Apathy towards the environment is one of the biggest challenges faced by today’s student generation. It is a problem broadly associated with the right of the political spectrum, but it touches the whole of mainstream politics. This article will seek to identify the specific problems in attitude that our political system demonstrates; will suggest that those on the Left should be very concerned with this; and will outline a range of solutions.
Britain has a serious attitude problem as far as green issues are concerned. In the press environmental piecemealism abounds. As far as I can tell, the Daily Mail website, one of the most popular online newspapers in the world, has no environment section. Its main page certainly lacks a link to an environment section. To its credit, The Telegraph online has an entire section on climate change. But it is hidden away in the mysteriously labelled ‘Earth’ section, which is itself a subsection of ‘News’. There is a clear lack of emphasis on environmental issues in the mainstream press, and this is deeply damaging. It affects public perceptions of the significance of climate change and other environmental issues. If something is not in the press, people presume that it is no longer an issue. The public at large asks itself: if climate change is so pressing, why are the papers not reporting it any more? Climate change becomes an inconvenient truth that is ignored, or a myth that is disregarded.
The decline of climate change and the environment as pressing public concerns is reflected in parliament. Here, politicians pick up green issues when it suits them, and drops them when it doesn’t. It’s fine to kick up a storm when someone threatens to blemish your panoramic country view with a wind turbine; it’s OK to condemn the culling of badgers. But transient anger at such issues rarely translates into a genuine, general concern for the well-being of the planet. We’re stuck with an inane, self-concerned discourse: you need to provide us with more energy, but you can’t build wind turbines in the Home Counties. You can build a third runway at Heathrow, but you can’t run a high-speed railway line through my constituency.
In his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in September, Nick Clegg spoke of the need for his party to claim the government’s green policy for their own as the Tories lose sight of their green objectives. He may have just been hanging on to remains of his 2010 manifesto, but Mr Clegg painted an accurate picture as he highlighted the decline of environmental issues in mainstream politics. Yet the fact that the environment is seen as a distinct policy area to which a coalition partner can lay claim is symptomatic of a wider, more worrying issue. While the Tories lead on ‘the economy’, the Lib Dems want to take charge on ‘the environment’. The two are seen as distinct policy areas. This is damaging for the status of environmental issues in the public eye. Environmental sustainability is relegated below economic stability. It becomes acceptable for politicians to prioritise the economy over the environment. It was in this vein that at the 2011 Conservative Party Conference, George Osborne stated that ‘we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’. There is no suggestion in the mainstream political arena that long-term environmental planning should be a variable considered in all areas of government policy.
These attitudes and approaches should concern those on the Left more than those of any other political persuasion. At a global level global warming is already impacting on the lives of real people. Michael Zammit Cutajar, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has suggested that ‘climate change is not just a distant threat but a present danger’. Indeed, global warming is already a predicted 1.6% annually from global GDP. It is poor, developing countries like Bangladesh and the Pacific Islands that are feeling this pain now, as annual floods are exacerbated beyond precedented parameters. Similarly, it will be poorer individuals and small, emerging businesses that will suffer most when the effects of climate change really impact on Europe and the UK.
So, what are the solutions to environmental apathy?
Firstly, it is vital to challenge the rhetoric which paints environmental campaigners as tree-hugging extremists who stand in opposition to the majority of pragmatically-minded people. This notion comes across very strongly from a number of Conservative MPs. On the 25th of October Peter Lilley MP was admitted to the Commons energy select committee. Immediately, he coined a new phrase: ‘I am a global lukewarmist’. He went on. We should not ‘silence those who disagree [with climate change science] by calling them “deniers”… equating them with holocaust deniers’. Lilley is accusing the climate change lobby of equating climate change sceptics with deniers of the Holocaust. Not only is this deeply insulting, but it is pointlessly polemical. Lilley’s self-proclaimed quest is to neuter the dichotomy between the lobbies that recognise and dismiss anthropological climate change. He is not going to achieve this by using such language. In contrast to Lilley’s hype, the point must be made calmly and coolly that environmentalists are extremist reactionaries; rather, environmentalism is a deeply rational cause that can be taken up by anyone from any background.
Those who want the environment to occupy a more central role in the public consciousness just have to keep banging the drum on this, stressing how long-term environmental planning can work for everyone. At the moment green energy is for middle-class Guardian readers who can afford solar panels. It is for ex-footballers like Gary Neville, who can afford to indulge their green zeal by building massive eco-homes. It is up to politicians on the Left to make the link between working people and the environment, and to stress that measures like the acquisition of wind energy on a national scale would reap rewards for the whole nation, not just a limited few.
Moreover, politicians from the Left must stress the ways in which the recession and environmental issues can be tackled together. By 2014 it is predicted that the green economy in Britain will have grown by 40% since 2007. In tough times, the private sector is clearly appreciating the financial and ethical benefits of the less-with-more mantra of environmental planning. The green economy is creating jobs and wealth despite the recession, perhaps even because of it. But this progress is in danger of being lost. Government investment in fibre optic cables and renewable energy infrastructure is needed now to make this short-term growth stable in the long-term.
Environmentalism, then, could be the key to a more successful approach to the current economic crisis. George Osborne reiterates how important it is that Britain is resilient to volatile world markets. Any improvement here will be undone if finite energy resources finally run out and we are left with spiralling energy costs. Osborne rejects long-term stability via renewable energy supplies in favour of increased reliance on gas imported from Norway. Those on the Left want to draw a contrast between themselves and the Tories – they can do so by committing to long-term environmental planning. The Confederation of British Industry believes that green business could halve our trade deficit by 2014-15. The Left must seize on the potential of renewable energy to make us a more stable, self-sufficient society.
All in all, a comprehensive political re-branding of the Left is needed, to realign the Labour movement with the colour green and challenge environmental disinterest in the political arena. Bizarrely, environmental campaigners can learn something from UKIP here. Kicking up a fuss about immigration and the EU, UKIP have forced Cameron to acknowledge their concerns as he seeks to guarantee a majority after the next election. Cameron moves to the right to accommodate UKIP sympathisers. In the same way, advocates of green energy and the climate change lobby must appeal directly to the Labour Party to recognise their concerns. Even if the Labour Party responds only in a cynical attempt to gain more votes, this process would at least bring environmental issues more prominently into mainstream politics.
In short, the Left must seize the initiative in terms of green issues. In this age of broken trust in politics, the Left must seek to replace the culture of inane global summits and missed environmental targets with serious investment in environmental infrastructure. The economic and political arguments in favour of environmental planning must be made by the Left and by the Labour Party. Only then might Britain’s culture of environmental apathy be reversed.
Joel Duddell is a second-year History student at Keble College.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Oxford Student newspaper.