Tim Farron writes… Climate change must be the pressing issue for liberals

It is human nature that the immediate threats are those that grab our attention. More longer-term dangers – like climate change can appear to be – are harder to keep high on the agenda. Come another crisis, it too easily slips off. So it might seem strange, especially in the wake of recent events, to say that climate change is the biggest threat to Liberalism. This is what Duncan Brack, Neil Stockley and I argue in Centreforum’s publication of “The Challenges Facing Contemporary Liberalism: 2015 -2025,” published this week here:

Yet stepping back from the very real threats we face from the rise of nationalism and extremism, the bigger picture is unavoidable (though we probably all wish that we could avoid this “uncomfortable truth”). Climate change is the greatest threat to liberalism, because it is the greatest threat to our survival full stop.

Of course, we do not mean that for all individuals at all times, climate change will be the most pressing and immediate concern. In fact, that’s just the problem. It rarely appears like that, especially to countries like ours that are directly affected less than some and have the most resources to weather the storm. The January floods were a sharp wake up call to what is commonplace to many of the poorest people around the world.

As we outline, “We are already seeing the consequences of climate change. Over the last fifteen years, there have been killer heat waves in Europe, wildfires in Australia, and deadly floods in Pakistan… If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the current rate, there will be more floods and droughts, more violent storms, more intense heat waves. There will be dramatic drops in global food production, at the same time as the world’s population is rising.” This is just a snapshot.

Climate change is a security issue, a social political, a market issue and a business issue. Creating a society in which “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” will become increasingly harder with every temperature rise. As we write, “millions of people, including generations not yet born, will see their freedoms diminished, their choices limited, their ability to make the best of their lives constricted. Poorer people and countries will suffer most. A world experiencing significant climate change will be more at risk from conflict and insecurity and much less congenial to civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law.”And the authoritarian voices will become louder.

Climate change must therefore be the pressing issue for all liberals, social, economic or otherwise. The next question is how we tackle climate change. As we discuss in the chapter, a truly liberal, rather than libertarian approach, will understand and correct market failures. It will also understand the limits of the market in achieving all we need to in order to tame this beast. It will not stay wedded to a dogmatic attachment to a small state, but it will not rely naively on the state to act. It will act internationally through the EU and UN as well as domestically, and in a way that empowers communities rather than ignoring them.

This is probably not news to most of the readers of Lib Dem Voice – but it will be alien to many Conservatives and UKIPpers, who seem so wedded to a small state ideology that they have no choice but to shut their eyes to the evidence of climate change in order to keep their dogma. We argue that a small-state, anti-interventionist, deregulatory approach cannot produce an adequate response. However the answer is not the green party. Greens seem to take a dangerously authoritarian approach in which fighting climate change comes at the cost of many of the values Lib Dems have fought for. Greens also take an austere stance which is so immediately unappealing that it will frankly not convince enough people to change their habits in order to save the planet. What’s the point in perfect posturing if the consequences are that you fail to save the planet?

Our heritage is one of political discussion, working with citizens rather than behind their backs. This is a challenge for everyone, including economic liberals, and we must argue for liberal solutions to face it down. Zero Carbon Homes, the Green Investment Bank, Ed Davey’s backbreaking international work, a community energy revolution: all of these are good liberal responses to climate change. Our country more than ever needs a strong, green liberal voice – and we are the only ones who can provide this. ​

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Refugees and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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  • But we will require more repair and maintenance, and therefore much less in the way of new manufacture, much less plastic production, use of raw materials etc. This will require an end to growth measured as we have been, and may result in what you call an austere approach. Anything less will not cut the mustard, as they might say. A carbon revolution is only the start of it, we need to minimise our footprint across the planet to allow the diversity of species to remain in place. Across the world, of course, water usage is only one huge pressure coming down the road at us all. The various aspects of death in the oceans (some associated with carbon dioxide levels, of course) need urgent attention.

    I agree, we should be looking carefully at how the message goes over, but it would not be honest to just talk about the great advantages of “green growth” etc, and the Ed Davey type message that we can easily reduce energy costs without using carbon. The current low oil prices on international markets present a real challenge, and greens of all stripes, whether in the Green Party or Lib Dems or elsewhere need to face these. Empty optimism will not, ultimately do the job. It sometimes seems to me that our attitudes certainly in Britain have regressed since the 1990s when many people tried to follow up the Rio Conference with Agenda 21 and Local Agenda 21 actions.

  • Tim Farron, by the way, is NOT President of the Lib Dems as stated at the foot of the article.

  • Tim13 10th Feb ’15 – 3:01pm
    Tim Farron, by the way, is NOT President of the Lib Dems as stated at the foot of the article.

    Perhaps LDV should just change that line to “Tim Farron is soon to be Leader of the Lib Dems “.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Feb '15 - 4:46pm

    It’s good, but I think there is room for improvement. We know the left has run with half-baked green ideas in the past, such as mandatory biofuel quotas, because it fits their ideology of state intervention, but did it make the world a better place? Probably not. Liberals need to be emphatically pro-science.


  • Stephen Hesketh 10th Feb '15 - 7:00pm

    JohnTilley 10th Feb ’15 – 4:46pm
    [[Tim13 10th Feb ’15 – 3:01pm
    Tim Farron, by the way, is NOT President of the Lib Dems as stated at the foot of the article.]]

    Perhaps LDV should just change that line to “Tim Farron is soon to be Leader of the Lib Dems “.

    Nick Clegg came to a Southport Lib Dems Dinner before he was leader … Gave an uninspiring Centrist speech. Didn’t mix with the plebs.

    Tim Farron came to a Southport Lib Dems Dinner before he was leader … Gave a passionate Centre-Left Liberal speech. Spent most of the evening mixing with like-minded Liberal Democrats.

    Chalk and cheese.

  • Stephen Hesketh 10th Feb '15 - 8:02pm

    In addition to the points raised by both Tim Farron and Simon Oliver, I would add factors such as the impact higher sea levels will have on our many coastally-located cites, on low lying high quality agricultural land, on oceanic island communities and those living virtually at sea level on the deltas of the earth’s great rivers. Add to these the ever increasing rate of population growth and it makes for a number of truly nightmare scenarios.

    The threat facing us requires action by individuals, communities, businesses and by governments acting nationally and internationally. It requires leadership from our politicians – not the weasel words and manoeuvrings of the likes of Nigel Lawson and George Osborne.

    This time also represents an opportunity for us to make the most of our technology by, for example, increasing working from home and flexible working practices, offering growth to innovative small and medium sized businesses, incentivising energy conservation in combination with local and regional sustainable power generation.

    But it is also a world in which we will all, one way or another, be truly ‘in it together’. The more positive outcome will include a levelling of incomes, wealth and opportunity along with fair consumption of the earth’s resources.

    An uncontrolled short-termist ‘free market’ Thatcherite economy supporting minimal tax-paying corporations and a super-rich elite must, sooner or later be recognised and openly spoken of as part of the problem and not its solution.

    The future can be Liberal, green and sustainable or authoritarian, brown and smelly. If we don’t begin to act with optimism and vision, we will bequeath to our descendants a much poorer, frightening and illiberal world.

  • “The current low oil prices on international markets present a real challenge” (Tim13)

    You can say that again! whilst many look at the implications in terms of lower prices at the petrol pumps etc. what many miss is the impact these prices will have on recycling. I suspect at current price levels, plastics recycling for example, is not economically viable. Hence I anticipate many privately funded “green” businesses being negatively impacted, whereas those pseudo private “green” businesses, such as those who operate wind farms will continue to rake in taxpayer monies at rates unaffected by market forces…

    One of the major changes that Tim and TIm13 omit to mention is that both the UK and the global economy have in recent decades rapidly become much more interconnected with production itself becoming much more distributed, taking advantage not only of cheaper manufacturing costs but also the very low cost of reliable transportation. An obvious example is the production of airplanes by Airbus, where not only are components widely sourced but production of major assemblies is also distributed across several EU countries, instead of in one large factory.

  • Stephen Hesketh 10th Feb '15 - 10:09pm

    Stephen Hesketh 10th Feb ’15 – 7:00pm

    Note to self – delete ‘centre left’ and insert ‘authentic traditional mainstream preamble Liberal Democracy’.

    It is too late in the evening to debate the abbreviated version!

  • Its all nonsense and a waist of money this very burdening on the people of this land that Emmitt less than 4% of world pollution

  • Stephen Hesketh 10th Feb '15 - 11:16pm

    Tez, I appreciate it is something that is, in equal measure, appalling and terrifying to your party, but surely you do understand the implication of the term ‘international cooperation’ don’t you?

  • Yes, Climate change is the greatest threat to liberalism, but for very different reasons than cited!
    False premise- https://sites.google.com/site/climatesensitivity/

  • Tsar Nicolas 11th Feb '15 - 10:03am

    Douglass Allen,

    Regarding your comment about exaggeration of doom not being a winning strategy, can you tell me how you see the release of methane at an exponential rate from the Arctic permafrost?

  • jedibeeftrix 11th Feb '15 - 2:39pm

    “So I suggest we all learn to ignore these /voters/ and focus on developing Libdem policy.”

    Periodically I’m want to ask whether the libdems are a party seeking election in an adversarial parliamentary system, or imagine themselves as a pressure group seeking influence in a consensual pr system.

    This attitude is why.

  • Neil Sandison 11th Feb '15 - 3:53pm

    having read the policy motion to conference it has very many positive points i would have liked to see a line on protecting ancient and veteran tress from extraction processes like fracking and sand and gravel excavation .Also some recogition for local wildlife sites which we are losing at phenominal rate to development i estimate we have lost 8 sites over the last 10 years in my borough These are not protected under the NPPF and are frequently lost because economic criteria is given a higher weighting than the environment.

  • Simon Oliver 11th Feb ’15 – 2:00pm
    The first thing a climate-change denier learns is to start a debate about the science with non-scientists, creating a false impression that the science is still in doubt and distracting them from responding to scientific reality.

    Quite right, Simon Oliver.
    It is the same tactic as used by Big Tobacco for more than 100 years. In fact it is remarkable how many climate-change deniers are also lobbyists for Tobacco. Just watch them come out in force over Plain Packaging for cigarettes. They will say the is no evidence that it works, they will say that there is evidence that it does not work, they will say there is no evidence at all, they will say “Let’s wait until there is more evidence”, they will say never mind the evidence just follow Lord Lawson.

  • Alex Sabine 11th Feb '15 - 5:16pm

    @ Roland
    “Hence I anticipate many privately funded ‘green’ businesses being negatively impacted, whereas the pseudo private ‘green’ businesses, such as those who operate wind farms, will continue to rake in taxpayer monies at rates unaffected by market forces…”

    Such are the glories of an interventionist industrial policy focused on extensive sectoral subsidies and ‘picking winners’.

    If the goal of policy is to reduce carbon emissions in the most cost-effective way, it would make more sense to price in the externality through an ‘upstream’ carbon tax applied at the point of emissions (a uniform price applying to all firms, of all sizes and sectors) and remove all these market distortions caused by the complex web of overlapping taxes, tax breaks, subsidies and price floors.

    But politicians like to believe they have superior insights than can be obtained through the discovery process of the market regarding which technologies to favour and what will power ‘the economy of the future’. As a result, decarbonisation is more expensive than it needs to be and the system is wide open to corporate lobbying and ‘boondoggles’. The government should simplify and flatten carbon taxes as a priority, and stop trying to plan in minute detail what our energy system will look like far into the future.

    As Policy Exchange have argued: “No matter how detailed or brilliant one’s model, the idea that you can predict exactly what technologies will cost in 20 years’ time, let alone what gas or oil will cost then, is fanciful. It may turn out that decarbonising the electricity sector is actually more expensive than a new low-carbon transport technology. The best system we have for dealing with such uncertainty is a market. It would be much better to price or limit the pollutant (carbon) and then allow the market to decide which technologies are cheapest to achieve that level of decarbonisation. The decarbonisation target amendment is just the latest in a long series of climate change targets and sub-targets, none of which has ever sated campaigners’ thirst for more.”

    For those who might disregard such arguments simply because they are made by a centre-right think-tank, the IFS make much the same case: “Emissions reduction is like a form of investment, with upfront costs for an expected long-run benefit. Agreeing on who should bear the costs, in what form, and by when, is one of the most complex issues in global politics today. One principle, though, is clear: minimising the total cost of achieving lower emissions requires that it is done in the most efficient way possible. Failing to do this risks resulting in greater costs than need be or even a consequent loss of confidence in carrying through policies to combat climate change… The UK’s current policies leave plenty of scope for improvement.

    “A single, consistent carbon price across different sources of emission (and ideally across countries as well), is a necessary condition for minimising the cost of emissions reduction. To see why, suppose there were a carbon price of £20 per tonne applied to all emissions. This would give firms and households an incentive to carry out measures to reduce their emissions that cost less than this for each tonne of carbon saved. Suppose instead that firms faced a price of £30 while households faced a price of £10. Firms would now engage in more costly measures to reduce emissions, and households would do less. The total cost of reducing emissions by the same amount as before would rise.”

    They point out that under current policy households are charged much lower carbon prices than firms, and that gas used for heating is charged a lower price than electricity (indeed, owing to the preferential rate of VAT emissions from domestic gas consumption are specifically subsidised relative to consumption of goods and services that involve lower or negligible emissions). While higher carbon prices for firms may ultimately fall on households through higher prices and lower wages, they do so in ways which are much less transparent (and thus harder to compensate for, say by reductions in payroll taxes or VAT or other targeted support) than direct charges on the household sector.

    In addition, all users face lower implicit carbon prices on coal-fired electricity relative to gas-fired electricity; this is because neither the Climate Change Levy nor the Renewables Obligation distinguish between non-renewable fuels on the basis of their carbon content, raising the implicit carbon price for the less polluting gas relative to coal.

    Far from being extended, the current ragbag of initiatives and policy instruments should be ripped up and a more economically rational approach adopted that doesn’t try to second-guess human ingenuity and technological advance decades into the future.

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Feb '15 - 9:40pm

    When dealing with the future of the earth, I find it staggering that those who do not believe in the theory of climate change or the scientific evidence amassed in its support, can’t even accept that adopting a precautionary approach might just be the sensible thing for us to do.

    Is it not common sense to develop and use renewables rather than continue to use up these essentially non-renewable geological resources?

    Is it not also sensible to develop, manufacture and export renewable technologies and in doing so create employment in small and medium sized businesses while continuing to make the most of ‘human ingenuity and technological advancement’? Looks like a win-win situation to me.

    No, our ‘current ragbag of initiatives and policy instruments’ is not fit for purpose nor half as imaginative as it could be but I bet they would be 100% better if not held back by the always short-termist Tories.

    Regarding scientific and industrial progress, where would we be now if Newcomen hadn’t built his very inefficient atmospheric steam engine? What would James Watt have fixed and in doing so conceived of the separate condenser and what would Richard Trevithick have improved by his introduction of high pressure steam – which Watt said wouldn’t work.

    Innovation has to start somewhere. It might make economic sense to some to keep doing the same old thing until the perfect solution emerges but that is not how science, engineering or little else practical works. We move forward, step by step, learning from our failures and building on the successes of others.

    They say that necessity is the mother of invention. If we don’t even recognise the need, what is going to drive the invention. All of life does not revolve around the market and short term economics as some appear to think.

    Sorry about the rant but I find myself very frustrated by the ‘know the cost of everything but value of nothing, economic realists’.

  • Alex Sabine 12th Feb '15 - 2:49am

    Stephen: As I went to some lengths to explain, I wasn’t advocating doing nothing until “the perfect solution emerges”. I was saying the government should not seek to pre-emptively determine and micro-manage which technologies or behaviour adaptations will be most effective in reducing emissions at the lowest cost to material prosperity (the costs to labour productivity of lower energy consumption in industrial activities, and the extra resource costs required to provide non-polluting forms of energy).

    That is the effect of the complex mishmash of UK and EU interventions and subsidies that skew the cost of energy in irrational ways: businesses are charged more than households, electricity more than gas, gas-fired electricity more than coal-fired electricity, some sectors pay several times over for their energy use, etc. None of this has a coherent rationale.

    Indeed, there is actually a negative carbon price for household gas (owing to the preferential VAT rate), while a medium-sized non-energy-intensive business faces a carbon price of £69 per tonne of CO2 on electricity and £22 on gas. The bias against business energy use conveniently hides the fact that consumers have to pay in the end. But it unnecessarily raises the overall cost of delivering any given reduction in emissions, and means that energy-intensive activities simply migrate to neighbouring countries, negating the environmental benefits while handicapping domestic industry.

    So we have a situation in which the state presumes to do things it isn’t very good at and to know things it cannot know, instead of doing the one thing that it could most usefully do: set a consistent carbon price that would harness the most powerful tools we have available – price signals and profit-maximising incentives – to generate the myriad market-driven adjustments that will achieve environmental improvements in the most cost-effective way, getting as close as possible to win-win results.

    Government action is needed to embed the ‘external costs’ of pollution and carbon emissions in market prices. The basic idea being that we pay a tax equal to the damage we are doing: households and businesses are incentivised to stop doing those things where the future damage exceeds the current benefits, but to keep doing the things where the current benefits outweigh the future damage.

    But once this is done – once a ‘Pigou tax’ is implemented – the market mechanism is a far more flexible, subtle and powerful means of identifying and driving forward the technological developments and changes in consumption patterns that will maximise current benefits and minimise future damages – ie maximise human utility over time. Its superiority over centrally planned schemes lies in the invisible rather than the visible hand.

  • Stephen Bolter 12th Feb '15 - 12:06pm

    There are no absolute certainties in climate science, just as there is no absolute certainty I will be killed if fall in front of an express train.
    I am not prepared to risk catastrophe by ignoring scientific advice on global warming any more than I am prepared to risk my life by ignoring approaching express trains.

  • Alex Sabine 12th Feb '15 - 3:46pm

    @ Simon Oliver
    “A science denier will never vote liberal democrat – they are almost exclusively of the far right persuasion…”

    Out of interest, do you have any empirical evidence for this proposition – you know, the sort of thing that good science and scientific progress depend on?

    I assume that by the “far right persuasion” you mean primarily UKIP voters (since fringe far-right outfits like the BNP and EDL are thankfully of trifling importance). The psephological research suggests that a significant slice of UKIP’s increased electoral success and vote share is based on their claiming the anti-incumbent mantle and winning over former Lib Dem voters on this basis. These anti-establishment, ‘sick of the old politics’ voters might or might not be attracted by UKIP’s attitude to climate change – I suspect they are mostly indifferent to, and/or unaware of, it – but it certainly hasn’t proved a barrier to their casting their ballots for them.

    Likewise, a few years back some Lib Dem activists were surprised to find that the most popular newspaper among their voters was not the Independent or Guardian but the Daily Mail, which isn’t exactly in the vanguard of climate change activism…

    On the substance of the issue, personally I am no scientific expert so I am prepared to be guided by the scientific consensus and to take a precautionary approach – which is not the same thing as believing that scientists, still less politically active climate change campaigners, should be single-handedly drawing up public policy. Economists, for example, have useful things to say about how environmental goals can best be reconciled with our desire to increase material prosperity and reduce domestic and global poverty.

    In the same way Parliament seeks input from medical experts when debating ethical questions involving human life, but it does not and should not subcontract law-making to them. And as jedi points out, in a democracy ultimately the general public is the arbiter of how as a society we should balance competing priorities, and any party seeking electoral success will need to persuade a large chunk of the electorate that it is getting the emphasis right and has credible and somewhat palatable solutions.

    I think Douglass Allen hits the nail on the head when he says that “global warming/climate change has been thoroughly polarised by extremists on both sides yelling catastrophe and hoax. The science is very different. I teach a course in global warming/climate change and am appalled by the exaggeration and over-reach of those on our side.”

    The more apocalyptic and hysterical the warnings, the more voters will be inclined to switch off and get on with their lives. A more rational approach which recognises the uncertainty over the scale of the threat, advocates sensible precautionary action and shows how such steps can be perfectly compatible with rising living standards is surely a more promising way forward.

  • Alex Sabine – Just a quick answer on the Daily Mail. What was discovered was that there were numerically more DM readers than Guardian, Independent etc. This is hardly surprising bearing in mind how much bigger the readership of that paper than others you mention. It says nothing of proportionality. I don’t know who Simon Oliver means exactly by “far right persuasion” – but such people as Nigel Lawson etc from the Tories would seem to qualify. I am sorry I have no time to answer your points in detail on the economics / politics / sociology / psychology, I am rather busy preparing and organising a local campaign, which I intend will feature climate change and other environmental issues considerably.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Feb '15 - 8:28pm

    Stephen Bolter 12th Feb ’15 – 12:06pm
    “There are no absolute certainties in climate science, just as there is no absolute certainty I will be killed if fall in front of an express train. I am not prepared to risk catastrophe by ignoring scientific advice on global warming any more than I am prepared to risk my life by ignoring approaching express trains.”

    Stephen – An good example of the precautionary principle and analogy concerning the potential dangers we are facing.

  • Alex Sabine 12th Feb '15 - 8:57pm

    Tim13: The word ‘numerically’ is rather redundant there. For political parties it is the raw numbers of votes that they can muster that counts – the proportion of the voting population not the proportion of a particular newspaper’s readership.

    I wasn’t saying that Daily Mail readers were more likely to vote for the Lib Dems than for other parties; clearly that isn’t the case. I was pointing out that Lib Dem voters were more likely to read the Daily Mail than the Guardian or the Independent.

    Of course you are right that this says nothing about ‘proportionality’. For all I know, Lib Dem voters might be proportionately more likely to take the Socialist Worker or the Wall Street Journal than the Daily Mail – but that doesn’t mean the outlooks of these august journals are particularly germane to the question of what Lib Dem voters might think about climate change or any other subject.

    These figures show the number of people who read various newspaper titles and voted Lib Dem in 2010:

    The Sun:  796,000
    Daily Mail:  576,000
    Daily Mirror:  396,000
    The Times:  340,000
    The Guardian:  331,000
    Daily Telegraph:  278,000
    The Independent:  233,000

    So, as you can see, more Lib Dem voters read the Daily Mail than the Guardian and Independent put together, while the single most popular newspaper with Lib Dem voters (as with the wider electorate) was The Sun.

    I’m not claiming that reading a particular newspaper implies agreement with its political views. But the figures should at least be food for thought for those who say the Lib Dems should appeal to the rather narrow sliver of the electorate who share the Guardian’s worldview.

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