The British Climate Department Is Gone — But It Could Have More Power Than Ever

New Prime Minister Theresa May immediately did away with the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But that might not be as bad as it sounds. CREDIT: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/POOL PHOTO VIA AP
New Prime Minister Theresa May immediately did away with the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But that might not be as bad as it sounds. CREDIT: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/POOL PHOTO VIA AP

The fallout from Brexit continues. The pound has hit record lows against the dollar. Former Prime Minister David Cameron is out, and a new administration of Leave campaigners is in, headed by Theresa May.

In her first day of office, Prime Minister May scratched “Climate Change” from the title of the former Department of Energy and Climate Change, rebranding it into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

This is shocking news

If there is anything that environmentalists hate, it is when “business” and “industry” are valued more than the stability of our climate, which, they would argue, is invaluable.

“This is shocking news. Less than a day into the job and it appears that the new Prime Minister has already downgraded action to tackle climate change, one of the biggest threats we face,” Friends of the Earth U.K. CEO Craig Bennett said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

But while changing the actual name of the office that works on climate change might seem extreme, the change in branding might not be indicative of where the government plans to go.

Simon Bullock, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, noted that Greg Clarke, the new head of the newly formed department, is “decent” on climate. “It’s reassuring that although [climate change] is not in the new department’s title, Clark at least sees climate as a part of his role,” Bullock said in an email.

On Thursday, the new secretary put out a statement, saying he was “thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change.”

Under the new departmental structure, oversight of universities was moved out of the former Business and Industrial Strategies Department, so merging the formerly small DECC with business perhaps makes more sense than skeptics might think.

Writing in the Financial Times, Nick Butler argues that the priorities of DECC will actually be better served in the new department. “Abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change might seem like a drastic first move but the recreation of a proper business department to include energy makes eminent sense,” he writes. “The DECC has been too small to carry weight in Whitehall and, as the mistakes on new nuclear and the Green Deal home energy-saving scheme have shown, it lacked key negotiating skills. In any case, what matters are the policies, not the architecture of Whitehall.”

Tiny English Village Fights Fossil Fuel Industry To Avoid Becoming Ground Zero For British FrackingNORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND – Through the decades, the English countryside has been known to American audiences as the…thinkprogress.orgThese ins and outs of management can be difficult to decipher, but there are other signs from the administration that climate is actually more, not less, important than it was under Cameron.

For starters, George Osborne is out. Former Chancellor George Osborn has close ties to the oil and gas industry. His father-in-law is a gas lobbyist, and the Guardian reported that he has pressured Parliament to fast-track fracking permitting and planning. The former head of Treasury also allocated funds to study fracking and oversaw cuts to oil and gas taxes. He also oversaw the diminishment of the country’s solar program and increased obstacles to onshore wind development.

“Treasury has huge influence over every department on almost everything,” Bullock told ThinkProgress.

Fracking in Britain has received a lot of attention in recent years, as the government has pivoted to a pro-natural gas position. While it’s unlikely that Osborne himself has been dictating that policy, he was instrumental in pushing it forward. Whether Britain can encourage clean energy investment and solutions over fracking — which, among other environmental concerns, has been shown to release high amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas — will ultimately determine whether the country can hit its emissions reduction targets and help the world avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

And in doing so, the first thing I need to stress is that the cost of doing nothing is not … nothing

Now, Osborne has been replaced by Phillip Hammond, who would be a veritable unicorn in American politics: a climate-minded conservative.

In a speech at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute in 2015, Hammond stressed that conservatives must embrace climate action.

“I do not accept that we have to choose between our future prosperity and safeguarding the future of our planet. This is not a zero sum game. As conservatives, we choose both,” Hammond said.

“And if it really was a choice between economic growth on the one hand, or lower greenhouse gas emissions on the other, then I too would be cautious. But I shall argue that it is not. And in doing so, the first thing I need to stress is that the cost of doing nothing is not … nothing.”

(In fact, failing to address climate change has been estimated to be wildly more expensive than investing in a low-carbon future.)

Hammond went on to talk about the successful Montreal Protocol, negotiated under former President Ronald Reagan, which effectively curbed ozone-depleting emissions and has been widely lauded as a model for international action.

But while May’s new leadership might point to some net benefits for climate action, it’s not clear that she has any intention to pursue the issue. “May has said very pro-climate things in the past, but very little in recent years. I doubt it is in any way a priority for her,” Bullock told ThinkProgress.

They’ve [the British government] introduced new tax breaks for oil and gas in 2015 that will cost the UK taxpayer billions between 2015 and 2020

And the overall tone of Brexit is cause for concern. Last December, the world rejoiced after leaders unanimously signed on to the Paris Agreement to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.”

One of the key concerns for climate activists about Brexit was that the U.K. will no longer be beholden to the European Union’s stringent environmental laws. “Weak and patchy as they are, the U.K.’s fracking regulations could be even worse without the bedrock provided by over a dozen separate E.U. directives,” Hannah Martin, energy campaigner at Greenpeace, told ThinkProgress last month. “If Britain leaves the E.U., this last bulwark of environmental protection would be at the mercy of a government that has stopped at nothing to help the fracking industry.”

The U.K. recently passed its newest carbon budget, but governments have been known to switch gears. Australia, once a leader on climate issues, in 2014 became the first nation to repeal a carbon tax intended to reduce emissions, and it has renewed its focus on coal exports. Eventually, the country scrapped its climate change research agency entirely.

Why Europe’s Environment Might Be Better Off If Britain LeavesClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Dunham As Britons head to the voting booth Thursday to consider whether or not to stay…thinkprogress.orgAnd now the climate change envoy for the United Nations is saying Britain (and Germany) already aren’t holding up their end of the bargain of the Paris Agreement.

“They’ve [the British government] introduced new tax breaks for oil and gas in 2015 that will cost the U.K. taxpayer billions between 2015 and 2020, and at the same time they’ve cut support for renewables and for energy efficiency,” Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN special envoy on climate change and El Niño, told the Guardian. “It’s regrettable. That’s not in the spirit [of Paris]. In many ways, the UK was a real leader [on climate change] and hopefully the UK will become again a real leader. But it’s not at the moment.”

May has committed to exiting the European Union. Whether her country exits the international community and its efforts on climate change, though, still remains to be seen.