John Gummer: Creating the right climate
Lord Deben is a reminder that the arguments over the need to put a lid on the world’s greenhouse gases have been around for many decades.
As agriculture minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and then secretary of state for environment under John Major, John Gummer was one of the leading voices - convinced by the scientific evidence at the time - that climate change was a threat that should be taken seriously.
And though, of late, sceptics who have cast doubt on the case for climate change have become louder - in particular the Global Warming Policy Foundation chaired by Lord Lawson - Gummer says there is still an urgent need to tackle emissions and reduce the impact of climate change.
Speaking to Holyrood in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords - he took up a seat in the chamber after standing down as an MP in 2010 - he pulls no punches in his description of just how seriously he thinks climate change should be taken.
“The fact is, it is the biggest material threat human beings have to face. The problem is for us all that usually you don’t know about these great threats; if you go back to history and you think about the Black Death, it suddenly happened, and they had no idea what the reason was for it and so it became thought of as an act of God.
“All the science points to the fact that we are changing our own climate by the things that we do and therefore, we have it in our own hands either to destroy the planet that gives us everything or to protect it.
“The reality is the evidence is now so strong and the likelihood so great that not to take even an insurance against it would be very foolish.” In September he was appointed the chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises the Coalition Government on its green policies. Last year the UK Government passed the 4th Carbon Budget put forward by the CCC, which sets out targets for carbon reduction across sectors.
The most important thing for him is the decarbonisation of electricity generation - “the only mechanism” which means the UK can hit its targets of 80 per cent less carbon emissions by 2050 - and at least 34 per cent by 2020 - although these targets are tougher in Scotland.
The responsibility for energy markets is split between the Scottish and UK Governments and Gummer says he is impressed by what has been achieved north of the border.
He intends his first visit as chairman outside London to be to Edinburgh.
“Scotland has tougher targets than the rest of the United Kingdom. I very much want to look at whether we can learn from Scotland, whether there are ways which we can copy elsewhere.
“I am very supportive of the Scottish attitude which has been able to put through the whole of the government and understanding that climate change is part of the job of every single department.” In Westminster, though, much of the focus has been on the in-fighting between the Treasury - which is supportive of more of a concentration on gas - and the Lib Dem controlled Department of Energy and Climate Change - which has been pushing for a greener outlook. But Gummer says that the picture is not that simple.
“Let’s first of all recognise that the Treasury has a very serious, difficult job to do, which is deal with the nation’s finances. It is always unhappy if it doesn’t have total control and if people underestimate the importance of ensuring that we balance the books.” He adds that when, under the previous government, the UK Climate Change Act was passed - with all but three MPs signing up, the Treasury was not happy then.
He added: “I don’t think you should take this as an environment issue. It’s not that the Treasury are against it and DECC is for it. The Treasury is always unhappy when others are making decisions over which it doesn’t have control.” And he said it was a “great mistake” to paint Chancellor George Osborne - who was written to by more than 50 companies urging him and his Treasury to further support decarbonisation of the economy, as a villain in the debate over increasing the use of renewable energy.
Questions have also been asked of the Government’s green policies after the appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary and John Hayes into DECC - who have both made public comments opposed to onshore wind. Gummer says: “Of course, one is open to having different views about the mechanisms of achieving targets.
“The problem is that some people have a particular dislike of one renewable source rather than another. I think that’s perfectly reasonable, but the truth is what you need is all of them.
“Now onshore wind is one of the most costeffective ways of delivering the energy we need - but it also happens to be the most controversial.
“You’ve got to have a balance on this, because it is significantly cheaper to achieve our ends by using onshore wind, for example, than it is by using offshore wind.
“So as long as people realise what the cost is of doing the alternative, I think it is perfectly reasonable of people to make a judgement between these.”
Gummer says he sees himself as an “insurance person” - ensuring that people are protected against climate changes, the huge rise in the cost of energy and the dependence on insecure regimes for energy. He says this can be achieved by something like £60 on top of an energy bill.
By supporting alternative fuels, he says the UK would become less dependent on big producers of energy, like North Africa and Russia and would mean that Britain wouldn’t be too reliant on gas.
Even with the emergence of shale gas, he says there is not nearly enough capacity to produce enough, about 80bn cubic litres of gas - compared to the 600bn cubic litres which are required.
“The idea that a dash for gas would result in a wonderful bonanza, I’m afraid, isn’t so.
“I’m in favour of having what gas we can have, but we have to recognise it is just one of a portfolio - in that portfolio you want to have energy from wind, biomass, nuclear and I would hope too, energy from tide.”
The environmental lobby often includes church representatives. The board of the Stop Climate Change Chaos Coalition, for example, includes religious groups including Christian Aid and the Church of Scotland among its members.
As a former member of the Church of England’s General Synod who became a Roman Catholic in 1992, Gummer likes to quote Margaret Thatcher, ‘we have this world, not freehold, but on a full repairing lease.’ “That’s a financial statement of what is, if you like, a religious view that we are stewards of what we have.
“So if you see that the present generation - instead of protecting the world for a future generation - is destroying it, then you have a moral responsibility as well as a practical, logical and political responsibility, to do something about it.” And he says he does not want the debate over renewable energy to become further polarised.
“The greatest thing about the committee is that it is a group of the most serious sciences and economists. Nobody’s got an axe to grind, nobody has a preferred technology.” He insists he is optimistic about being able to meet climate change targets but after a long, thoughtful pause, he adds: “I’m sorry about one thing. I’m sorry that people who are perfectly rational in every other part of their lives will not face up to the fact that the evidence is now so strong that no father would look after his family without taking this into account.
“Even if there is a tiny measure of uncertainty, the overwhelming nature of the evidence should lead people to a rational position.
“I would much prefer for climate change not to be true, it would make life easier - but it doesn’t help to hide your heads under the blankets.” In taking over the chairmanship of the committee from Adair Turner, it sees a return to prominence for the former secretary of state.
Gummer has been a committed environmentalist since the 1980s, but is perhaps best known for one story, above all others, from his time in government.
In 1990, as concerns over BSE were rife and the possibility the human form CJD could be passed on from eating British beef, in front of the media’s flashbulbs, as the then agriculture minister, he fed a beef burger to his four-year old daughter, Cordelia.
It was controversial move, but he is still adamant it was the right one.
“I have no doubt about it,” he says. “The point is in politics, you either speak the truth and tell people what you believe or you are, in my view, no use to anybody.
“If I pretended that I thought that things were safe for everybody else but not my family then what kind of person would I be?” He adds: “The fact of the matter is, the judgement I made in saying this was safe, it’s true.
“The funny thing is, everybody attacks you at the time, but they don’t 20 years later say, ‘well, actually, he was right.’ “The fact is I had done what I’ve always done, I had read all the science, tried my best to understand what the situation was and I had told the public everything I knew in the best possible way.
“I behaved in my life as I behaved in public life. It’s a question of whether your public life and your private life are in kilter - I think most people would prefer that to be.” This issue of being honest is something that crops up a lot in conversation. It is the reason why he dismissed the idea of sitting as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords - because everybody would have known what his politics are, anyway.
And it is also in evidence when he is asked about reports from criticism in some of the more right-wing media that there was a conflict of interest between some of his membership of outside bodies, and being the independent chairman of the committee.
“Well, I have no conflicts of interest at all, anything that anybody complained about, I’ve given up.
“I was the chairman of an offshore wind company, I’ve resigned from that because I don’t want anyone to feel there was a conflict - so there isn’t any.” But he adds: “Isn’t it a peculiar argument, the fact is, you do want people running shows who know something about it. I am committed to combating climate change, I have been since the 1980s.”
The criticism of wind farms and the climate change agenda often appears, on the face of it at least, to be coming from the Right and while Gummer points out that as well as Thatcher - the first world leader to take the issue of global warming seriously - there were other senior figures at the time such as Michael Howard, who were listening to the arguments.
But he concedes: “There is an element who do find it hard to accept that their view of the free market has to be coloured by these very big issues.
“I am a free marketeer and always have been. The market is the best and most powerful way of dealing with issues, because it’s enormously democratic, but the problem is the market tends to have very short sight.
“If you take the issue of fisheries; fishermen will go on fishing somewhere until there’s nothing left. Because the market demands the fish, they go and bring it in; a shortage of fish means the market prices goes up and it’s worth going to get more.
“The day before the last cod was caught off the Grand Banks of Canada, the fishermen were arguing that they were being too restricted by the government.” Just a few weeks before his interview with Holyrood, Gummer was given a reminder of the urgency of the climate change debate - as he was stranded in the US as Hurricane Sandy hit.
The Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg’s reaction was to acknowledge that climate change had played its part, meaning the hurricane was a greater force than it might otherwise have been.
“That’s why he said, against everything he intended to do, he decided to support Obama,” says Gummer. “At least Obama recognises this, whereas his opponent, in order to curry favour with the Tea Party - and this really upset me when it seemed to be so wrong - having accepted the facts of climate change in the past when he was governor of Massachusetts, now said they were doubtful.”
For Gummer there is another pressing need to change, and one that he doesn’t see that anybody should disagree with - the planet is getting more crowded.
“I’m not sure that you actually have to believe in climate change.
“It seems to me that you merely have to say that we are going to have nine billion people on Earth - that is something nobody disagrees with. If you’re going to feed, clothe and house them, you really do have to reduce your dependency on the resources we have.”