David Cameron promised this would be the greenest government ever “When I became prime minister I said I would aim to have the greenest government ever and this is exactly what we have”. Unfortunately, hardly anyone else seems to agree. Opinion polls suggest that only 2% of the public think this is the case, and organisations as diverse as the CBI and Greenpeace also disagree.
George Osborne’s latest apparent comments about the green lobby being the ‘environmental Taliban’ adds nothing to any sense that this government intends to see through its verdant promise. Not that this is new. When George Osborne previously remarked that “we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business” and that green policies were a “burden” on business, he may have let the rhetorical camouflage slip to reveal the true attitudes which underlie the government’s approach to the natural environment.
Looking more widely for some comfort only brings further disappointment. The Rio+20 summit was viewed by most environmental commentators as, at best, feeble and lacking in detail. Since the original Rio summit, global emissions of CO2 have risen by 48%, 300 million hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6 billion people.
Austerity politics are driving restrictions to funding and a retrenchment to a focus on economic growth. So whilst the rhetoric recognises the importance of the natural environment in a sustainable economy, governments privately see it as a burden, slowing a return to growth, however unsustainable. It belies an ideology which continually undervalues the natural environment.
But maybe this is just a reflection of wider values and attitudes? The National Centre for Social Research 2011 report on social attitudes suggests that across the five measures used to judge how people perceived threats to the environment, including climate change and pollution of rivers and streams, there was a significant drop in the proportion of people who thought they posed a danger. There was also an increase in the number of people who felt that “we worry too much about the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today” and that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”.
The report concludes that there is a combination of growing pressures from the recession and an increasing scepticism about environmental issues, particularly climate change – there is a rising sense of “environment fatigue”.
Despite The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA), the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) and the Lawton Review in England, the natural environment just isn’t seen as central to economic activity or people’s immediate concerns.
Balancing the budget
It would, or course, be naive to suggest this is an easy call for any government. These are not easy times or easy choices. The trouble is, governments failed to meet the challenge of recognising and acting on the fundamental importance of the natural environment when times were good, and they now have the cloak of austerity to hide behind, as well as real pressures to balance budgets.
People like wildlife and nature reserves and habitats, and government want to be seen to support what people like. But people like other things more when times are hard, and the natural environment is still largely viewed by most people as something which is nice, but not essential. When that happens and times are tough, governments will focus on the things people like most. Government may have hard decisions to make, but ignoring the natural environment doesn’t seem to be one of them.
The environmental movement often fails to tell people why the natural environment matters, not just globally or nationally, but to them individually and to their families and to the economy. We need to work harder to find the ways in which the natural environment is seen and understood as something important, not just for itself, but for the way in which it underpins the economy at a level which makes sense to individuals and to businesses.
Mike Townsend, Communications and Evidence Adviser
To make your views heard on the future of England’s forests join the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tell Owen’ campaign. We are asking the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson MP, to say YES and adopt the recommendations made in the Forests Report as a whole.