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Simon Hughes : May I add a further consensual proposition? We have the very unusual circumstance of an Opposition motion on the Order Paper without an amendment from the Government or the Conservative party. There is consensus among the main parties, and broad consensus among those outside who know what they are talking about. Will the right hon. Lady join us—I know that she tries to do this all the time—in persuading the media to place more importance on the huge international issues on which there is agreement than on ridiculous attempts to divide us on matters of zero importance to people abroad, let alone people at home?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course, I understand the anxiety expressed by the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). No one is talking about stifling debate, but there is no harm in giving a proper weighting and relevance to the different contributions to that debate, and I share the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman and his colleague the hon. Member for Lewes that, unfortunately, that still does not seem to be happening in many parts of the media, which give entirely disproportionate space, time and coverage to those whose views are neither widely shared nor widely respected.
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The international community has taken an unprecedented and significant step. It is particularly significant in this context because it is clear that the whole international community has accepted the science of climate change and thereby agreed to the Kyoto protocol, whose entry into force we will celebrate next Wednesday. But the Kyoto protocol is just a first tiny step towards tackling climate change. There is little doubt that the uncertainty of the past year or so about when and—indeed, at some stages—whether it would come into force had led to a loss of momentum in international discussions on climate change, and we urgently need to renew that momentum. That is why the Prime Minister put climate change, with Africa, at the top of the international political agenda this year.

Mr. Dalyell: Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to make clear her views to either the BBC or the other media on the balance of reporting between those who recognise climate change and those who, for whatever reason, do not? If she has, what answers has she had?

Margaret Beckett: I have not made formal representations because I must admit to my hon. Friend that, over my years in politics, I have not found that formal protests to the news media about such issues are very productive. However, I am aware—I think that this is widely known—that, for example, a thoughtful, well-constructed letter making exactly that point but not challenging people's right to be heard has been sent to such organisations from national representatives of four of the best known non-governmental organisations. I thought for a day or so that that plea had been heard, but in more recent days, there is some evidence that it has been set aside yet again. I share my hon. Friend's view that it would be advantageous to us all if we could move on from what is a very sterile dispute into the much more difficult territory of what we do and how we do it most effectively.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people who say that climate change is not real and is not happening can have quite a damaging effect on our ability to take effective action, by giving people an opportunity and an excuse to say that they do not need to change their lifestyles? That could have a very damaging impact on the future.

Margaret Beckett: I agree with my hon. Friend that, indeed, such claims can have a damaging effect, and some of their manifestations are more bizarre than others. I was faintly surprised to hear that someone is now suggesting that there is no evidence of sea level rise. I should have thought that that was one of the easiest things to observe—in fact, it is taking place.

Our presidencies of the G8 and the EU give us the opportunity this year to refocus political attention both on the scale of the challenge and, indeed, on how we can meet it. As the Prime Minister said at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum, we need to send a clear signal of our common direction of travel to show that we are united as a world community in moving in the direction of greenhouse gas reductions, thus making that a signal that business and the global economy will understand and can follow. We need to underpin that
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with a firm push for research and technology and for the implementation of technological developments. We need to reach out to the developing world, both to those rapidly industrialising economies whose growing energy needs must be met sustainably and to the least developed countries, which—again, as the hon. Member for Lewes said—stand to lose most from the effects of climate change.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I do not wish to sound churlish and I hear what the right hon. Lady says and welcome the prominence given to the issue in the EU presidency, but has she spoken recently to the Foreign Office, which produced a Command Paper called "Prospects for the EU in 2005" this month? One might have thought that that provided an opportunity to set out the stall for the objectives on climate change, but climate change is mentioned in only two of 97 paragraphs in that document. That does not fill me with confidence that the Foreign Office, at least, has seized that agenda.

Margaret Beckett: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would do so, too. I simply say that what the Foreign Office was seeking to do in that paper was to highlight the things that perhaps people do not know are very much already on the agenda, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have the utmost help and co-operation from the Foreign Office, from the Foreign Secretary and, not least, from the many more junior members of the Foreign Office who are in place in our posts in all the various countries with which we need to work and who provide an excellent and very co-operative service, working with my Department, to spread some of these messages. I understand the anxiety that the hon. Gentleman highlights, but I assure him that the Foreign Office is very much on side.

To map our direction of travel, we need to be guided by the best scientific evidence on the potential impact of climate change. That is why at the start of our G8 year, at the Met Office in Exeter last week, we convened a meeting of the top international scientists working on climate change. Those at the meeting concluded that, compared with the IPCC's last assessment in 2001, there is now greater clarity and less uncertainty about the impact of climate change across a wide range of systems, sectors and societies. In many cases, those at the meeting suggested that the risks are more serious than previously thought.

Those at the conference noted that there is evidence that the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gas emissions is now likely to be higher than was believed even in 2001, and that that implies a greater likelihood both of temperature increase and of damaging impacts at lower levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those at the conference also noted that delaying taking action is likely to require greater action later to achieve the same temperature target, and suggested that even a delay of only five years could be significant.

As I read those words, I was reminded of a remark that an American business man made to me in Davos—it used sailing as a metaphor, so perhaps it is appropriate today. He said that if it is thought necessary to change course, the earlier one does so, the smaller the course correction can be. The later one leaves it, the greater the
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course correction, and if one leaves it too late, sometimes sufficient correction cannot be made. That is an apposite and useful example.

Mr. Dalyell: Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of the Exeter meeting, may I ask her a question? She will know, because the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment wound up the meeting, that last Tuesday Professor Mitchell of the Met Office in Exeter, along with Sir David King, emphasised the difficulties that arise when rain falls instead of slow-melting snow, because it comes down much more quickly and there is thus less time for absorption. May I take it that that subject is a top research priority?

Margaret Beckett: We are indeed examining that matter. I am mindful of the remarks from the end of the conference, and we are all conscious, whether owing to snow melt or other events such as those in Boscastle recently, of the way in which changes to the pattern of water flows can make a significant difference to previously expected circumstances.

The report of the science conference uses measured and careful words, but it gives a clear message to politicians. It underlines the urgency of action, and we must ensure that that message is widely heard in the G8, in the EU, at the UN and in our constituencies—wherever climate change is discussed. However, we will not achieve progress simply by reiterating the scale of the threat. We also need to demonstrate that the global community can meet the challenge successfully. As the Prime Minister said in Davos, if we put forward as a solution to climate change something that involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living, it simply will not be accepted, not least by the poorest countries and societies for which survival itself requires development.

Fortunately, that need not be the case. The UK set out two years ago in the energy White Paper our commitment to cutting our emissions by 60 per cent. by about 2050. We believe that the target is achievable without sacrificing our economy, as our economic analysis suggests. Indeed, the impact of unchecked climate change would be far more damaging to our economy. We therefore hope that others will consider not only following that analysis, but setting similar long-term goals.

Perhaps because we have all been focused on the scale of the challenge, the international community has hitherto spent too little time discussing and co-operating on the strategic challenges of moving to a low-carbon economy. That is why next month, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I will host a round-table discussion for Energy and Environment Ministers from 20 countries that will focus on such issues. It will be a unique forum to bring together countries with significant and growing energy needs and cut across the usual divides between both developed and developing economies, and ministerial portfolios. The round-table discussion will examine the challenges of stimulating research, technology and investment to tackle climate change, and will try to identify some of the ways forward.

All countries need to be engaged in the effort to tackle climate change, including the world's largest economy and biggest greenhouse gas emitter, the United States.
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There is evidence, although I do not suggest that it has been evident in the Chamber today, that some may want to use this issue to engage in grand political gestures and to isolate the US for its regrettable refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol. There is evidence that some people hope that the US will somehow, through isolation, be drawn back into international dialogue or agreement. That is not a credible strategy. We have already seen from the Kyoto protocol the problems that can be stored up if we do not build the underlying political acceptance needed to deliver our objectives: acceptance is required for the exercise of political will. The Government will thus continue, bilaterally and with our EU partners, to engage the United States intensively in climate change discussions at all levels. We will, of course, do that through the G8, but not exclusively so.

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