Owen Paterson Has Taken Green Policy Back To The 70'sPublished by Tony Juniper on Fri, 18/10/2013 - 12:00am
My 30 years of environmental campaigning has spanned the office of a dozen environment secretaries. Two of them stand out as exceptional. One of them holds office now.
Owen Paterson, our present secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, occupies a very special position. For under his watch, we have for the first time in three decades gone into reverse on environmental issues. In the past things have gone quicker or slower, but generally cigarette online usa forward. No longer – now it's backwards.
Paterson's narrative is delivered in true 1970s style. The environment is returned to being the enemy of growth (as if the loss of the former would never affect the latter). This is made plausible, in his eyes, through the selective interpretation of science, for example in relation to the effects of certain pesticides on bees.
Where once there would have been expert voices from official bodies, such as the Environment Agency and Natural England, there are now only yes men. Starved of funding and bullied into supine compliance, these once proud independent scientific voices now toe political lines. A recent case in point is seen in the EA's backing for the deregulation of dredging of rivers. While potentially disastrous for, among other things, economically important salmon and trout fisheries, the deregulatory fervour has no place for ecological science.
Under Paterson, policy is at best driven by partial science, including that dragooned in support of the destruction of tens of thousands of badgers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis. While scientists point to the flaws in the plan, and the major risk that it will not work, Paterson drives on regardless. There is a palpable feeling that old scores are being settled: the death of badgers payback for laws that ended fox hunting with dogs.
The bitter politics is made worse by Paterson's spinning moral compass. While backing genetically modified golden rice, that may or may not help poor people suffering from malnutrition, he resists efforts to cut the emission of climate changing gases, that he has been told by scientists pose a serious threat to many of the very same poor people.
All this contrasts starkly with the style and approach of the other most significant environment secretary of the past three decades – John Gummer (now Lord Deben). A Conservative, market advocate and rural politician with deep roots in the countryside, he came to the brief with little direct knowledge of some of the issues that he was to grapple with. But in a short time he became a knowledgeable secretary of state; he mastered the science and worked with cabinet colleagues to meet emerging challenges, including being the first serious political actor in the UK to put climate change on the national agenda.
He worked with conservation and campaign groups to craft new policies, including the pioneering idea of biodiversity action plans, an idea that took the government conservation efforts beyond legal controls and into dynamic new partnerships. He translated new european directives into UK law and worked with industry in dealing with a plethora of questions ranging from water abstraction to packaging waste targets. Rather than crush or marginalise statutory bodies, he had the intellect to work with them in finding solutions to big challenges.
And also unlike Paterson, Gummer had the leadership qualities necessary for seeing the bigger picture, to rise above playing to the gallery of back-bench extremists, or fighting an outdated class-war. While remaining loyal to his party, Gummer demonstrated the capacity to do good politics through bringing others into the tent of policy-making.
The style in which Paterson has chosen to run his department is in some ways baffling, until one sees his driving force as first and foremost ideological. It might make sense to a minority of MPs and voters, but could turn into an electoral liability. Perhaps the main reason why this is not evident to him is because like so many other environmental sceptics, he spends most of his time listening to like-minded colleagues and friends.
Paterson's divisive politics might be an important factor shaping the campaign in the run-up to the next general election. If that is what David Cameron wants, then he should expect his 2010 advice to "vote blue and go green" to sound even more cynical in 2015 than it did back then.
First published by The Guardian, October 18th 2013.