When it comes to climate change and environmental protection, the Conservative party is often seen as having a big green dividing line down its middle, with the deniers at one side and the green Tories on the other.
Tensions between the two intensified recently, after a report claimed the Conservatives had delayed strong and coherent responses to climate change.
The report, from a coalition of campaign groups including Greenpeace, WWF, RSPB and Friends of the Earth, said that despite David Cameron’s assertions that he would do everything in his power to protect the planet since coming into office in 2010, the Conservatives had delayed decarbonisation targets and encouraged the controversial process of extracting shale gas through fracking. In addition, some of the party’s own ministers have publicly questioned the science of climate change.
Seemingly leading the Tories on the non-green side is the chancellor George Osborne, who once described greens as an “environmental Taliban”. He also formed one quarter of Blue & Green Tomorrow’s four horsemen of the climate apocalypse.
In a speech at the party’s 2011 conference, standing at a podium bearing the words “Leadership for a better future”, Osborne said,“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. His comments were subsequently described by one journalist as “pitiful”.
To Osborne’s credit, he did say that we should invest in greener energy. But in an attempt to justify a slow but profitable transition to green energy, he added, “Britain makes up less than 2% of the world’s carbon emissions to China and America’s 40%.”
His preference for profit over the planet has been apparent in recent months through his tax breaks for fracking. His announcement of those plans certainly contained a discursive narrative of the economic global race; his aim being to make Britain the “leader of the shale gas revolution”.
But would people want fracking to take place right on their doorstep? Apparently not.
The protests in Balcombe have certainly confirmed that, and Osborne’s father-in-law, Lord Howell, caused some embarrassment when he said that fracking should take place in the “desolate north”.
The problem with fracking is that we know very little about the processes, the risks and the consequences. Residents in Balcombe are justified in their concerns. There is evidence to suggest the process does cause tremors and could indeed pollute water and soil, and a lot more research is needed in order to fully quantify the extent to both.
However, on the other side of the green dividing line in the party, we have those Tories who accept that we have to act, and act quickly, if we are going to make serious progress on the environment.
Former shadow secretary of state for the environment Peter Ainsworth recently told Blue & Green Tomorrow that the need to protect our environment was embedded deep at the heart of Conservative values.
“Conservatism is about conserving, protecting, looking after, nurturing and being responsible”, he said.
“It’s utterly and deeply embedded in my sense of what conservatism is about. You only have to remind people of that and they get it.”
Ainsworth stressed that climate change is “not there to be believed in or not”, adding that policy should be based on rational evidence supported by the science.
These comments do, as Ainsworth points out, chime harmoniously with traditional Burkean conservatism – a view perhaps shared by Independent editor and London Evening Standard columnist Amol Rajan, who said in a March article, “The true conservative sees his relationship with the Earth not as one of ownership and exploitation but temporary custodianship.”
Margaret Thatcher knew this when she became one of the first world leaders to speak out about climate change in the late 80s. And the likes of Stanley Johnson, father of mayor of London Boris, have also displayed a deep-seated respect for the environment, stretching back to the 70s and beyond.
Despite the clear rift in the party, the campaigner alliance’s report sings the praises of certain Conservative politicians, including Cameron, energy secretary Greg Barker and foreign secretary William Hague, each of whom have strongly advocated at some point the need for international co-operation on climate change, biodiversity loss and the protection of endangered species. We would add Zac Goldsmith, perhaps the greenest-minded serving Tory MP, to that list.
Nevertheless, the UK was criticised by the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) in July, whose report revealed the UK was set to miss its renewables targets.
The deniers are providing no support in reaching these targets. Infighting and politicking over wind farms is not helpful.
In order to regain control of his party and win over the hearts and minds of the environmentally responsible citizen before the next general election, Cameron has a long way to go to keep momentum on issues that are so crucial to the basic principles of conservatism, not to mention the planet itself.