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Ed Miliband: ‘Britain is sleepwalking to a climate crisis’

Aftermath of UK Storms

Aftermath: a soldier helps a tree surgeon with a result of the storm that battered Britain on 14 February, leaving three people dead. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “Ed Miliband: ‘Britain is sleepwalking to a climate crisis'” was written by Toby Helm, political editor, for The Observer on Saturday 15th February 2014 21.06 UTC

We are on the 3.30pm train from Birmingham to London and it feels like a race against time. Outside, the fields are flooded and the rain is lashing down. More bad weather is heading in fast from the west. Two days before, on Wednesday, Virgin Trains called a temporary, early-evening halt to services in and out of Euston and passengers are worried it may do so again.

Aside from a nagging anxiety about getting home, Ed Miliband is having a decent day. Earlier, he dropped in on south Manchester, where Labour had won the Wythenshawe and Sale East byelection with ease, before heading to Birmingham to explain his union reforms to a group of mostly enthusiastic party activists.

Now, however, he wants to discuss something far more important: climate change, its consequences, and his plans to combat its worst effects. Between 2008 and 2010, Miliband was secretary of state for energy and climate change at a time when David Cameron was positioning himself as a believer in everything green. It seems like an age ago that they trod such similar ground.

“I genuinely believed he believed it,” he says of the prime minister’s ultra-green phase as opposition leader. “He talked a lot about it. It seemed to be close to his heart.”

Since then, though, much water has passed under the Tory bridge and Miliband is not at all sure what Cameron believes. The economic crash and recession helped put green politics out of fashion in Conservative circles and austerity made the whole agenda seem, at least to some, like an expensive luxury the country could not afford.

In 2012, Cameron sacked a green energy minister, Charles Hendry, and appointed a climate change sceptic, Owen Paterson, as environment secretary. Where being green had once been a defining mission, for Cameron and others it had become a financial burden and a source of party division. Last year, Cameron was said to have been wandering around Downing Street talking of his wish to be rid of all this “green crap” .

As the wind buffets our carrriage, Miliband describes Cameron’s claims to be leading the “greenest government ever” as nothing more than a joke these days. Last week – after more than a fortnight of storms and wall-to-wall media coverage of a country under water – he tuned into the prime minister’s press conference and heard Cameron equivocate when asked about the link between climate change and storms and floods.

Cameron said: “I think the point I would make is, whatever your view, clearly we have had and are having some pretty extreme weather. So whatever your view about climate change, it makes sense to mitigate it and act to deal with that weather.” Everyone had a right to their own view, but the prime minister would not stick his neck out. Had he lost faith in climate change as the cause of the extreme weather and was he no longer prepared to lead the debate? Miliband was mystified and dismayed.

“It is pretty extraordinary that [in Cameron’s case] it has gone from a core conviction, a part of his irreducible core, to a matter of conscience as to whether you believe it or not,” he says.

For the Labour leader there is no doubt. “In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one in 250-year event. If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on,” he says.

Miliband has plenty of experience on climate change. In 2008, he navigated the Climate Change Act, which committed the UK to cut its emissions by at least 80% by 2050, through parliament. It passed with only five votes against.

At that time, all three political parties appeared united about the scale of the problem and the measures that needed to be taken. The act was regarded around the world as a model. But today, squabbling and inconsistent messages from ministers, and pressure from Ukip has split the Tories from Labour and the Liberal Democrats on green issues.

Miliband is keen not to be seen to be laying too much blame at Cameron’s door, when so many people are suffering the terrible effects of flooding. It is not a time for political point-scoring but for leadership, he says.


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