by Dominic Hogg7 minute read
Everything today, it seems, is being viewed through the polarising language of ‘Brexit’ – even the environment. Those of us who have been engaged in environmentalism for many years need to recognise the sudden and dangerous change that is taking place in the way the issues we care about are being talked about, and the need to counter the new and misleading narrative that is appearing in politics.
The language of Brexit is simplistic and divisive in many respects. The simple in/out decision presented on the ballot paper clearly masked a more complex reality – did anyone really believe that the myriad permutations now being discussed in the wake of a ‘yes’ vote were reducible to such a seductively simple question?
Nevertheless, you’re now badged a ‘leaver’ or a ‘remainer’, terms that have taken on all too heavy connotations. The former are branded economically illiterate racists obsessed with immigration; the latter chastised as anti-democratic ‘remoaners’ foreseeing doom at every turn. Worse still is the criticism of those who, in an effort to bring some constitutional orderliness to the process, invoke and apply the law. We must hope that law (whatever it might ultimately look like) will continue to take primacy once we have left the EU (especially if MPs are inclined to cower on the basis that ‘the public has spoken’).
Many parallels are being drawn between the referendum vote and the US presidential election, not least by some of the principal actors. The races were close; the polls were wrong; one side attempted to portray itself improbably as ‘anti-establishment’. In both cases, the winning side invoked a populist, nationalistic stance that appealed for a recovery of sovereignty believed to have been lost in the march towards globalisation. In neither case did the losing side cover itself in glory, and no doubt contributed to their own defeat.
Environmental issues have played a small but interesting role in these two momentous rounds of voting. In the referendum, the remain campaign made occasional, rather weak, appeals to the environmental benefits of EU membership: the incumbent government didn’t make things especially easy for itself, being in the dock for failing to meet EU air quality standards. The leavers, on the other hand, complained of environmental regulation’s impact on the price of energy, and its impact on economic growth. Little was said about any environmental benefits of leaving the EU – perhaps because these aren’t easy to discern. There was surprisingly little debate as to how EU membership might have shaped the physical (rather than the political) landscape through changing agricultural support policies.
In the US election, the lines were more clearly drawn: a climate change believer versus a climate sceptic. Like some leave campaigners, Trump articulated (if that is the word) a view that being bound by climate agreements would lead to higher energy prices, which would damage the economy. This was supplemented by an appeal to the interests of coal miners, as well as a claim that climate change was ‘created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive’.
In both cases, the side that ultimately won portrayed its opposition as ‘the establishment’, or ‘the elite’, whose concerns are out of touch with those of the ‘forgotten people’. Green has become one of the colours in the palette that ‘anti-establishment’ politicians use to paint their opponents. The elite – they’re the ones putting polar bears before people, and holding back the economy.
Even if you haven’t been following the progress of environmentalism too closely, you might spot that this is a remarkable switch. In the past, environmentalism was written off as a preoccupation of weird counter-cultural hippies: now, it is still written off, but because it is a Trojan horse for ‘the elite’ to ride roughshod over the population. I must have blinked and missed that moment when environmental concerns claimed centre stage in policy-making!
During the 1990s and 2000s, it did become more customary to express some concerns regarding environmental issues, and in the UK, some green measures seemed to have bipartisan support – so long as they weren’t too ambitious. During the Cameron years, lip service was paid to environmental concerns, but the ‘greenest government ever’ struggled to overturn its instincts regarding ‘green crap’. The Obama administration made moves in the right direction, but from a low base, and left the USA still woefully lacking in environmental credentials.
The supposed association between ‘elites’ and ‘environmentalists’ seems to stem from the widespread consensus regarding the reality of climate change – and (at long last) the need to address it internationally, through agreements like the Paris Accord (now ratified by the USA and China).
Against this, there is a worrying alignment emerging between the perspectives of ascendant nationalism and climate scepticism. The shared roots of the two are far from clear, but might be rooted in politicians’ misguided view that economic interests and environmental concerns are in conflict. The populist response is to offer ‘common-sense’ solutions, which conflict with what experts know to be true.
A politician with a four-year term can afford to be indifferent to any long term downside. In any case, the environment is currently a marginal issue at the ballot box: few voters will have selected between Clinton and Trump on the basis of their respective stances on climate change. There will have been other more prominent concerns. But politicians should be aware that all close elections swing on small margins.
We – by which I mean, all citizens – should be surprised and worried by the emergent narrative that portrays environmental issues as elitist, establishment concerns. The truth is so different in so many ways. To describe environmental issues as the domain of the ‘elite’ is to radically overstate the extent to which the political establishment has been ‘on board’ in recent years. Most of the major issues remain largely unresolved, and some of these – air pollution, access to green space, noise – affect the less well-off in society rather more than they do the rich elite.
Concern with environmental issues isn’t some elitist conspiracy, still less a Chinese one, but something which has been externalised from the economic choices that have preoccupied governments of all complexions. While years of painful struggle have led to some small gains being made, recent years have seen a good deal of back-tracking, and we have an enormous challenge ahead to ensure a healthy and happy future existence.
How ‘establishment’, really, are environmental issues? Are ‘the elite’ pre-occupied with ensuring there is clean air, clear water supplies or clean beaches? Are they obsessed with providing public access to recreational green spaces, or protecting the iconic species that we all grew up with? Do they rage against the blight caused by littering, or the mountains of waste created by a throw-away consumption lifestyle? Do they bemoan how our landscape is being shaped by subsidy incentives, and the whims of agribusiness? Is opposing environmental degradation an ‘elitist’ agenda? Or a fight for the interests of the widest possible cross section of society?
Environmental issues are always, at root, issues of justice. Persistent health inequalities across our cities can be traced in no small part to environmental determinants. Pollution originates from someone or somewhere: the damage pollution does is usually visited on someone else, who had no control over its release. The polluter profits at the expense of the polluted, who will rarely have any effective remedy – especially where those who suffer will be future generations.
So, this is a call to those who understand that a cleaner, greener world is one that’s more just: ‘the environment’ hasn’t been uppermost in the minds of politicians as they’ve discussed the important issues of the day. Here in the UK, we can trace that, in part, to the fact that environmental policy has often been linked to EU initiatives. But as we leave the EU, then whether you are remainer or leaver, there’s a job to be done in making sure that the environment moves to centre stage in our domestic politics.
We shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have in place, so let’s use the opportunity of Brexit to raise the stakes on the environment for all in society. Ultimately, there could hardly be a less ‘elitist’ cause than trying to prevent polluters from profiting from the damage they do to others.