Andrew Neil has been engaged in battle with the “climate mafia” to defend a Sunday Politics interview with Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.
A Twitter war broke out over accusations of a number of factual inaccuracies – which, with no actual scientists present on the show, were left unchecked. Positioning himself as a defender of free speech, Neil responded in his blog not only to the scientific arguments but with a strong defence of the role of broadcasters to take on mainstream opinions, and to interrogate interviewees. He argued that it is the “legitimate purpose” of the media – and specifically of a public service broadcaster – to challenge on those points in particular where there is a gap between the “Westminster consensus” and public opinion. The principle is difficult to argue with. But the implication – that sceptical voices on climate and energy policy somehow represent a voiceless minority – is one which even Neil surely knows carries very little weight.
As to the gap in policy and opinion, yes, it exists – but not necessarily the way that Neil describes it. The latest research by Cardiff University shows that the British public overwhelmingly supports a move away from fossil fuels and towards a greater reliance on renewable energy production and a reduction in energy use. If the widely reported internal squabbling over the content of last year’s energy bill is anything to go by, it seems there is far more dissent in the cabinet on this issue than there is among the public – who, the Cardiff research would suggest, strongly support meeting the decarbonisation targets set out in the ambitious Climate Change Act of 2008.
One of the biggest developments in energy policy in the UK in recent months has been the move towards shale gas production, or fracking – which the government has now announced huge tax cuts to promote. Fracking is fairly new, and as yet not fully understood by the public, though the Cardiff study indicates that some of the public’s concerns about conventional fossil fuels extend to shale gas. What is known is that community and activist groups object to the exploitation of shale gas reserves at a local and global level. But planning guidelines published last week poised to shift responsibility for regulation of fracking away from local authorities to central government are likely to dampen the impact of their protests.
But the background to these developments in environmental policy is where the real challenge to democracy is most likely to operate – and where Neil’s presumption of a powerful and domineering “climate mafia” silencing critics doesn’t really stack up. That’s in the area of government lobbying – which of course, is not concerned with public opinion, but with influencing policy through direct relations with decision-makers.
As it takes place away from the public stage, producing evidence of wrongdoing isn’t always easy. It’s been widely reported that the Tories’ chief election strategist Lynton Crosby’s lobbying firm has strong links to the fracking industry.
The Prime Minister has vehemently denied that his election strategist has ‘lobbied’ him on any policy issue – but as was exposed at the Leveson inquiry in the evidence on Rupert Murdoch’s relationship with successive Prime Ministers, “never asking for anything” does not necessarily equate with lack of influence. Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself in 2012 was revealed to have strong and direct connections with the president of lobbying group British Institute of Energy Economics (BIEE).
Neil may feel that the inclusion of sceptical voices on the science of climate change is a necessary element of a democratic and free media, but climate science isn’t like other forms of science. The closeness of those representing the gas and oil industries to government is having undue influence over the decarbonisation strategy the public so supports. We should turn our attention to that if the preservation of democracy and free speech are principles we hold dear.