Owen Paterson faces choice between ideology and evidence

It is too early to judge whether the new Environment Secretary is the anti-green ideologue his critics suggest

04 Sep 2012, 15:46

We are about to witness one of the most compelling test cases in recent history for assessing the benefits and limitations of evidence-based policy-making.

The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary has already prompted a mid-level furore as journalists and campaigners have trawled the internet to uncover Paterson's, shall we say, less than progressive stance on a host of environmental issues.

Everything you require to create a caricature of an anti-green Tory ideologue is present and correct. Paterson has campaigned against wind farms and the cables needed to connect them to the grid, calling wind energy a "massive waste of consumers' money"; he once described anti-hunt protestors as "Nazis"; and, most concerning of all, he reportedly told the Cabinet earlier this year that the government should axe all energy subsidies, accelerate the development of shale gas projects, and urgently investigate airport expansion.

Add in the now well-documented fact that he is the brother-in-law of the utterly disingenuous climate sceptic and former chairman of Northern Rock Matt Ridley, and you have all the ingredients you need to create a compelling political bogeyman for the green economy. I've also heard whispers that Paterson has been known to point blank refuse to meet with environmental campaigners on ideological grounds, while there is even speculation he is himself "sceptical" on the science of climate change. The Times' political correspondent, Sam Coates, tweeted this afternoon: "Owen Paterson [is] sceptical on climate change – his views endorsed by Lord Lawson – make[s] him an aggressive choice for the 'environment' remit".

There is plenty here to send a chill down the spine of green business leaders and environmental NGOs, and judging by Paterson's right-wing views and voting record their fears may well prove justified. It seems very likely that environmentalists will come to miss outgoing Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who despite her mishandling of the forest sell-off and reticence towards embracing bold policy proposals did make the case for green growth and understood the inherent value of sustainable development and biodiversity protection.

But it would be wrong at this early stage to characterise Paterson as an unmitigated disaster for the environment and the green economy, and not just because he is yet to be given a Defra security pass.

Firstly, despite serving for two years as shadow agriculture, fisheries, and food minister between 2005 and 2007 there are not many recorded incidences of Paterson's apparent antipathy to the environment. Indeed, his biggest achievement during his time in the role was a green paper on fisheries policy that called for an end to discards and industrial fishing, long before such concepts were fashionable.

As leading NGO WWF commented this afternoon, "[we] supported [Paterson's] call then for local fisheries management to eliminate the wasteful practice of discarding amongst other policies in his well-regarded Fisheries Green paper", adding pointedly that "we hope the new Secretary of State will apply the same rigour to evidence-based policymaking across his new portfolio, and look forward to working with him on this".

Which leads nicely to the second reason it is important not to pre-judge Paterson – he is about to be buried by an avalanche of compelling evidence and legal and political realities that will make it extremely difficult for him to impose many of his reported beliefs on Defra.

Even if he has been listening a little too closely to his brother-in-law's crackpot climate change theories, he now has to sit in briefings with Defra's chief scientist on the latest scientific predictions on both global warming and the looming food crisis – something tells me he will be more credible and compelling than anythign Matt Ridley can offer on the topic.

He also has to prepare a major new report on the climate risks the UK faces and the adaptation measures it should undertake. There may be some room for the climate sceptic argument that adaptation should take prioirity over mitigation, but Paterson will have to signal his support for the scientific consensus or see his credibility shredded.

Equally, it is easy to stand up in Cabinet and flex your right-wing muscles by demanding more shale gas and aviation, but a lot harder to hold these bullish positions when your department is responsible for keeping people safe from shale gas-related water contamination and earthquakes, or has to ensure that EU air quality regulations are complied with around Heathrow. Political realities will also intervene with Tory seats in West London under threat from any revival of the third runway debate, campaigners in the home counties mobilising against mooted shale gas projects in a way that suggests they will make anti-wind farm campaigners look positively weak-willed, and the Lib Dems poised to oppose any policies that seriously threaten the green economy. 

If Paterson's positions on environmental issues really are as simplistic as the caricature suggests then he is going to have to repeatedly and publicly reject the advice of his expert advisers and the evidence of his own eyes. It is a strategy that may make him a hero to the more swivel-eyed elements in his party, but it will also make him a laughing stock among many of his department's core stakeholders and an electoral liability in a country where clear majorities still regard climate change, clean energy, and environmental protection as important issues.

It is to be hoped that he instead mirrors the journey Spelman undertook over the past two years, shifting gradually from her love of laissez faire light-touch regulation to an understanding of the unanswerable case for sustainable development, climate action, and green growth.

Green businesses and NGOs will want to establish quickly which path Paterson is on and they can start by seeing whether he will take their requests for meetings, whether he will publicly confirm he accepts the consensus on climate science, and whether he will begin to tackle the waste, water, and food challenges that Spelman struggled to address. Then, and only then, will we know if the caricature is accurate and whether or not the green movement needs to man the barricades.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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