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by Chris Marshall
24 May 2022
'We shouldn’t kid ourselves – Brexit has made it much harder': John Gummer on the fight against climate change

'We shouldn’t kid ourselves – Brexit has made it much harder': John Gummer on the fight against climate change

At the height of the BSE crisis and amid rising anxiety over the safety of British beef, John Gummer famously attempted to assuage public concern by feeding a burger to his daughter in front of the TV cameras.

Things didn’t go entirely to plan. Despite the then agriculture minister’s best efforts, four-year-old Cordelia initially rejected the food on account of it being too hot, helping create a moment which remains fixed in the memory of those old enough to remember it.

The episode came to be one of the defining political images of the early 1990s, a time of public hysteria over ‘mad cow disease’ and the link to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a fatal brain condition in humans. 

Thirty years on and now known as Lord Deben following his elevation to the Lords, Gummer is at the centre of another science story, albeit one with far more profound implications for us all.
As chair of the independent Climate Change Committee, he helps provide advice to the UK Government and the devolved administrations on meeting emissions targets and preparing for the impact of rising temperatures.

So, does it annoy him that he will forever be associated with that burger?

“Why should I be annoyed about telling the truth? I was asked whether my daughter ate beef and she did, and still does. I believe in telling the truth.”

Gummer seems only mildly riled by a question he’s no doubt been asked many, many times before. 

“I was put in that position and just think what would’ve happened if I had done the opposite,” he says. “If I had done the opposite, nobody would’ve believed me, and I would’ve failed to get over to people that they weren’t all going to die. 

“These were days when it was said that millions and millions of people would die, but they were not looking at the science. I looked at the science and had to treat my children in the way I would ask other people to treat theirs. It’s the same as the argument at the moment (on climate change) – leadership is about doing what you say you want other people to do.”

Gummer is now 82 years old, but remains remarkably spry, bouncing up the stairs in brightly coloured plimsolls ahead of our interview at his west London office. Despite his current role, he remains a lover of red meat and hasn’t yet gone vegan to help save the planet.

First elected to parliament in 1970, Gummer served under the governments of Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, holding Cabinet roles including agriculture minister and environment secretary, and was once described by Friends of the Earth as “the best environment secretary we’ve ever had”. After retiring from the Commons in 2010, he was appointed chair of the Climate Change Committee in 2012. 

He’s witnessed a sea change in the past decade, with the climate crisis thrust to the top of the political agenda and even the most ardent refuseniks accepting that we have a problem.

“The deniers have become the delayers,” he says. “It isn’t possible to argue anything but the scientific case. But those who say we can’t (reach net zero) by 2050 are actually denying the reality of the speed of climate change. Because we haven’t done enough early enough, we lose control of the timetable, and the timetable becomes imposed on us.”

Gummer and daughter Cordelia pictured in 1990    |  Credit: Alamy

Paradoxically, Gummer says one of the reasons he feels optimistic about humankind’s ability to tackle climate change is the increasingly extreme weather events which have wreaked havoc across the globe, from floods in Europe to forest fires in California, and which have helped underscore the need for action.

But despite the dire warnings, the all-too-evident impact of a warming planet, the pace of change is still not fast enough. Last month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said CO2 emissions would have to peak within the next three years if the world is to avoid the worst effects of warming. 

At present, the planet is on course for 3.2C of warming this century, leading to “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, and widespread water shortages”.

With that in mind, I ask Gummer whether the controversial Cambo oilfield in the North Sea should be given the go-ahead. While it’s not its decision to make, the Scottish Government tied itself up in knots is the run-up to last year’s COP26 summit on the question of whether drilling should be allowed. 

“The government does have to make a decision on the basis both of the environment and of national security,” Gummer says. “It’s not for me to say about national security because that’s their job. My job is to tell them what the environmental issues are…”

So, do the environmental issues outweigh everything else?

“On the environment, we gave that advice very clearly,” he says. “We said we would like to see a world in which we didn’t expand what we are doing in this country. We certainly wanted to remind people that it would not reduce the price (of oil).

“But we also said that there were arguments on the side of saying we could produce the fossil fuels we were going to use anyway but with less environmental damage. Therefore, the government would have to weigh those things…”

While unwilling to be drawn on what he thinks the ultimate decision on Cambo should be, Gummer concedes the situation has become more vexed since the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting attempts by countries to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas. 

Gummer pictured at the scene of the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing | Credit: Alamy

It was against that background that Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia earlier this year, meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince who is alleged to have approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to US intelligence. 

Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the company Gummer chairs, Sancroft International, had been contracted to work for the government of Qatar, one of the world’s largest producers of natural gas which has been accused of human rights abuses in the past.

Speaking to the newspaper, Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Gummer “should go to considerable lengths to explain his relationship” to make it clear there is no conflict of interest.

I ask Gummer whether he sees any contradiction between his role with Sancroft and his role with the Climate Change Committee. 

“I give the same advice to anybody all over the world, and that is that you should produce less oil and should be less dependent on it. I don’t see how you can have a conflict of interest by giving the same advice to everybody.”

But what about taking money from the Qataris?

“I’m not taking money. Sancroft, of which I am chairman and have no shares, is making decisions of that kind. I don’t find any (conflict of interest) and nobody else does either, frankly.”

He is now clearly irked, but I push Gummer on whether he’s making any money out of Sancroft.

“I’m not going to enter into the discussion. I have said very simply, there is no conflict of interest between me and anyone else giving the same advice to anybody in the world who wants it. And the advice is that we’ve got to move away from fossil fuels.

“I used to advise oil companies, I gave it all up when I became chair of the Climate Change Committee. I also gave up running an offshore wind company.”

While Gummer is clear that many countries are moving in the right direction on climate change, he is not afraid of pointing fingers at the laggards.

“Australia is a disgrace,” he says. “Which is why we should never had signed that trade agreement with Australia; it was wholly wrong. We shouldn’t be signing agreements which do not include our climate change commitments. Why should Scottish farmers increasingly have to find ways of dealing with their land in a climate-friendly manner if in 15 years they’re going to find their livestock is being competed against by countries that don’t?

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves – Brexit has made it much harder. Many of the things we warned about Brexit have come true. The biggest problem is that the government is so determined to show that it can sign trade deals that it signed two trade deals in which Australia and New Zealand got everything they wanted, and we did not insist on the climate change elements.”

I ask Gummer what makes Australia’s position so egregious?

“Oddly enough, you’d have thought, given the terrible examples of climate change, people would actually recognise it. But I’m afraid there are very large numbers of people who are either deniers like (former prime minister and now UK Government adviser) Tony Abbott was or clearly actually deniers as (recently defeated prime minister) Scott Morrison is. He says he isn’t, but he wouldn’t be doing the things he’s doing and not doing the things he ought to be doing if he really believed in it.” 

Gummer describes himself as an “optimist”, but I ask him whether Australia’s attitude towards climate change makes him despair?

“I’m an optimist because I think, overall, things are moving in the right direction and they’re speeding up. China is doing a huge amount, who would’ve thought Japan would’ve signed up, South Korea…I am very sorry about Australia because of the historic links between us and Australia. It seems to me a great sadness in the world that it should be setting this very poor example.” 

Gummer and I meet shortly after Prince Charles has delivered the Queen’s Speech just a few minutes’ walk away in parliament. Among the legislation outlined are tougher rules to crack down on climate protesters who seek to bring other people’s lives to a halt. 

I ask him whether he supports such protest tactics, given the scale of the challenge facing us all and the need to act rapidly to avert the worst effects of warming.

“I’m in favour of protecting people from circumstances in which protesters stop them carrying out their normal lives, but you do have to be very careful about that balance between freedom and the right to protest,” he says. 

“In a democracy, it’s always been the most difficult balance – how do you get heard without going beyond the point where you are imposing yourselves on other people? But it is very important for people to realise how urgent this all is, how vital it is to move quickly.” 

On Boris Johnson, Gummer says the prime minister has helped push through “progressive” climate change targets and provided important backing for the COP26 summit. 

“I don’t think anyone could ask for more in policy terms,” he says, “where I ask for more is in delivery terms. I think that’s much more a problem of governments in general and this government in particular…”

But what about Johnson the man? As someone who was in government during a time of notorious Tory sleaze in the 1990s, I wonder what Gummer makes of partygate and the prime minister’s refusal to resign after being served with a penalty notice by the police.

“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the prime minister should’ve resigned or not. I do think people should tell the truth,” he responds. 

As our conversation comes to an end, I ask Gummer about his remarkable career in politics, serving under three prime ministers, surviving the 1984 Brighton bombing and the changes he’s witnessed in Britain’s political discourse. He’s reluctant to be drawn on who the best prime minister was, but says John Major was the “most underestimated”.

“He set an example of probity and sticking by his word publicly which others might learn from and I’m not just referring to this government, but others as well.” 

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