The Heat Is On


Until this month, the only things connecting Her Majesty’s Treasury and Buckingham Palace were a park and her name. Now, St James’s Park and its strangely green November leaves connect the country’s most famous environmentalists.

On green issues, the Windsors, for once, were way ahead of the game. Now Her Majesty’s neighbours are catching up. Given the palpable lack of Autumn as you stroll through the park shared by the Treasury and Palace, the Stern Report is timely indeed.



As the Treasury knows, everything has its price. Even, and most particularly, cleaning up the planet more than $9 trillion dollars in total, measured at $200 per tonne of carbon emitted, according to Sir Nicholas Stern who, regardless of whatever he did before or will do again, is now forever the man who married economic growth and global cooling.

Climate change, along with free trade, debt relief and an ‘aspiration culture’ are the four pillars upon which the crusading Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is building his Prime Ministerial vision. At his shoulder is Labour’s brightest star, the Environment Secretary David Miliband, and in their sights once again is a 2009 election victory that had been slipping out of view for most of the year.

This dance of the political, scientific, moral, and now economic, will make a fascinating spectacle.

Until this year, I have never had access to household recycling collection in England. Topping a long list of plastic bag outrages, I was once offered a large one for a 45 gram chocolate bar. Water usage in England is not metered, nuclear power is accepted, and the British are the world’s first and best at mini-break, short-haul, environmental travel hell.

Yet Britain sustains a paradoxical culture where stopping climate change is now an entrenched consensus position. The Right-wing free sheets place global warming warnings as front-page splashes as often as The Independent. Public transport is revered, congestion charging is here to stay and road pricing is set to launch in 2008. You cannot shop without stumbling on yet another chain of organic grocers or the latest extra organic aisle at Tesco, the nation’s retail behemoth.

Had Conservative Party leader David Cameron responded like John Howard did to the Stern Report he would, literally, have been laughed off the pages and panels where it was dissected. Cameron is actually trying to out-green Brown. In fact, given the strength of the environmental NGOs, Britain has no need for a Green Party. The market is oversupplied already.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Australians feature at the start and end of this roadshow. Nick Rowley, Tony Blair’s previous environmental adviser, is an Australian who pushed the barrow for climate change action stronger than most a man whose regular walks around St James’s Park would have led his eyes to acknowledge what his heart already felt.

Meanwhile, Wayne Swan popped into the Treasury for a pre-briefing from Stern last month. What the two might have discussed over the Treasury’s Fairtrade latté and Byron Bay cookies is anyone’s guess. But for a man capable of talking for 30 minutes while saying nothing, Swan has been unusually forceful  since getting his briefing calling it ‘the most important political discussion of my life.’

The Stern Report is not so surprising when you consider its setting. HM Treasury operates a carbon neutral building its fourth floor being something of a hot house because the building deliberately has no air conditioning. Down on the second floor, just where it starts to get warm, sit the Stern Review team barely noticeable, save for a hastily arranged A4 sheet of (recycled) paper pointing you inside. In this office, over the past year, fewer than a dozen young researchers set about changing the course of history.

The Treasury excels at these think pieces and a visceral delight pervaded its canteen last week as the wall-to-wall coverage of the Stern Report rolled in. While more famed for failed IT systems and accusations of spin in recent years, Whitehall is still a centre of immense intellect. And there are times such as this when it mobilises such force and clarity as to leave the rest of the West’s public services in the dust.

The economic is now able to combine with the previously stronger scientific and moral arguments about stopping climate change. And together the three have the power to generate political change. This is what the textbook means by an independent public service serving the government of the day.

With Al Gore now signed up as Gordon Brown’s environmental adviser, you can bet that as the case for a new global carbon trading system gathers pace the next step is an agreement between the EU and the big US Democratic States with China, India and Brazil on the shopping list thereafter.

Sounds great. But in its own way the Stern Report also symbolises the decline in the power of Western politicians. Aside from its price tags, it does little more than use graphs to say what Tony Blair and (former Environment Secretary) Margaret Beckett have been saying for years. But in the end, the Government had to get a non-politician to make the case. Just as it did with National Health Service and just as Brown did when he handed control of monetary policy to the Bank of England on his first day in office.

Stern said: ‘Strong, deliberate policy choices by governments are essential to motivate change.’ It may well take this non-politician Stern to prove to politicians and the rest of us that there is, after all, a role that only governments can play in making the world a better place.

And Gordon Brown immediately followed through with an email to more than a million Labour Party supporters. ‘Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy,’ he wrote.

Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has seen an injustice between generations and nations, with the poorest people in the world suffering first. Today I set a new ambition for Britain in future years: a Britain that is both pro-growth and pro-green. Britain is the only G7 country to have already met our Kyoto target and by 2010 we will have met it almost twice over [but]we must tackle climate change internationally, or we will not tackle it at all.

Politics and politicians of all stripes have a chance to get back into the game now. They would do well to remember that Her Majesty’s Treasury was once home to a hospital for lepers. If they can’t get this right it may end where it started.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.