In writing about climate change I am aware that I am opening myself up to those who want to debate the science of it all and deny that it is happening. I will be honest in saying that I desperately want to avoid getting into that kind of conversation.
There is a global scientific consensus that says that climate change is real. As a liberal I am bound to say that people are free to challenge that consensus. Scepticism, debate and challenge, when done properly, are healthy and often extremely necessary things. However, I am not a climate scientist. I have no inclination to attempt to become one or indeed to become an amateur expert on the science. So I take as my starting point an acceptance of that global scientific consensus. I choose to trust the scientists that say that climate change is real. I also accept the argument that it is man made and is caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What I am interested in is what the political response to that reality should be.
In short, if you want to debate the truth of whether climate change is happening or not please go somewhere else.
The science tells us that we have a problem. Projections suggest that in the UK we will experience trends of warmer, wetter winters and hotter drier summers. We will have less rainfall during the summer and heavier rainfall in the winter, potentially causing more flooding. These changes will have impact both on agriculture and on the nature of our natural environment.
While these projections vary the impact of these changes in forty to fifty years could be catastrophic. Even in the more benign scenarios they mean significant changes to our lifestyles. So not taking action is not an option. The fact that it is necessary to tackle this issue on a global level does not meant that we in the UK do not have a responsibility to do our bit.
The role of local councils is key to this. The Local Government Association, in a 2007 report, made the case that;
“The unique features of local government – its democratic mandate, its close proximity to citizens through the services it delivers, its regulatory and planning responsibilities and its strategic role working with public, private and voluntary sector partners, and regional bodies –mean that it is on the frontline in tackling climate change.”
The role of local authorities is a dual one. They have a responsibility to carry out both mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is action to address the causes of climate change. Adaptation is action to address the impacts of climate change.
It is I think widely accepted that local government can make a real difference to environmental sustainability through the services it provides. With things like it’s obvious role in waste and recycling, energy saving schemes, environmentally aware procurement, and so on. It is also generally accepted, although in my impression not particularly well practised, that it has a role in providing public information and education. On the adaptation side of things it has become common practice to include adapting to the impacts of climate change as part of a local authority’s emergency planning responsibilities.
But there are three other key areas that it seems to me local government has not yet, with exceptions, accepted the importance of.
The first is the hugely important issue of land use planning. To truly tackle climate change we have to change the way we work, the way we travel, the way shop to a less carbon hungry model. We need to develop a more sustainable economy and lifestyle. We also must do this in a way that enhances and not diminishes our quality of life. Key to this will have to be making changes to the physical spaces around us and how we work within them. The only bodies that will be able to achieve these changes will be local councils using their planning powers. Unfortunately not enough councils have yet developed the understanding and capacity to carry out the proactive planing approach that this requires.
Second is the new and powerful role that local councils will have in the production of renewable energy at a local level. The new coalition government have removed those restrictions on councils that prevented them from selling renewable energy and the new Green Investment Bank will soon be available to provide funding for renewable energy projects. What is needed now is for local councils with imagination and enterprise to start developing renewable energy schemes in their local communities.
Finally, there is transport and transport planning. Outside of the few nationally important projects, such as high speed rail, local government is the only body that can really lead the level of changes to our transport system that we need to make a significant shift to sustainability. Although in this area local government is severely restricted by a lack of powers. In particular over bus companies.
So the participation of local government is vital to any attempt to both mitigate the causes and adapt to the consequences of climate change.
For me if locally elected councillors are not ensuring that their councils are taking on climate change as an issue then they are failing in their responsibility to the people they represent. It is such an important issue that if local politicians are not talking about this then they are failing in providing the community leadership that it is their job to provide.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.