (like nuclear fusion) that can actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and/or by borrowing doctor Who’s Tardis to take us all back to the 1970s to make the necessary reforms.
The second option is altogether more plausible. This is that, just like Clinton and May, they are (to put it politely) talking out of both sides of their mouths.