Many people remember David Cameron’s iconic trip to Svalbard in the Arctic in 2006. The image of Mr Cameron hugging a husky became the defining moment for the modern Conservative party and its new leader.
At the time, I was lucky enough to lead WWF’s work in the Arctic, a beautiful and fragile place that WWF still fights to protect. I was privileged to act as host for Mr Cameron and his team, introducing him to leading climate change and polar scientists and taking him to see the rapidly melting Scott Turner glacier.
The scientists briefed Mr Cameron about the dramatic warming in the Arctic, and the implications of climate change for all parts of the world through extreme weather events, flooding in coastal cities, sea level rise, and impacts on food production.
Their conclusions seemed nearly unthinkable then, so much so that Mr Cameron and I discussed whether such big impacts could happen so quickly.
Just six years later, the scientists’ warnings seem conservative. This year has seen a dramatic collapse in the area and volume of Arctic summer sea ice, and the Arctic could be ice-free in summer within decades. Extreme weather events around the globe have contributed to food price hikes, and New York is still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Even at the time, some critics dismissed Mr Cameron’s Arctic trip as a publicity stunt. But I was impressed by his keen interest and engagement in the issue. I was even more impressed when I travelled with him back to Norway to hear his inspiring speech to the Norwegian Conservative Party.
Simply put, he was a leader.
He was absolutely clear on the threat that climate change poses to people and nature, and the need to act quickly and decisively to combat it. He promised to “inspire and encourage positive action through a radical but realistic vision of green growth”, and to lead a new political consensus to stop “short term political calculation” getting in the way.
Watching from afar, I was excited to see Mr Cameron act on this promise when he returned to the UK. Thanks in large part to his leadership, a strong cross-party consensus formed over the need to tackle climate change. Mr Cameron played a strong role in securing the UK’s world-leading Climate Change Act in 2008, with just five MPs voting against.
In 2008, David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to “green growth”, and pledged “we are not going to drop the environmental agenda in an economic downturn”. And when he became Prime Minister in 2010, one of his first acts was to promise to lead the “greenest government ever”.
Like Mr Cameron, I have found a new role since our meeting in the Arctic – I now lead WWF’s global work on climate change and energy. So I know how important political leadership is not just in the UK, but also globally, if the world is to crack the climate change problem. WWF works with governments all around the world (from Mexico to Denmark, from Australia to China). Government and business leaders I meet look to the UK’s Climate Change Act as a model for economy-wide, long-term action on climate change. And they are paying attention to what happens in the UK, and whether it will actually deliver what it promised.
So I am deeply concerned to see that the UK’s leadership on climate change is now faltering, and faltering badly. Voices from one faction of the Conservative party, including some Ministers, are now openly undermining action on climate change. On a whole range of issues, from transport to energy efficiency to renewable energy, the government’s commitments under the Climate Change Act are being watered down.
George Osborne appears convinced that action on climate change will hurt the economy. Yet even the Confederation of British Industry makes clear that the green economy is one of the main bright spots for economic growth in the UK. We work with many businesses who are keen to invest in renewable energy and solutions to climate change. And we hear clearly from them that the growing doubts over the government’s commitment to the green agenda simply make it too risky to invest here.
I cannot understand how the David Cameron I met in Svalbard can remain silent while the UK’s leadership on climate change unravels. He urgently needs to restate his strong personal commitment to the green agenda and ensure that his Government speaks with one voice.
But the Prime Minister must also make clear, strong decisions to allow the UK to deliver on the Climate Change Act. He must listen to the Committee on Climate Change, leading businesses and MPs – including many from his own party – who are calling for a clear target in the forthcoming Energy Bill to ensure a carbon-free power sector by 2030.
Get this right and the UK could be at the forefront of the global drive to clean renewable energy and action to reduce energy use and people’s bills. Get it wrong, and the Bill will unleash a dash for polluting and costly gas which will scupper the Climate Change Act’s targets. Even worse, failure in the UK will affect the willingness of other global leaders to take action.
Six years ago, I took a bright new political leader to see at first hand the effects of climate change on the melting Arctic. I thought I met a future statesman who understood the scale of the challenge, and who had the vision and leadership to tackle it.
I hope that David Cameron will remember his trip to the Arctic – and show the world, and the UK public, that his promises have not melted away.