climate change politics

Where environmentalism and conservatism overlap

OWEN-PATERSONOver the past couple of years, there has been consternation over the appointment of Owen Paterson as Britain’s Environment Secretary, as he didn’t appear to take climate change seriously. He never quite came out and said so, but he never met with climate scientists either and seemed suspicious of green groups.

Those fears were confirmed this weekend when Paterson, recently sacked, wrote in the Telegraph about how he had stood up to “the highly paid globe-trotters of the Green Blob who besieged me with their self-serving demands.”

It’s a stunning piece, deeply prejudiced against environmentalists, who he caricatures as self-serving anti-capitalist celebrities. It’s full of accusations of green profiteering and conspiracy with renewable energy companies, and James Delingpole has probably phoned to congratulate him.

Paterson is now out of the job, but lest we get carried away, his replacement is a woman who used to work for Shell, and who has spoken out against renewable energy in the past.

The Conservatives have changed tack significantly on climate change. In 2008 they supported and voted for the Climate Change Bill. In 2010 they promised the ‘greenest government ever’. As soon as they got into power the rhetoric changed. It wasn’t a complete reversal, more of a deliberate silence. The Prime Minister stopped talking about climate change or renewable energy, and ministers have ignored the issue. So far it seems to be a careful strategy of doing nothing, appointing neither climate change activists nor outspoken sceptics.

This needs to change. There are those in the Conservative party who get it – MPs like Laura Sandys, author of the 2020 Conservatives work on sustainability. Greg Barker is another. Zac Goldsmith has even written a book about the steady state economy. Climate change is not a ‘leftist’ issue, so how do they talk about climate change in ways that engage their fellow tories?

George Marshall, in his book Carbon Detox, gives us some clues about framing climate change for a centre-right mindset. The Climate Outreach and Information Network has built on Marshall’s work with a briefing, A new conversation. It seeks to identify common ground between traditional Conservative values and environmental concerns, and highlights several key themes:

  • Localism. As the traditional party of farming and the countryside, the Conservatives do have a strong environmental spine. It just tends to apply more to local issues rather than international ones like climate change. To engage more conservative audiences, climate change action needs to be re-localised away from global summits and EU targets, and back towards local resilience and the effects on the local landscape and wildlife.
  • Responsibility. The idea of trusteeship runs through conservatism, the idea that we have a responsibility to others and to future generations. If we don’t act on climate change, we will be failing our children and grandchildren.
  • Energy dependence. This is a major theme in America as well as Britain, with voices on the right often expressing concern at our dependence on others for our energy. This is an opportunity to talk about renewable energy, especially at the local level, although of course energy independence is also used to justify fracking.
  • The business case. The links between green groups and anti-capitalist groups are unhelpful to a conservative mindset, as Paterson’s article shows. But there’s a strong business case for dealing with climate change. “The challenge of climate change is too important be left to ‘hair shirt and sandals’ hippies,” says COIN, quite rightly. “Creating a modern, efficient and productive low-carbon future is the responsibility of business leaders and entrepreneurs.”
  • Quality of life. Previous environmental successes show that conservatives are prepared to act where there are health risks, on issues such as pollution for example. It is worth pointing out that climate change is a risk to the health and quality of life of Britain’s communities as well as a risk to the environment.

“There is no inherent reason why climate change and the centre-right should be incompatible” say COIN. “However, there is a vacuum where a coherent and compelling conservative narrative on climate change should be.” It’s easy to dismiss people like Owen Paterson and be glad to see him out of DEFRA, but unless the environmental movement begins to engage that mindset more constructively, we’re not really getting anywhere.


  1. You say it’s easy to dismiss people like Owen Paterson, and now that he’s gone we can at least hope that he’ll be irrelevant, but the government that appointed him as Environment Secretary – while his views were well known – is still in place. He’s been sacked now that we are in the runup to an election but this cannot be seen as an indication that the powers that be in the Tory party have seen the error of their ways. Quite the reverse, in fact, they had their man in place throughout this term and there’ll be no serious work done between now and the election so the obvious, but cynical move is to stuff the cabinet with unknowns in the hope that we’ll all be fooled into thinking that real change is afoot. If they get back in Paterson may not be back, but it would be a brave bet that someone equally as toxic to the environment won’t be.

    1. Absolutely, the reshuffle is very much a PR exercise, getting rid of the most unpopular ministers so that they don’t prove a liability in the election – Gove and Paterson in particular.

      It’s because change is not on the horizon that we need to find ways to talk about climate change from a conservative point of view. We need to be able to work with people like Paterson.

  2. Say no more, a woman in charge who used to work for Shell-inevitably her past masters will have a fair amount of influence on her decisions afterall they are one of those that control the EU and guide its polices, shall we say!

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