Why Is Climate Change Denier Owen Paterson Still in His Job?

Swathes of England are underwater, thanks to rain and flooding that has been linked by the Met Office to climate change. Yet our environment secretary, of all people, is a climate change denier who ignores the science and has slashed the number of people in his department working on preparing the UK for the impacts of climate change. For how long will David Cameron continue to have confidence in Owen Paterson?

Swathes of the country are under water. More than 5,000 properties have been flooded in the last two months, with the wild weather now heading out from the south west of England into Wales, parts of the Midlands and the Home Counties. The army has had to be deployed, while insurance experts warn that the clean-up costs could hit £1billion.

We have endured, the Met Office's chief scientist revealed on Sunday, the "most exceptional period of rainfall" for nearly 250 years. Dame Julia Slingo, a professor of meteorology, also made it pretty clear where she placed the blame for the floods crisis - and it wasn't on the Environment Agency or spending cuts or Eric Pickles.

"All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change," she said, adding: "There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events."

David Cameron agrees. The prime minister told MPs in January that there were more "abnormal" weather events occurring, both at home and abroad, and he "suspected" they were linked to climate change. Ed Miliband agrees, too. Speaking on a visit to flood-hit Purley-on-Thames in Berkshire, the Labour leader said climate change would only bring "more extreme weather events" like the heavy rainfall that caused the floods.

And the environment secretary's take? Oh wait, he's a climate change denier, remember? Yes, Owen Paterson, who was appointed as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs in the "greenest government ever" in September 2012, thinks "we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries". He has said that "the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years" - despite the fact that 2010 was the hottest year on record, tied with 2005. He once claimed climate change could be positive, too, telling party activities that it "would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north into some of the colder areas". This prompted the outgoing president of the National Farmers Union to berate Paterson for downplaying the climate risks to Britain's farmers.

It wouldn't be so bad if Paterson's denialism was expressed only in the form of rhetorical gaffes. But it isn't. As Greenpeace's Joss Garman has documented, Paterson got rid of 550 of his employees working for the Environment Agency on flood maintenance and preparation, slashed the number of his staff working on preparing the UK for the impacts of climate change, such as flooding events, from 38 to six and, according to a source, "wouldn't even read a briefing from his team if it contained the words 'climate change'".

The Independent revealed in October 2013 that Paterson has never been briefed on climate change by the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Ian Boyd and refused to take a briefing offered to him by Professor David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). On Monday, a cabinet colleague of Paterson's told the Mail Online: "He isn't climate sceptic, he's climate stupid.'"

So is it credible for the prime minister, who accepts the scientific evidence and consensus on climate, to keep Paterson on as environment secretary, as floods linked to climate change ravage bigger and bigger areas of the UK? Remember: across the course of 2012, there were 12 severe flood warnings; since December alone, there have been 130.

Let's be clear: it isn't personal or "pretty low" to question the environment secretary's future in government, as some have suggested. Yes, poor Paterson is recovering in hospital after emergency eye surgery - and I wish him well. But this is about his competence and whether or not he is the right man for the job.

He isn't. Climate change deniers, after all, are conspiracy theorists, plain and simple. Whether they like it or not, 97% of climate scientists agree the world is warming and that carbon emissions are to blame. And, as I argued back in September 2013: "In order to embrace the delusions of the deniers, you have to adopt the belief that tens of thousands of researchers, some of them award-winning scientists, from across the world (not to mention the political spectrum) have conducted behind the scenes, undetected by the media, a campaign of peer-reviewed deceit in defiance of empirical data."

To put it another way, that might make it easier to understand just how bizarre it is to have Paterson in the post of environment secretary right now: imagine if the home secretary, in the wake of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist attack on London, turned out to be a 9/11 'truther'? Or imagine if the health secretary, in the wake of a mass outbreak of swine flu or bird flu, was a long-standing advocate only of homeopathic remedies?

It just wouldn't be tolerated. Not by the prime minister, nor by the public or the media. So why do we tolerate such brazen ignorance and mad denialism when it comes to the environment, especially with people's lives and properties at stake?

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