By Claire Stephenson

A climate emergency debate was held in the Grand Committee room of the House of Lords on the 2 April 2019. Secured by The Green Party MEP, Baroness Jenny Jones of Moulsecoombe, the question was to ask the government whether they intend to declare a climate emergency.

Climate catastrophe

Last year, following on from the Paris Agreement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on 1.5℃ of warming warned that humanity has only 12 years left to make “life-changing” alterations to all aspects of living. Human activities have already caused 1℃ global warming, and if action is not taken immediately this will reach 1.5℃ to 2℃ between 2030 and 2050, with devastating consequences. Compiled over two years from upwards of 6000 studies, the report’s urgent call to cut greenhouse gas emissions can no longer be ignored.

World Bank Group 2018 report, Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration found that “tens of millions” of people will be forced to migrate by 2050 if no action to mitigate climate change is implemented. It looked at over half of the developing world’s population: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, and found that people in poverty and those who live in the most vulnerable areas will be worst affected.

During the debate, Baroness Jones stated:

“No doubt the Minister will direct us to the government’s Clean Growth Strategy as proof of how seriously they are taking climate change, but it is a very poor effort and extremely over-optimistic about the potential for change. Optimism is not enough. Optimism is often based in ignorance. 

“The Clean Growth Strategy justifies inaction by looking at “a long-term trajectory”, exploring “voluntary” standards and having aspirations, “where practical, cost-effective and affordable”.

“That is all absolute rubbish.”

Baroness Jones contrasted the maelstrom of Brexit contingency planning (bills rushed through parliament, staff poached from departments to deal with the political crisis, the government pulling out “all the stops” to deliver Brexit), against “the largest threat facing humanity”, the climate emergency, which should demand the same or greater urgency.

She concluded her speech with:

“When we fail to act today, we have to work twice as hard tomorrow. The government must declare a climate emergency, taking climate change seriously in a way they simply have not envisaged so far. I, therefore, urge the government to act now—today.”

Climate scepticism 

Conservative peer and Thatcherite, Lord Peter Lilley responded initially by partially acknowledging that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere:

“…if we continue to burn fossil fuels, the temperature of the world—other things being equal—will continue to rise. We have to decide at what point the benefits of warming are exceeded by the costs, and whether those costs constitute an emergency.”

But back in 2008, Lord Lilley voted against the Climate Change Act, commenting on his position last year with: 

“I decided to vote against the Climate Change Act when I read the Impact Assessment which showed that the potential cost was twice the prospective benefit. Ten years later the costs are coming home to roost and the benefits remain illusory.”

He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, who also sits on the board as a director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a right-wing ‘think tank’ for climate change scepticism launched in 2009 by climate change deniers, Lord Nigel Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser.

Tufton Street

The GWPF is based at 55 Tufton Street – an address synonymous with an “anti-democratic tendency” and a revolving door to the government. Real Media, with DeSmogUK and The Media Fund, previously reported on Tufton Street and the influences within it, including nearby addresses in Westminster, housing a “network of policy ‘think tanks’, lobbyists, pressure groups, PR and media organisations” that offer access to politicians and power.  

A 2015 Unearthed report exposed the pressure exerted on government officials by climate change sceptics including Peter Lilley. He, along with another GWPF member – Lord Donoughue of Ashton – tabled so many parliamentary questions on climate science and the validity of The Met Office’s data, that the Department of Energy and Climate Change had to arrange a meeting with them due to the “unreasonable” costs of answering them all by the usual methods. 

A 2012 Greenpeace investigation also revealed a secret video recording of Peter Lilley, in which he admitted that Chancellor George Osborne: 

“…wanted to get people into key [government] positions who could begin to get the government off the hook from the [climate] commitments it made very foolishly…we could well see certainly amendments to the Climate Change Act, cease to make it legally binding, make it advisory.”

Continuing into his debate speech, Lord Lilley described climate-impacting events:

 “…such as flooding, droughts, storms and declining crop yields…that may or may not be becoming more frequent but what is undoubtedly true is that fatalities from any of these events have been declining rapidly decade by decade.”

The climate science

Real Media asked Emeritus Professor Nick Cowern, who researches atmospheric science and climate change, to comment on Lord Lilley’s speech:

“The science of climate attribution is now well established and has shown that numerous extreme weather events have been made either more likely, or worse, as a result of climate change. 

“Thus, Lord Lilley’s assertion that flooding, droughts, storms and declining crop yields “may or may not be becoming more frequent” is either an ill-informed view or a blank denial of reality. 

“Well known examples are the long period of drought in Syria which displaced nomadic herders into arable areas, triggering conflict and likely precipitating the Syrian civil war; the recent multi-year drought in California; and almost all of the recent major hurricanes investigated by climate attribution studies.” 

The debate continued with Lord Lilley stating that our actions in the UK to mitigate climate change would have “negligible” effect and if the country stopped eating meat and using fossil fuels, “that would reduce the total emissions in the world by 2%, less than one year’s growth in China.”

He went on to claim that fossil fuels prevent the poor from removing themselves from poverty:

“If we are to treat this as an emergency, we are talking about keeping poor people poor by stopping them using cheap energy. That is not worthwhile because it exposes them to emergencies. The real emergency, the real crisis, would be in developing countries if we were to follow the logic of the noble Baroness’s position and keep them in the undeveloped state which not using fossil fuels and not making emissions would leave them.”

In response to this, Professor Cowern states:

“The repeated conflation of “cheap” and “fossil fuels” in Lord Lilley’s speech is pernicious. As a result of the development of renewable energies and electric vehicles by the West, China and India, poorer countries have the opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ the historical development of western economies using cheap, clean electrical energy supplied by renewables. 

“One compelling and well-known example at village level in Africa and India is the use of solar photovoltaic cells to provide lighting for homes and power for mobile phones, supplanting expensive and toxic kerosene fuel for lamps and usually unaffordable diesel generators for electricity. This has had important impacts on health, educational attainment and access to markets for some of the poorest of the poor in the global South. 

“At larger scale, renewable energy systems are now substituting for more expensive, polluting coal-fired power stations across China, India, Southern Africa and South America, and in the transport field, India is planning for the wider population to gain access to powered transport via the expansion of electric vehicles, not fossil-fuelled vehicles. 

“It is thus a false premise that poor countries need fossil fuels in order to develop. Indeed, during the next decade, renewable energy systems have the capability to expand to fill nearly all energy requirements across the developing world. 

“In Lord Lilley’s world, those same poorer countries would find themselves dependent years from now on fossil fuel companies to supply their energy, rather than obtaining essentially free energy from the sun, wind and waves.”

Public relations power

Lord Lilley is an ardent fossil fuel advocate who previously sat on the board of Tethys Petroleum – a petrochemicals company (based in the Cayman Islands) that runs oil and gas drilling projects in and around Kazakhstan. In 2012 DeSmog reported he earned £47,000 from Tethys on top of his MP’s salary, with additional oil and gas share options of at least $400,000 according to The Guardian.

In 2013, Lilley reportedly attended the Conservative Summer Party. He was seated alongside Patsy Lewis from disgraced PR firm Bell Pottinger, the then-representative of fracking company Cuadrilla (Bell Pottinger also donated £66,980 to the Conservatives).

In 2014, Peter Lilley went head-to-head on Channel 4 with anti-fracking campaigner, Vanessa Vine, where he heartily lobbied for the fracking industry, claiming that the UK has drilled “over 200 wells which have required fracking”. But the UK’s one and only high-volume hydraulic fracking operation at the time was Cuadrilla’s, which failed completely. A fracking moratorium was imposed after over 50 earth tremors and subsequent well deformation.

In 2018, an undercover investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Sunday Times published a recording of Lilley, along with Lord Andrew Lansley and senior Tory MP, Andrew Mitchell. The three men thought they were dealing with a genuine Chinese company and appeared to be soliciting money in return for “intelligence” on the UK government and Brexit issues.

Lilley was recorded as boasting he sat on two expert advisory groups who could have sway over Brexit. Lilley still went on to be given a peerage following the expose. 

Business as usual?

Other speakers at the debate included Lord Teverson for the Liberal Democrats, who asked whether, following the publication on May 2 of the Committee for Climate Change report “will the Government accept the committee’s recommendations, whatever they are?”

The Earl of Caithness, a former Conservative minister in the Thatcher government, gave mixed signals, saying:

“The message must be sent out that we have to stop burning fossil fuels…This is an important subject but it is not quite an emergency yet.”

Lord Henley, the under-secretary of state for the department of business, energy and industrial strategy, ended the debate with a closing speech for the government. He acknowledged they had an “urgent need to do things, and accept that impacts are already being felt” but also spoke about how the UK is already a climate leader on a global level and that with regards to the Committee on Climate Change’s forthcoming report recommendations, “we will respond as appropriate.”

Although Lord Henley recognised the global urgency of acting on climate change, talking about the growing public concern and the youth strikes for climate – his reference to the growth of the economy as “the important thing” suggested a ‘business as usual’ approach from the Conservative government. 

The powerful and lucrative networks which influence government position and policy are still alive and well, and no doubt use their privilege to impact any attempts to take responsible action on climate change mitigation. 

However, with the rapid rise of the youth climate movement and Extinction Rebellion, the government is under increasing pressure to act, and the protests have already forced meetings with London mayor Sadiq Khan, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

An unprecedented and unanimous vote was passed by Parliament this week, declaring a Climate and Environment Emergency. A report also released this week, was from the Committee on Climate Change. Their recommendations include that the UK reaches net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050 – a date many people feel is far too late to prevent a climate catastrophe. 

One thing is for certain, ‘business as usual’ is no longer acceptable. As Greta Thunberg stated last year, “change is coming, whether you like it or not” and the well-connected Tufton Street cabal may be given a literal run for their money.