Are you part of Greg Barker’s “Environmental Taliban”?

Ministers should know better than to characterise critics as ideological extremists

04 Jan 2012, 13:50

Is your business part of the "environmental Taliban" criticised this week by climate change minister Greg Barker?

If you objected to the decision late last year to provide heavy industry with £250m of tax breaks, are angered by Chancellor George Osborne's anti-environmental rhetoric, and have not given full credit to the coalition's various green policies then you might just be.

It is a realisation that raises plenty of questions. Should you envisage yourself as a courageous anti-imperial freedom fighter or accept that you are a despicable terrorist with a Stone Age value system? Should you, as WWF's George Smeeton satirically suggested on Twitter this morning, ensure a member of staff is stoned for 'catching a flight' or sack all women in your sustainability department for being women? If there is an "environmental Taliban" are those fighting against green policies "carbon intensive special forces"? And are there other bands of environmental terrorists, a "green Mujahideen", an "eco Eta", a splinter group "sustainability IRA"?

I am, of course, being utterly facetious, but then again to align the environmental movement with one of the most brutal regimes on the planet was a pretty facetious comment to begin with.

The problem is that Greg Barker's ill-judged phrase is indicative of a deterioration in relations between green groups and the government that is rapidly becoming a serious problem. As an excellent analysis in the Financial Times this morning reveals, the government's shift in favour of green policies that are more cost-effective may be entirely sensible and justified, but the anti-environmental rhetoric and the mishandling of flagship policies such as the solar feed-in tariff that has accompanied it has put a serious dent in investor confidence.

As influential green investors told the FT, Chancellor George Osborne's anti-green rhetoric has made them "uneasy", while the solar feed-in tariff cuts fiasco has added to the cost of capital for clean energy projects.

If you read the full FT interview in which Barker characterises elements of the green movement as "environmental Taliban", it becomes apparent that his rash phrase-making is the result of frustrations over the failure of green NGOs and businesses to appreciate the positive steps the government is taking, such as the Green Deal, the Green Investment Bank, and wider renewable energy policies.

As he admits, he was "quite shocked about how some in the environmental lobby were so scathing about" the decision to offer £250m of support to carbon-intensive industries, arguing that it was a small sum compared to the protection offered to heavy industry in other countries.

But if he wants to convince the environmental movement of the merits of the government's actions, it is unclear how he thinks characterising it as a nest of terrorist extremists will help.

Barker has made two significant errors. First, the whole point of campaign groups is to be extreme. They take extreme positions and then try to edge opinion and policy in their direction – that is what they do. It is worth noting that there are also lobbyists who form what Barker is now under an obligation to describe as a "carbon Taliban".

Most ministers accept the extremist nature of interest groups and either endure their constant carping or even welcome it as a beneficial part of the democratic process. The problem with resorting to name-calling is that it is at best demeaning for all involved, and at worst poisons relationships between ministers and groups they should engage with.

It also fuels the sense of victimisation currently felt by many within the green movement. The worst description I can recall a minister levelling at climate sceptic and anti-environmental groups is Chris Huhne's accusation that green policies are attacked by "curmudgeons and fault-finders", which immediately sparked howls of outrage from some quarters.

Secondly, and more importantly for green businesses and investors, Barker fails to appreciate that the government must shoulder much of the blame for its inability to secure the credit it deserves for progressive environmental policies.

Taking the controversial £250m package of support for energy-intensive industries as just one example, the coalition could have made it more explicit why it is needed to combat carbon leakage, it could have offered clear assurances that the support would only go to energy-intensive firms that take positive steps to improve their energy efficiency, and it could have been positioned alongside funding commitments to help decarbonise the energy supplies these firms use. Instead it formed the centre-piece of a series of speeches from the Chancellor in which he branded environmental rules as a "burden" and unilaterally ended any ambition to make the UK a global leader in emissions reduction.

For what it's worth, I broadly agree with Barker's complaint that the government is not getting enough credit for the positive green policy framework it is developing. But hostility towards the coalition's record is more a function of clumsy policy mistakes, such as the solar feed-in tariff fiasco, and ministers' failure to communicate the benefits of low carbon policies, than it is unreasonable expectations on the part of environmental campaigners.

Of course, no one in the environmental movement is taking real offence at Barker's decision to lump them in with a bunch of horrifically brutal militants (they are not about to replicate the howls of outrage climate sceptics make every time they receive a perceived slight).

But the phrasemaking does reveal a worrying tendency for the government to dismiss legitimate criticism of its environmental policies as the wailing of extremists, at a time when the vast majority of green businesses and NGOs simply want to work with the government to create a stable and affordable policy environment.

Urging the government to show more ambition and competence in the pursuit of effective green policies does not make green business leaders part of an "environmental Taliban". In fact, if we have to stick with the crass Afghan analogy, it makes them brave volunteers in a fledgling army dedicated to building a more stable and prosperous future for their troubled state.

  
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