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Artists condemn British Council's decision to axe climate programme

Well-known authors and artists publish an open letter demanding the council rethink its 'extraordinary' move

A group of some of Britain's best-known authors and artists has condemned the British Council's "extraordinary" decision to all but end its groundbreaking international work on climate change and demanded the decision be reconsidered.

The move has also been criticised by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) minister Jeremy Browne who, in a letter leaked to the Guardian, admonished the council's chief executive for his apparent "termination" of one of the council's "success stories".

The British Council's cultural work on climate change and the low-carbon economy has involved as many as 100 million people across the world and was seen as a crucial and highly effective part of the UK's strategy for tackling global warming. It engaged schoolchildren, politicians, community leaders, scientists and journalists in scores of countries, including major efforts in China and India, using events, teaching materials, websites and competitions.

In a letter published in the Guardian, Sir Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, Caryl Churchill, Ian McEwan and others with "affectionate connections" with the British Council write: "As the climate crisis proves ever more intractable in geopolitical terms it is hard to imagine a more important activity [and] there is no better vehicle than the British Council."

"We tell different stories and speak with different voices [but] collectively recognise our profound responsibility to respond to the times in which we live. It seems extraordinary that the British Council was playing a vigorous part in this but has chosen to reduce it."

The working budget for the council's climate change programmes has been cut by at least 43% to £2.1m, the investment budget from £500,000 to £3,000, and there is no budget for next year.In contrast, the FCO, which provides all the council's government funding, is increasing its spend on climate diplomacy. "Our successful programme which promotes the global transition to a low-carbon economy is intended to increase the prospects of reaching a global climate change agreement," said the foreign secretary, William Hague, in February. The prime minister, David Cameron took part in a council climate event in China in November, but the British Embassy is reported to have received a letter from China's influential National Development and Reform Committee protesting against the cuts.

The cuts are "dangerous to the UK," said David Viner, who led the council's climate change programme until last month. "Our work was described as 'national asset'. But these cuts will impact on the UK government's agenda to drive forward a global deal on climate change. Governments around the world will say 'why close this if you are serious?'." Viner added that global action is essential "to protect the UK government's own agenda" of deep domestic carbon cuts, which will falter if other nations do not follow suit.

"The British Council should think again about what really serves our national interest," said Tom Burke, veteran environmental policy expert. "The work was an unsung but crucially important part of Britain's climate diplomacy, one of the few issues on which Britain retains real global influence. The council's distinctive ability to reach into the wider public in key countries is a significant influence multiplier. These cuts send exactly the wrong signal and undermine the Foreign Office effort on climate."

Until this financial year, climate change had been one of the council's three core areas of activity. It has now been relegated to a "content provider" for three new core areas, but there has not yet been clear guidance on what that means.

Anne Wozencraft, acting director of education and society for the British Council, said: "The British Council is not terminating our work around climate change. However, after the government spending review last year, which will reduce our grant funding by 26%, the British Council has refreshed its strategy to focus on our three core business areas of arts, English and education and society." Neither the council nor the FCO would comment on the leaked letter written by Browne.

Viner said the climate change programme punched far above its weight, contrasting its reach with another programme, Global change makers, which spent £2m reaching just 700,000 people "Having developed a national asset, why would you want to take it down other than to protect the self-interest of a few people in the British Council," he said.

The work has been praised as highly effective in fostering action on climate change by China's ministry of education, as well as the NDRC, and by groups working in China such as the International Energy Agency and the Carbon Trust.

The programmes, such as Climate Generation - a network of 25,000 young leaders from over 60 countries - were also highly valued by participants. "To me, Climate Generation is like a new Silk Road, a road connecting us with the rest of the world, which gives me a global view to understand and tackle climate change and a brand new way of living," said Hao Wunan, a Chinese community worker.

- Damian Carrington




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