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David Walsh: It’s time to talk about climate change and energy security

David Walsh, who is training to be a barrister, argues that it is time to add a new dimension to the green debate, one that might just get the Right talking about reducing our carbon footprint.

Last week saw the latest policy group report on ‘quality of life’ issues. The development of policy through this process has undoubtedly been a positive one for the Party and has spearheaded its intellectual regeneration. The challenge now is to translate this important work into policy fit for a manifesto and potentially impending election. In order to accomplish this effectively, it will require the Party as a whole, not just the leadership, to be engaged with environmental policy.

Even before the latest report from Messrs. Gummer and Goldsmith, David Cameron had pledged to offset any proposed tax reductions with tax increases on environmentally harmful behaviour. If the Redwood report was tough to sell to liberal voters (hoping that the Conservative Party was no longer simply obsessed with tax cuts) then the green agenda is likely to be even tougher to sell to the more conservatively minded, especially Cameron’s internal critics (who will be anxious to avoid any talk of tax rises).

Some of these sceptics will doubt the science behind arguments on climate change, whilst others will doubt the efficacy of tax increases to solve the problem. These concerns are deeply held but a route to tackling them might lie in the hitherto avoided subject of energy security.

Climate change sceptics in the United States have embraced the idea of energy security more enthusiastically than their British counterparts. Mr Bush famously called for America to reduce its “addiction to oil”. However, given recent events it is a subject whose time may have come on this side of the Atlantic.

The premise of the energy security argument is straightforward. It is that our national dependence on foreign energy sources makes us particularly vulnerable on two fronts. Firstly, that hostile regimes are often supported by the sale of fossil fuels, and secondly, that our dependence on such energy sources leaves us open to blackmail by unscrupulous foreign powers.

These arguments are not new and certainly date back to the devastating economic consequences of the 1973 Oil Crisis. Nevertheless, recent actions by Russia in relation to gas supplies in the Ukraine (2006), Georgia (2006) and Belarus (2007), as well as post-9/11 concerns about the funding of extremist and terrorist organisations, have resurrected the issue. Oil, peace and security are, as ever, inextricably linked.

Britain should be especially alert for three key reasons. First, Britain’s North Sea oil and gas reserves are rapidly depleting, turning the nation from a net exporter to a net importer of these fossil fuels. Second, Russia appears intent on asserting itself as a global force once again with the resumption of long-range bomber flights over Western Europe. It is highly likely that Russia will use its clout as an energy superpower (with the world’s fifth largest natural gas reserves and 7% of the world’s oil reserves) to ensure it is once again taken seriously in the West. Third, it is in Britain’s national interest to ensure that its energy policy does not thwart its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

Turning away from carbon-based energy sources and switching to more renewable forms of energy could help to minimise these potential threats, as part of an overall security strategy.

Furthermore, by deploying arguments on both climate change and energy security, a classic piece of Clinton-esque triangulation could be executed. Reducing our national carbon footprint would no longer be seen as the sole preserve of tree-hugging environmentalists but also of interest to those on the more hard-nosed Right. In the course of history there have certainly been more unlikely alliances.

However, in order for this to happen, the Right needs to be persuaded that the security of our energy supply is something that needs to be addressed. The enthusiasm and receptiveness of the Right on this issue is difficult to gauge, as the arguments have never really been convincingly made in this country. What is clear though, is that the subject should be a key plank of defence and counter-terrorism policy rather than a late addition to the environmental portfolio.

With a traditional concern for national security and the recent embracing of the green agenda, the Conservative Party is now ideally placed to make arguments both against climate change and for energy security. Although both threats might not seem imminent to most of the general public at present, a combination of both issues might just see both achieve greater status in the national debate.


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