HomePolitical leadershipIn parliament, environmentalists still seem like a minority

In parliament, environmentalists still seem like a minority

2701153820_0f29d46bf4_b.jpgThis post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

In his blog for Green Alliance last week, Lord Deben argued that environmentalists must mature into the mainstream, set aside fringe tactics and speak with a constructive voice. He is surely right that we need to offer credible solutions to the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. But his portrayal of the sector needs one adjustment. These days, we environmentalists don’t behave as if we are a minority. The caricature of the anti-establishment activist can no longer sum up the movement. Instead, we speak with the voice of an under represented majority, with all the authority and confidence that entails. It’s this under representation – the systemic neglect of environmental thinking – that should be the focus of our attention, not simply the style of our approach.

We know environmentalism has popular support
In 2016 the image of ‘eco-warrior’ Swampy feels nostalgic. Environmental NGOs speak assertively about the breadth of their support. The organisations that make up Greener UK boast eight million members, Wildlife and Countryside Link is an alliance of 47 partners, and polls show a popular mandate, like the 80 per cent of people who want environmental protection to be as strong or stronger when we leave the EU.

Even when NGOs take direct action, they do so with the expectation of huge support. When Greenpeace raise its flags at motor rallies or rebrands the Brexit Bus, it knows the images will be shared millions of times.  Environmentalists are confident that we speak with the voice of the majority.

But we struggle with parliamentary support
Unfortunately, widespread public sentiment does not translate automatically into legislation. We have an amazingly rich language of conservation that people really understand: recycling, protected species and renewable energy. But law has lagged behind language. While millions instinctively understand the economic, social, aesthetic, spiritual and intrinsic value of nature, our day to day decision making routinely ignores it. While every child knows we can’t keep taking from nature without putting something back, our politics is still built on an outdated model of everlasting exploitation.

Consider this: last year, an act of parliament required the government to maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum; meanwhile the Energy Act 2016 completed a set of planning changes that would make development of new onshore wind almost impossible. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 paved the way for a million new homes, but government fought against proposals for those homes to be zero carbon or guarded by natural flood resilience measures.

While many MPs and peers do speak up tirelessly and valiantly for environmental protection, the victories come when champions, like Lord Deben, punch home an argument. The status quo is for environment to feature at best as a nice to have, at worst as burdensome red tape, but almost always lower in the pecking order than profit and growth. It is politics that struggles with the language of nature, not people and campaigners.

What needs to change?
The challenge is embedding the logic of environmentalism in decision making. Not every environmental threat has the popular urgency of air pollution or the instant outrage of the forest sell-off. Instead, the nature friendly choice needs to be the natural choice in the humdrum and the day to day, as much in parliament as in business, local planning or the supermarket.

We have a firm foundation. Site and species protection, chemicals regulation and land management rules are strong regulatory compulsions that rule out or require certain behaviours. Many of these keystone standards come from the EU and it is essential that we uphold them and proceed to enforce them better than ever.

But to turn around the ongoing decline, we need to build on that foundation by converting popular support for our values into aims and principles that guide democratic decision making. We need targets for environmental improvement. We need structured markets and investment to reward greener choices, especially in our farming system. We need accountability and clear parliamentary reporting on our environment, just as we do for other public priorities like education and the economy. And environmental considerations need to be in every clause of our trade deals as we negotiate the possibilities for exiting the EU. These changes are about converting public opinion into parliamentary, business and planning decisions, where today our majority voice is still marginal.

In this year of change, there will be separate plans for environment, farming, infrastructure, decarbonisation and industrial strategy, as well as new constitutional law and trading relations. Our challenge, as a voice of popular opinion, is to make sure our message is reflected in parliamentary debate. It is the challenge of every parliamentarian, to balance the stubborn but familiar voices of conventional wisdom with the popular and progressive demand for good environmental sense.

We must keep our minds open
As a mature and diverse community, environmentalists should present a compelling and positive case for a Greener UK. We must follow Lord Deben’s advice and be empathetic, gracious, positive and accessible. We must strive to be more representative and more collaborative. We must bring the voice of the people into the establishment.

Let’s hope, though, that amid the suits and sensible ties, there will always be a few brash voices and wild hairstyles, a few rebels and troublemakers. We must use this time of political change to translate popular environmentalism into establishment thinking, but we must always keep our minds open for the next Silent Spring.

[Image courtesy of UK Parliament 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.

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