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Coffee House

Tory greens make hard-headed pitch for environmentalism

26 February 2014

6:02 PM

26 February 2014

6:02 PM

Something strange is happening in the world of green Conservatism. After the PM decided to take out the ‘green crap’ last year, greeny Tories might have been forgiven for beating a bit of a retreat and licking their wounds. Well, if they did, they didn’t take much time to do it: now they’re fighting hard with a new vision for Green Toryism. Today the Conservative Environment Network re-launched with a pamphlet called Responsibility and Resilience which argues that true Conservatism is the best worldview for environmental policy. It contains quite an interesting mix of voices, from Zac Goldsmith to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who has written an essay on natural capital.

Goldsmith opened the launch by arguing that Conservatives had recently given ground to the Left on climate change because ‘they saw the solutions the Left were developing in response to the environmental crisis and they didn’t like those solutions, so rather than develop their own, they thought we’ll leave that reaction to the Left, we’ll walk away and it is a tremendously, extraordinarily unimpressive reaction to the problems, it’s a bit like saying because we don’t like the way communists managed their economy, we’re going to leave the economy to them’.

He did praise a ‘really exciting time’ for Conservative environmentalism around the 2010 general election, but added:

‘In spite of that early enthusiasm, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that I don’t think that the momentum is slowing, much of that is down to the really unhelpful rhetoric that we’ve seen at all levels, I would say, of the party.’

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It’s impressive, therefore, that Owen Paterson, regularly accused of being a climate change sceptic, has seen fit to join in the launch of the CEN. But there was a clue in the speech that Education Secretary Michael Gove then gave to the launch: Gove didn’t mention climate change. He focused on the way man relates to the environment, the need for Conservatives to protect nature for future generations, and ‘the dangers that the environment faces’. But it was only in the question-and-answer session afterwards that Gove talked about man-made climate change. He said:

‘Climate change is something which you need to prepare for by having appropriate measures to mitigate and that’s really important, but it’s also the case as we know and as George Osborne pointed out just last week that man and his activities are clearly having an influence on the climate and in making sure that we take appropriate steps to deal with it, we need to be guided by the science and we need to make sure that we’re hard-headed.’

The minister added:

‘It seems to me unarguable that man has an impact on the climate. It seems to me unarguable that climate change can have a devastating and damaging impact on societies and economies that are even less developed. And therefore it seems to me unarguable that we should seek first to lessen the impact that man might have on the climate, and secondly invest appropriately in measures to mitigate and protect individuals and societies from the impact of climate change.’

It is important that Gove thinks that it is unarguable that man has had an impact on climate change. But it’s also interesting that neither he nor Paterson felt it was necessary to talk about it in their essays, or Gove in his speech. So the CEN has engineered a clever unity across the party on ‘green’ environmental issues, but that alliance only hangs together if you don’t talk too much about anthropogenic climate change.

But beyond the language that ministers use, this launch and its pamphlet is another example of the attempt by Tory greens to re-sell their beliefs to the rest of the party using language that all Conservatives appreciate. This isn’t green fluff or crap or anything else that involves hugging huskies: it’s hard-headed and rooted in Tory tradition. We saw that recently with the 2020 group’s report on waste which deliberately steered clear of talking about greenery while making the case for a sustainable economy, while Greg Barker argued in his Coffee House interview that there was still room for ‘hard-headed’ Tory approaches to climate change. And this pamphlet is called Responsibility and Resilience: What the Environment means to Conservatives and includes a number of appeals to the Conservative heritage on protecting the environment. Those greens aren’t going in the shredder just yet.

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