HomePolitical leadershipIt’s time for environmentalists to stop behaving like they’re in the minority

It’s time for environmentalists to stop behaving like they’re in the minority

protest_ron-f_flickr-creative-commonsThis post is by Lord Deben chairman of the Committee on Climate Change.

We environmentalists must stop behaving as if we are perpetually in a minority. When the revolution has actually occurred we can’t go on as if the ancien regime hasn’t fallen. We have grown used to our role of opposing, cajoling, and shaming, but we seem much more uncomfortable in becoming part of mainstream thought. Yet that is precisely what Paris and the acceptance of the fourth and fifth carbon budgets demands. Of course it’s not enough, undoubtedly there’s a lot more promising than delivery, and it’s certain sure that the world hasn’t grasped the urgency of climate change or of the loss of biodiversity.

What has changed is that concern and action is now mainstream and not a sideshow. 2015-16, disastrous in so many ways, did mark our environmental coming of age. Even in these black days of Brexit and Trump, I can look back to the time when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was the bible of a tiny cult; when Greenpeace was reviled by all but a few; and when the assumption of all governments was that the environment was at best a distraction from the real work of economic growth. That has seriously changed. The past eighteen months have seen the largest increase in marine conservation areas ever, the inauguration of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, the environmental clarion call of Pope Francis and, above all, the ratification of the biggest environmental agreement in history.

A serious response is needed from the campaigning world
Yet, we often seem uncomfortable with this new world, uncertain as to how we should handle acceptance and use it to achieve more. We have to understand that this real change demands a serious response from the campaigning world. I don’t mean that we should stop pressing the boundaries, demanding that we move more quickly, and insisting that governments live up to their promises. That is essential, but it’s simply not enough. We are now mainstream and that implies new responsibilities and engagement. Society needs help in achieving what it has now accepted as its necessary aims. It’s genuinely hard to do what it has promised because it involves cross-party, cross-departmental, cross-generational action. We who are used to corralling groups of motivated enthusiasts have to help find ways of motivating a whole society.

We’ve just had two terrible examples of what happens when the obviously sensible is taken for granted and small groups of well-funded individuals are allowed to seize the agenda and destroy the consensus. Brexit and Trump only happened because the moderate, sane, and considered had fallen asleep on the job, ignoring the constant undermining by press and populist politicians of the standards and values of a liberal democracy. The current attack in the UK on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law shows just how far we have fallen and how we have allowed the few to undermine the accepted standards of all decent people. What’s more, the timing of the attempt of Rupert Murdoch to extend his already over mighty influence is a warning to all of us that that battle is by no means over.

But it is not a battle to be fought as partisans but as fully fledged soldiers of the society which has accepted our aims and values. That means encouraging governments and oppositions of whatever persuasion. It means saying thank you when they get it right and helping them to regroup and rethink when they get it wrong. It means recognising the real problems of our coalition parties and seeking to find ways they can keep to their promises and win support for difficult decisions.

We must use non-expert language that makes sense to people
Above all, it is finding the language to talk of these things in a way that appeals to the majority who aren’t expert and don’t want to become expert. They wish to get on with their own lives and be given the confidence to rely on others to deal with these great issues. Ask them about the rainforests and they want them to be saved. Ask them in more detail and they have other priorities. Yet we environmentalists find this difficult and have spent too much time trying to make missionary converts. Instead, we should be concentrating on concepts and language which makes sense in their own lives. That’s why clean air and cheaper heating are so much more important than climate change and energy efficiency. We must stop being utterly theological and become much more practical. If the Pope can do it so can we.

The government has soon to publish its programme for meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. We’ve offered too many negatives and too few detailed positive suggestions. How can we get more jobs from renewables; what does National Grid need to do to advance the low carbon cause; what changes in the planning system could help; how best can we meet our housing crisis while still building low carbon homes. Now that our aims are aligned with society’s aims, how do we help business and government achieve them.  The war is won but, unless we knuckle down to the practical issues, we could easily lose the peace.

[Image courtesy of Ron F from Flickr Creative Commons]
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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.