Northern Ireland’s climate sceptic environment minister Sammy Wilson will vote against the government’s Climate Change Bill and resist any policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions which do not have other, non-climate related justifications - such as reducing traffic congestion or increasing fuel security.
In July Mr Wilson, a Democratic Unionist MP as well being a Member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, told the assembly’s environment committee that achieving deep cuts in UK carbon emissions, mandated by the Bill, would lead to "all kinds of actions which will make life expensive for all our citizens."
Mr Wilson continues to tell all who will listen that there is no scientific consensus that human contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are driving the gathering pace of climate change across the globe (ENDS Report 401, pp 4-6 ). Senior scientists in and from Northern Ireland say he is wrong.
His stance poses an awkward challenge to the Westminster government - yet the ENDS Report found little awareness in DEFRA of his views, and the department declined to comment. The Climate Change Bill currently passing through the House of Commons aims to cut overall UK CO2 emissions through a process of setting targets and carbon budgets, and puts a duty on the UK Secretary of State for the Environment to achieve this (ENDS Report 394, pp 5-6 ).
The Bill legislates for cooperation and consultation between Westminster, the high-powered Climate Change Committee and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in setting UK CO2 budgets and then hitting them. It does not mandate carbon budgets for devolved administrations, but it is highly likely they will be required - indeed, the Scottish Government is already promoting its own Bill which would set out Scottish budgets (ENDS Report 390, p 51 ).
Under the Bill, the UK Secretary of State must draw up a plan setting out the policies needed to hit the carbon reduction targets prepared in consultation with the devolved administrations. He seems unlikely to get much support from Northern Ireland while Mr Wilson remains responsible for environmental policy.
The ‘relevant Northern Ireland department’ must also lay out a programme for adapting the province to climate change. But Mr Wilson has no theory for why the climate is now changing, and no convictions about how, or how fast, climate will change in future. It is hard to see what kind of adaptation programme he could come up with.
Several Northern Ireland Fellows of the Royal Society - the UK’s premiere scientific body - contacted by ENDS said he was wrong. "Sammy Wilson is ill-informed on the reality of the situation, but I guess that he will not believe much of our present climate change is man-made until the water is lapping up his knees in East Belfast, which is low-lying," said Sir Bernard Crossland, Emeritus Professor of Engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Theoretical physicist Professor Phil Burke, also of Queen’s, said: "There is no doubt the very rapid increase in greenhouse gases caused by human activity is a major cause of climate change."
Northern Ireland scientists researching climate change-related issues were also alarmed by Mr Wilson’s view. Professor Brian Whalley, a geomorphologist at Queen’s, said: "He should look at all the government-produced analysis, climatic and economic, before making such sweeping statements with no scientific validity."
Professor Neil Adger, an expert on climate change adaptation from Northern Ireland now at the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said: "The basic science is so clear and unambiguous that anyone denying it is either a fool or deliberately misleading others for political or other ends. The impacts of climate change, already observed and apparent, are everywhere and Northern Ireland is not immune."
Scientists may be dismayed by his views, but there is no plan to meet with Mr Wilson in an attempt to educate him about the scientific consensus. Like the environmental NGOs in the province, they appear to have concluded there is little chance of him changing his mind.