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Climate Change and the Environment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 8th February 2005.

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Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South 3:04 pm, 8th February 2005

I accept that that contradiction exists in government, but I want to widen the picture—I believe that the contradiction exists in every party represented in Parliament today. We need to examine the contradictions in each of our own houses. I would love us to fight a general election on climate change. I would love us to say that the biggest issue that will affect the whole of our lives, and the entirety of our children's lives, is climate change, and that we want to be in dispute with each other about which of us can tackle it most seriously and rapidly. We will not do that, however. The general election will be fought on which leader is the most ugly, which party's set of policies are the most contradictory, who are the biggest bunch of scoundrels, and who can be toughest on immigrants. That will miss the big challenges.

Bob Dylan once wrote in a song:

"You don't need a weather man To know which way the wind blows".

In the same way, we do not need a panel of scientists to tell us about climate change. Let us ask Munich Re, the biggest reinsurance company on the planet, which says that, on current trends, the global economy could be bankrupt by 2050 because of the sheer cost of making good the damage done as a result of climate change. That is the warning bell about which each of us needs to think hard. What is required is a paradigm shift. We need to change how we think about the way we live in the world and how we think about economics.

In scientific terms, we are told that we must limit temperature rise to 2°C higher than it was in pre-industrial times. The terminology that scientists use is that we cannot go above 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—we are now at about 380 parts per million. In layperson's terms, the most important fact is that, on current trends, we would exceed the 400 parts per million figure by about 2015. When Professor Sir David King came to talk to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, he was clear about the time scale and said that climate change was a much bigger threat than terrorism. As for the 2015 timetable, that is not when the world will end but when, scientists tell us, we will be locked into irreversible change. This is the period in which we can do something.

Of course this issue concerns more than ourselves. The consequences of climate change will hit the developing world worst and we shall see a huge increase in drought, disease, environmental devastation and mass migration. Some of those problems will come to our shores second-hand, but others will come to us first-hand. At the recent conference in Exeter, the Hadley centre was quick to point out that one of the contradictions of global warming is that we will also experience global cooling. The prospect of the north Atlantic drift ceasing has now reached 50:50. It is not an immediate prospect, but we know that the north Atlantic drift has been weakening over the decades and the consequences are inevitable cooling. The Hadley centre said that on the north Atlantic coast, there may be winter cooling of 5° C, which means temperatures lower than those in the "little ice age" in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Thames froze over. We are not well equipped to deal with that change.

In addition, sea levels will be affected by the melting of the Greenland and west Antarctica icecaps—something we once did not believe possible—and may rise by up to 18ft. Some coastal constituencies will be affected by that more imminently than my constituency, but the prospect of representing Nottingham sur mer is not entirely ludicrous.