We must tell the truth to safeguard the environment

7220178646_40acaa8401_kThis post is by Lord Chris Smith, who was chair of the Environment Agency from 2008-14.

One of the most distressing things about the prospect of Brexit is the impact it could have on the range of environmental protections we currently have in Britain. Virtually every piece of safeguarding we have – of habitats, sea water and rivers, of air quality and against polluting emissions, of agricultural quality and cross boundary impacts – derives from European directives and common European policy. Many of these are already enshrined in UK law, of course, and the so-called Great Repeal Bill that will supposedly transpose everything into domestic legislation will, perhaps at the outset, ensure this.

But then what happens? Bit by bit vested interests could chip away at it all, could challenge here and seek exemptions there and, before we know where we are, we could have shed huge swathes of the protections we currently take for granted. We are all going to have to be vigilant, campaigning and determined to ensure things don’t go horribly wrong.

The Environment Agency’s public voice has been limited
The Environment Agency – which I chaired for six years until 2014 – is the body principally charged with implementing and enforcing the current range of directives. It does so (I have to say) rather well. But it can only do what legislation and the government tells it to do, and with the resources – which are increasingly limited – that the government provides. My great fear is that there will not only be a post-Brexit chipping away at legislative protections, but also a chipping away of the ability and determination of the Environment Agency to uphold standards.

There is one aspect in particular which worries me, and which has already had a huge impact. One of the responsibilities put in place in the original act which created the Environment Agency was the duty to provide impartial advice to the government about the state of the environment. Without fear or favour, the agency was charged with the role of telling it as it is, speaking the truth about what was happening to the environment, and the threats and challenges, even when it might be inconvenient.

And we used to do that publicly. I made myself unpopular with some (though not all) of my former cabinet colleagues when, in 2008 or 2009, I spoke out about nitrogen oxide levels around Heathrow, and how they had already breached acceptable health limits, and what madness it would be in these circumstances to build a third runway. This was, in my view, the Environment Agency doing what it was supposed to do: providing high quality impartial advice to the government and also, crucially, to the British public.

When the coalition government came in, however, all of that changed. It was made very clear to us that, whilst private impartial advice was still sought and still welcome, it should not under any circumstances be put into the public domain. It was up to ministers to decide what the public should be told, not up to us. And we did what we were told, we had no other option. There was a wonderful moment of irony when, some months later, the Welsh government (led environmentally by the terrific Jane Davidson) – to whom we were also at the time accountable, alongside the UK government – complained to us that the Environment Agency had gone very quiet and wasn’t speaking out any more. They wanted us to when the UK government were requiring the complete opposite.

We must make a proper case based on analysis
But speaking out is incredibly important. And this is surely especially true in what, in the horrible jargon of the times, we are coming to call a post-truth world. The denigration of expertise and evidence we are seeing across the entire political landscape, the reliance on gut instincts, on bluster and sweeping assumptions, rather than basing decisions on fact and proper analysis of what is needed: these are amongst the most deeply worrying features of our current politics. Sadly, some in our own environmental movement sometimes resort to the same tactics. But the only response can and must be the painstaking assembly of, and restatement of, evidence, fact and truth. We cannot and must not fight bluster with bluster. We have to do the patient and difficult job of putting a proper case together, and doing so on the basis of a detailed analysis of reality. It’s not an easy or quick solution, but it has to be done.

And the independent voice of expert organisations like the Environment Agency is desperately needed in this. They should be permitted – nay, encouraged – to speak out. To tell the truth. To put the facts in front of the public.  And, by doing so, they will help us all in the vital task of safeguarding our environment for the future.

[Image: Hillside with a view, courtesy of Iain Farrell from Flickr Creative Commons]

4 comments

  • Thank you for an excellent piece, Lord Smith. You say that “the only response can and must be the painstaking assembly of, and restatement of, evidence, fact and truth,” but I think we must go beyond that, too. Here is a recent piece — “Persuasion in a Post-Truth World” that I found compelling: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/persuasion_in_a_post_truth_world. Our work to safeguard the UK environment must of course be evidence-based, yet facts and figures do not (so the evidence tells us!) change hearts and minds. As the article puts it, “ideologically driven beliefs are often resistant to change from new facts and figures.” According to the authors, a really effective artillery includes both well-crafted stories and solutions that overcome ideological resistance. At the Environmental Funders Network we hear a call for the former, at least, repeatedly from NGOs — there seems to be general agreement that we need to get better at communications, story-telling and behavioural science. They must, of course, be grounded in facts.

  • Yes a fascinating insight from someone who has seen it from all sides. I have to agree with Florence’s comments, those of us communicating climate change have had to come to terms with the ‘fact’ that the information deficit model, that says people will listen if we can only get enough facts through to them, unfortunately rarely works. Facts need to be central to our discussion but we need to understand the ways people filter and relate to information,whether this is the message or the messengers used. At Climate Outreach we penned a related blog to this end after the Brexit vote http://climateoutreach.org/brexit-climate-communications/

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  • Pingback: Brexit or not, Britain will still be a global pioneer on the environment | Inside track

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