Climate Change and Health: Why is the government taking us backwards?

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In these next two weeks, the most important climate summit for years will be taking place in Paris. As climate change is one of the biggest threats to our health, security and economy, you might expect our political leaders to be shouting about it – so why aren’t we hearing more?

Of course, recent armed attacks on civilians (Lebanon, Paris and Mali), and the armed conflict in Syria, might be expected to dominate the news. Unfortunately, when we do see signs of what the UK government is planning for our climate, the news is not good.

The Minister for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, recently announced an intention to phase out energy from coal by 2025. Fair enough, you might say, coal is one of the dirtiest fuels. What Rudd didn’t say is that coal would in any case have reduced to just 1% of generating capacity by that date, so it’s not much of an extra commitment.

As things like coal phase out, we have the opportunity, and the need, to replace it with renewable sources, while becoming more energy efficient so that demand decreases. Instead, the government is cutting support for renewables, and increasing the subsidies for expensive and questionable fracked shale gas and nuclear (and even, very quietly, building power plants fuelled by diesel, of all things). If the ‘dash for gas’ sounds like a throwback to the days of Thatcher, that’s an indication of how behind the times the government is.

Fast forward to this week’s spending review, and it was received with relief by some, saying that the slowing of cuts (and the odd U-turn) are welcome – and certainly, slowing down the cuts to welfare and other areas is giving some temporary relief to those hardest pressed (climate change and fuel bills will hit the poorest hardest).

The areas still being cut right now however, include the Department of Energy and Climate Change. This includes an end to tax breaks for community energy schemes, and an admission that this was killing cheap, clean community energy.

The ‘E.C.O.’ energy efficiency scheme (which was itself half-hearted at best) is being scrapped, but with no news of what will replace it. While that is presented as ‘saving’ people money on their household bills, it is accompanied by another change: energy intensive industries will now be exempt from environmental tariffs. Doing this wipes out any savings to the public from cutting E.C.O. So we will effectively be further subsidising energy intensive industries, rather than ensuring we have a reasonably-insulated housing stock.

And this at a time when the NHS is bracing itself for more avoidable excess winter deaths (Scandinavian countries have colder winters than ours, but choose not to cull their poorer pensioners in the way that Britain does). Public Health teams – whose work is to keep us well so that we don’t have to rely on the NHS so much – are now to be cut also (including the work on preventing harm from climate change), so the whole situation is bewildering. Indeed, some are joking that the only cut in DECC should be Amber Rudd, on the grounds that she is turning out to be little better than her climate-denying predecessor!

Some critics would suggest that we might expect a Conservative government to be giving hand-outs to its ‘big business friends’, but even some oil executives are starting to realise that fossil fuels are yesterday’s fuels, and starting to invest elsewhere. Perhaps Ministers have been listening to the wrong businesspeople.

In Paris, civil society groups have no illusions, governments will not do enough to avoid the expected, and dangerous, 2-degrees-plus of global warming. So campaigners have been organising their own initiatives to help communities produce their own renewable energy (countries like Kenya are putting Britain to shame on this), and ceasing to invest in fossil fuels (including a new trend towards this ‘divestment’ of financial funds of universities such as here at Birmingham City University).

Positive actions like this, in order to scale up to the level that is needed, require coordinated government action. Sadly, while past governments in Britain took a lead (or at least were among the ‘least worst’) on global efforts to tackle climate change and protect our health, Britain is now being noticed for the way it is rowing back on that past progress, and being overtaken by other countries.

Going back to the original question: WHY is the government pursuing such a damaging course of action? I would love to be a fly on the wall of Cameron-Osborne-Rudd conversations, but it does seem that whatever their aim, it is overriding the need for co-ordinated, evidence-based action to keep the population safe.

Source:By Aldo Mussi, Tutor in Public Health, Birmingham City University
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