During this morning's Week in Westminster programme (11am), presented by Steve Richards, I discuss the politics of climate change with Will Straw of Left Foot Forward. I make the case that the issue of climate change has the potential to divide the Conservative Party in the same way that Europe has divided us in the past. Discussing it now means we can, hopefully, pre-empt any tension.
We have already seen the issue cause an explosive leadership ousting in our sister party in Australia. Most American conservatives oppose radical action on climate change. Most Tory members and candidates do not believe that action on climate change should trump other policy goals. I have made the case that green measures should be tested to ensure they deliver significant 'other benefits'. I'd say the Tories' three flagship environmental policies – opposition to Heathrow's third runway, Theresa Villiers' support for high-speed rail links between the north and south of England, and Greg Clark's home insulation scheme – all pass that test.
I only had a very short slot within the programme to make the case that 'climate change could be the new Europe' but here are some of the common factors:
The British Left is united in its Euroenthusiasm and its embrace of climate change: The Left sees the EU and climate change treaties as contributing to the end of the nation state. The Left supports the EU, UN and other multilateral institutions as able to deliver tax and regulatory policies that are hard to pass within Britain.
Both are built on ideas that are very controversial for conservatives: The EU is built on the idea that the nation state is dying and climate change is built on the idea that climate change is man-made (which I largely accept) and we can do something about it (where I largely dissent).
Lower income households are most hurt by both: Artificially high food prices are one of the key side-effects of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. Higher energy prices are a likely consequence of Copenhagen. Both impact low income families disproportionately. Matt Sinclair has warned that "utility bills in the UK could rise by 60-100% in real terms."
They involve a transfer of wealth away from Britain: The UK has always paid more into the EU than it has got back. Yesterday (just for starters) Gordon Brown promised a £1.5bn three-year payment to an EU fund to combat climate change in the developing world. He promised more than any other EU nation. Money that could have been used to pay down our deficit or for combatting malaria or malnutrition in Africa will be spent on climate change. The EU's aid budget is already riddled with corruption and is used to advance EU states' commercial interests. Don't expect the EU's 'green aid' to be very different.
They are massive distractions from other bigger issues: Eurosceptics are often presented as Little Englanders but a better case can be made for 'Little Europeanism'. The EU has become the world's selfish giant – looking to deepen its institutions but neglectful of the need to open its markets to the poorest people of the world. Bjorn Lomborg and other economists have successfully argued that global commitments to lift trade barriers and tackle malnutrition would be better for the world's poor than the focus on climate change.
The elite of the Tory Party thinks differently from the mainstream: At the very beginning of the Europe debate the party leadership was more supportive of the project than the mainstream of activists. Over time the leadership has come into line with Britain's massive Eurosceptic majority. Today 74% of Tory voters think that the media exaggerates the impact of climate change. Will that reduce as the climate becomes (we are promised) more volatile or will the climate scepticism harden as the cost of combating change increases and other nations (eg China, India) fail to change their ways? The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and Spectator are all on the side of those conservatives who are sceptical of climate change (as they line up with the Eurosceptics).
None of this means that the Conservative Party should avoid green issues. Far from it. I, for one, fully support more efficient use of energy, protection of green space and ancient woodland. I support greater pedestrianisation of our cities, more recycling and special habitats that protect endangered species. We all want cleaner air and cleaner rivers. But should we sign up to Al Gore's climate change agenda? At the Conservative Party's peril.