LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron once dog-sledded across a shrinking Norwegian glacier to showcase his concern for global warming. Now, environmentalists say, his pledge to lead a new era of the “Green Conservative” is in danger of melting away.
Cameron’s troubled road on the environment illustrates the potential pitfalls ahead for any Republican leader who might try to emulate his grab for the political center. Even as he maintains a tough stance on fiscal discipline, Cameron has sought to appeal to moderates by supporting causes such as same-sex marriage and combating climate change. But he has paid with a series of political backlashes that have, at times, forced him to curtail his ambitions.
In few areas is that more true, environmentalists say, than on the issue of climate change. The latest blow, they say, came when Cameron recently called for a rollback of “green taxes” in British energy bills that help pay for, among other things, better insulation in low-income homes and subsidies for alternative sources of energy. Cameron did not elaborate on his idea. But advocates described it as the latest setback to what he once promised would be the “greenest” government in British history.
“We’re disappointed at the opportunities wasted and the risks ahead for green policy,” said Alastair Harper, head of politics at the Green Alliance, Britain’s largest environmental think tank. “There is a way for Conservatives to show they care about the climate change and the environment, but at the moment, they are not able or willing to articulate a way forward.”
Some on the right point to a number of green milestones in which Cameron’s support has set new benchmarks for a Conservative-led government. His government is backing, for example, a bill aimed at reforming and updating Britain’s energy sector that could generate millions of dollars’ worth of “green” investment by guaranteeing minimum prices for wind and other types of renewables. A “carbon budget” for Britain approved last year with the government’s support sticks to legally binding targets for cutting carbon emissions by the middle of the century.
But Cameron, they concede, also faces a conundrum — how to remain true to his word to be “green” while addressing Conservative concerns that the threat from climate change is being overstated even as green policies weigh on consumers’ pocketbooks and the British economy.
“David Cameron said he wanted to lead the greenest government ever, and he accepted quite challenging targets for cutting greenhouse-gas admissions,” said Tim Yeo, a Conservative member of Parliament involved in energy policy. “But now he finds the cost of some of those policies to meet those targets is raising an issue about energy bills. So if he wants to do more for consumers, he’s likely going to have to sacrifice some of his green credentials.”
At the same time, his critics are charging Cameron with a long list of green disappointments.
Since taking office in May 2010, Cameron has been far less vocal on climate change than a string of other world leaders, including President Obama or even Chinese President Xi Jinping. Some Conservatives here are angling to water down Britain’s emissions goals and arguing against adhering to ambitious guidelines set by the European Union.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, have been horrified to see the elevation of officials they view as climate change skeptics to key government positions. Last year, for instance, Cameron named Owen Paterson as secretary for the environment and rural affairs. In September, Paterson issued the latest in a series of comments arguing against overreaction to climate change, saying Britons should remember that “for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer.”
Analysts say Cameron’s moves are at least in part a response to demands from his right wing that he be “more conservative” in the face of a growing threat: the United Kingdom Independence Party. A political force that has been winning over disenfranchised voters on the political right in local elections, UKIP is viewed by many as a major threat to the Conservative Party’s chances in the next elections.
“The economic downturn and the emergence of UKIP have started to worry a lot of Conservative backbenchers,” said Bob Ward, policy director for climate change at the London School of Economics and Political Science, referring to the rank-and-file members of Parliament. “You’ve seen a worrying line coming out from Conservatives suggesting that climate change targets are threatening economic growth in the U.K.”
Last week, environmentalists cried foul when Cameron called for a rollback in the “green taxes” that help pay for insulating homes and subsidizing renewable energy but add as much as 9 percent annually to British electricity bills.
Downing Street officials would not elaborate on the prime minister’s plan. But some Conservatives are backing an idea to reduce or eliminate green taxes fixed to power bills, while potentially making up for at least some of the lost revenue by increasing taxes elsewhere.
Environmentalists, however, counter that green taxes were attached to energy bills precisely so that they could act as a disincentive to power consumption and lead consumers to reduce their carbon footprints.
In comments last month, Cameron sought to defend his record: “I think this has been a very sound government in terms of the environment, but we do have to make progress on this issue of energy and electricity prices, and there are some plain facts that we have to deal with,” Cameron said at a news conference.
His move came as the opposition Labor leader, Ed Miliband, scored big political points in recent weeks by tapping into public anger over fast-rising energy bills. Miliband has floated a plan to freeze energy bills for two years should Labor win the next elections. Even John Major, the last Conservative prime minister before Cameron, has called for an emergency tax on rising profits at energy companies.
Cameron’s call to roll back green taxes has also brought him into direct confrontation with the junior members of his coalition government, the centrist Liberal Democrats, who have vowed to block any attempt to decouple green taxes from power bills. The contest comes at a time of growing strains within the coalition and is further dividing two parties that always made strange bed-fellows.
“I am not going to give up on renewable energy,” Ed Davey, Britain’s energy secretary and a Liberal Democrat, told the Guardian. “They are not going to touch it.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.