Stupid in the Commons

Date 10th Apr 2009

While the G20 meeting was taking place down in docklands, Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather used the Easter recess debate to speak extensively and very coherently about our failure to tackle climate change, using The Age of Stupid as a way into the issue.

Team Stupid thanks the honourable Lady, not just for asking MPs to go and see Stupid, but for seeming like she genuinely takes the seriousness and urgency of the situation seriously, with particular regard to the consequences for the world's most vulnerable people. Our only regret is that she was speaking to a nearly empty House.

Sarah's full address, inc contributions from other members, is copied below - or you can watch it here:



with video.

And in full

Prepared: 18:23 on 2 April 2009

3.3 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate before the House rises for Easter.

Last week, Brent Friends of the Earth, my local branch, held a number of screenings of the film “The Age of Stupid”. If hon. Members have not seen the film, I strongly recommend that they go and see it. It is a powerful film, campaigning for action on climate change. The film features Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in 2055. He is pictured as the last man alive in an archiving centre somewhere off the coast of Norway , looking back at films from 2009 and asking why we did nothing to try to halt climate change when we had the chance. One of the people in the archive films asks whether people will look back and think that we were living in an age of stupid, when people were stupid not to see what was staring them in the face.

As the G20 meets today, having bumped climate change off the agenda, I cannot help but think that we almost certainly do live in the age of stupid. Not only has the G20 bumped climate change from the agenda, with the decision to look at it at the Copenhagen conference later this year, but it will have failed—at least I expect that it will have failed; we await the Chancellor’s statement later this afternoon—to link the fiscal stimulus that so many countries are arguing for with the green economy. That most certainly is a very stupid thing indeed.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Does the hon. Lady not agree that the Government can have no credibility at all on climate change while they persist with their ridiculous plans to enlarge Heathrow airport with a third runway and a sixth terminal?

Sarah Teather: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My constituency, along with his, will be affected by increased noise as a result of the expansion of Heathrow. I might well return to that point later.

It is as though we are trying to compartmentalise climate change into one conference and one meeting, and to turn it into something that can be discussed only at that meeting. By taking it away from the economic reform agenda, we are encouraged to think of it as a special case that we come together to talk about and which we forget about as soon as we leave the meeting. In so doing, we demonstrate that we have failed to grasp the seriousness of the problem that we face.

The issue in that film that stood out and left the most lasting impression on me was the story of the young Nigerian woman, Layefa Malini, who wanted to become a doctor. She lived in the Niger delta and suffered the consequences of the oil harvesting, the pollution and the poverty in the area. She told of the challenges in her life as she wrestled with the problem of putting together enough money to enable her to go off and study. She described the impact that that had on her, and her choice to give up fishing in order to sell oil illegally just to make enough money. That story left me with an overwhelming sense of how we live in excess here, and of how much poverty there is elsewhere in the world. That sense of injustice struck a chord with me, as did the impact of climate change on the poorest people in the world.

We often talk about climate change as an abstract thing, a scientific debate involving international jargon and diplomacy. Frankly, most of us cannot get a handle on it. I have a degree in natural sciences, although if I am truly honest, I must say that much of the science involved in the climate change debate leaves me cold. However, the image of the poorest people in the world, who are likely to suffer the consequences of what we are doing, strikes a chord with me. They are also likely to suffer first and most profoundly. I suspect that that would be a galvanising force for most people if they really understood the consequences of what we are doing to the poorest people in the world.

Climate change will affect us all, and it has no respect for international boundaries. It is the poorest people in the developing countries, who are already held back by a chronic, sustained lack of resources and power and by poverty that limits choice and security, who will first, and most profoundly, experience the consequences of what we are doing here. Developing countries are the most vulnerable partly because of their geographical position and partly because so much of their population is reliant on rain-fed agriculture. Also, many of those people live in appalling living conditions.

Poverty exists regardless of climate change, but climate change is already creating a vicious cycle that will rob people of their ability to improve their own situation. It threatens to wash away much of the progress that we have made towards achieving the millennium development goals. This ought to be a matter of serious concern to the Government, as they have made the delivery of those goals a key plank in their own international priorities, but that is being undermined by our failure to tackle climate change in a serious, sustained way.

Natural disasters already happen more often in developing countries. If we look back at the natural disasters that happened in the 1990s, for example, we can see that in the eight years between 1990 and 1998, 94 per cent. of the world’s 568 major natural disasters happened in developing countries. That ought to give us pause for thought. People in those countries are more vulnerable to their effects because they often live in very poor-quality, overcrowded accommodation. They are susceptible to losing their homes, and their water sources tend to be polluted. It is not only the major disasters that have an effect, however. The more subtle changes will also have devastating consequences. Crop yields are predicted to fall by as much as 50 per cent. in some African countries by 2020 because of the impacts of climate change.

The story of Layefa Malini, which I mentioned earlier, struck a particular chord with me because I visited Nigeria last summer to work on a project with Voluntary Service Overseas. I visited the capital Abuja while I was working on an education project. I then travelled north to Kaduna and Kano and south into Enugu , so I saw people living in very different conditions. We moved out to visit some of the rural areas outside Abuja and saw the problems people faced because of lack of water. People living in those villages will be particularly affected if rainfall decreases and they are unable to get clean drinking water.

Kano , one of the most northern places in Nigeria right on the border up near Niger , has a very arid climate, but it is also prone to flooding during the rainy season. Niger has already experienced the devastating consequences of desertification as the Sahel moves further into areas occupied by people. Many people have been forced to flee into Nigeria , looking for a method of making a living. North Nigeria experiences the consequences of displaced people moving from Niger into Kano and neighbouring areas.

I saw the consequences of flooding during the rainy season when I was in Kano . Along with many other areas in the developing world, Kano does not have a sewerage system. Sewage moves through trenches in the road, effectively, sometimes just a few inches below the path people are walking on. It does not take much water to wash that sewage out into people’s homes, on to footpaths or into the road. When it rains in Nigeria in the rainy season, it really rains. People quickly find themselves walking through one or two feet of water, all of which is sewage-infested water that transmits disease, making it miserable for people to live with. Drinking water, in as much as there is any, becomes quickly polluted with sewage and rubbish.

One particular problem I noted in Nigeria was the failure to deal with rubbish in a sensible way. I am afraid that landfill is often actually open rubbish in the streets, and flood water washes toxins from rubbish straight into any drinking water. Even if the water is boiled, it is often still too toxic to drink.

The young woman shown in “The Age of Stupid”, Layefa Malini, lived in the Niger delta region—an area we expect to be particularly affected by coastal flooding. It will be even more difficult for people living there to eke out a living as their farm lands become less and less inhabitable. It is not just Nigeria, as Ethiopia and Kenya have already experienced the devastating consequences of drought. Those two countries are predicted to be the first in line for climate change impacts, with lack of rainfall and effects on food security.

In Africa, the intergovernmental panel on climate change predicts that water stress will affect between 75 million and 250 million people by 2020, which will rise to 350 million to 600 million by 2050 if we do not take dramatic action on climate change. Of course, as I said, changes in agriculture lead people to change where they live. Many people living in rural areas find that they need to move into towns and cities in order to make a living. It is often young members of a family who are asked to leave for the towns and cities to try to send money back. Charities working in Cambodia have said that that can have a real impact on disease, with many people previously living in rural areas—perhaps mainly the young—moving into cities, but then returning with HIV or other infections, which are brought back into the rural areas. Clearly, the impacts of climate change are much more profound than just a bit more rain or heat.

We can also expect dramatic changes in conflicts as the competition for resources becomes more and more acute. In 2007 and 2008, because of rising food prices, we witnessed food riots in more than 30 countries. International Alert has estimated that in more than 46 countries, which are home to some 4.6 billion people, climate change, in conjunction with existing problems around economic and social issues, will create a very high risk of violent conflicts.

The consequence will be increased migration, internally displaced families, and families moving across international borders, most likely to other developing countries that are ill equipped to deal with an influx of poor people. We think of refugees as a problem that we face here, and of course the Government have been keen to drive down the number of people trying to claim asylum in this country, but if we were really serious about wanting to reduce that number we would make a more serious effort to tackle the causes of poverty and conflict, and to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. It is not our country that bears the burden of looking after refugees, but other, poor countries that are ill equipped to do so.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Lady add northern Nigeria, which I have visited, to her list of causes? It is a maelstrom in the conflict between the Christian and Muslim world. All too often, people who should know better use every opportunity to cause such conflict. Many communities that have lived together for generations are now being forced apart by religious discrimination.

Sarah Teather: I agree. The area around Jos in particular has experienced conflict between Christian and Muslim communities. In Kaduna, another place that I visited, the two communities live together. Relations can be very tense, and if the difficulties involving food and water resources continue to increase, that will only heighten the tension. It is not only religious tension that is at the root of the problems. Religious tension is often an excuse, or the label given to something much more profound relating to land, food, money and water. It is certainly true that Nigeria has had its difficulties, and it is a country that I know, but many other countries face similar problems.

We may have only a few years left before atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reach a tipping point, and we find ourselves on an irreversible journey towards dangerous climate change. We cannot underestimate the importance of taking leadership on that issue now. The challenges that we face in tackling the financial crisis should provide us with opportunities to tackle climate change in a lasting way. Some of our present economic and environmental problems may have the same solutions. If South Korea can produce a fiscal stimulus of which 80 per cent. concerns the green economy, we must ask ourselves why on earth we cannot do the same. It is not too late for us to cancel the VAT cut, and to put the money saved into insulating homes, schools and hospitals and building new zero-carbon homes. That would enable us to tackle fuel poverty, house the homeless and do something serious to deal with climate change for the long term. Instead, we have given a small amount of money to a few relatively rich people who want to buy expensive goods such as flat-screen televisions, which seems petty given the problems that we are facing.

It is not too late for us to match our reform of the banking sector with carbon reporting. If we are not prepared to do that, at least we can influence our own banks—the banks that we now control—to prevent environmentally damaging investments in tar sands and deforestation. We should try to use the control that we have over many of the banks to build a new economy that will itself build for the future, rather than simply trying to replace the broken problem that we already have.

It is not too late for us to take a lead by cancelling damaging environmental projects such as Heathrow, or unabated coal power stations such as Kingsnorth. It is not too late for us to take a lead on renewables, and to adopt a credible strategy for the meeting of our 2020 targets. I fear that the Government have given up, feeling that it is too late for them to do anything before the next general election, but they have an opportunity to leave a legacy regardless of the result of the election, and I wish that they would take it.

The G20 may have junked the environment this week, but we have time before Copenhagen in December to lay the groundwork for a serious climate deal that could make a huge difference. We need our Government to take a lead on that now, and to be at the forefront of climate negotiations. We must have a serious commitment to cut emissions by at least 30 per cent., not the 20 per cent. with time off for carbon trading that came with the European Union deal. We must also put developing countries’ concerns at the heart of the climate change deal. We have grown rich in part by polluting. We must now repay that debt to the developing world by financing and sharing technology so that countries can access clean and green energy and develop in a sustainable way, and we must help developing countries to adapt to the damaging consequences of climate change that will, unfortunately, happen regardless of what we do.

We need to create space to encourage and enable communities to come up with their own solutions. That is the case in both developing countries and here in the UK. We need the Government to take a lead, but this is the responsibility of all of us, and good ideas often come from communities, rather than just from Government. I am thinking of one example in Brent in particular: a woman called Lorraine Skinner felt so frustrated about the consequences of climate change and the fact that people were not prepared to act that she designed a new system called “green zones”, which has now been adopted throughout Brent. She went door to door and talked to her neighbours on her road. It is a relatively small road, but by her efforts she has managed to raise dramatically the amount of recycling and composting that takes place on it. She has also given people tomato plants and persuaded them to plant them. That may be a small thing, but sometimes it is small things that actually change people’s attitudes—such as on growing their own food or feeling that they can take action. A similar small thing has been done in Camden, where people have been encouraged to plant fruit trees in the middle of their estates. As a result, they feel that they can play a part, and that there are things they can do.

We all have a role to play, but I hope the Government will consider the key role that they have to play, particularly before the Copenhagen conference later this year. We do not have time to waste waiting for another international meeting. We must not junk this issue and wait until a later meeting to address it because we cannot face tackling it now.