Owen Paterson's attack on the environmental movement ignores both climate risks and the mainstream success of the green economy
If you look really hard for it you can just about detect the political nous in Owen Paterson's intemperate and inaccurate attack on the environmental community, or "green blob" as he prefers to style it.
As Michael Gove understood before him, if you characterise all your critics as an indeterminate mass you damn those with legitimate and well-intentioned concerns by association with those partisan voices who invariably look a little unhinged when aiming hyperbolic criticism at cabinet ministers. So by eliding all of those who have concerns about fracking and climate change, with those who oppose GM crops, badger culls and questionable pesticides, and then further associating all of them with the disgraceful and pathetic individuals who allegedly sent him death threats Paterson seeks to dismiss all his critics as being in cahoots with the most deluded eco-anarchist.
The problem is that in making the "green blob" appear so ridiculous and all-encompassing Paterson only serves to drown his handful of legitimate points in a sea of his own evidence-lite vitriol.
As I've argued previously, Paterson faced some attacks from environmentalists that crossed the line between legitimate criticism and tactless gloating. Equally, he made some encouraging progress on fisheries policy and contributed to an entirely valid debate about GM crops, food security, and even fracking, where there are credible arguments to be made on both sides. His critique of some of the worst excesses of the green NGO community may even have some merit, had it been backed up by solid evidence rather than cheap insults.
But Paterson's Sunday Telegraph broadside quickly loses its weight as he over-reaches himself on almost every front. He accuses Greenpeace of burning him in effigy, despite the fact this never happened. He lambasts environmental NGOs for taking €150m from the EU, but as the Guardian's Damian Carrington points out today he fails to mention most of this money is used to support specific development projects and that it is all publicly declared, unlike the sums given to Paterson's new friends at the Global Warming Policy Foundation. And he suggests that "a powerful self-serving caucus" has undue influence on UK environmental policy, as if all those people who apparently went into environmental campaigning to get rich have somehow managed to build a green nirvana without anyone noticing. Believe me, if there really was a "green blob" pulling the strings in Whitehall the UK would not still be in breach of air quality rules, fuel duty and air passenger duty would not have been frozen for years, and the government would not have cut funding for energy-efficiency programmes and slashed support for renewables.
Worst of all, though, Paterson's description of the "green blob" as an entity so big that it takes in anyone who supports wind farms, questions whether shale gas will deliver "affordable" energy, or reckons climate impacts and extreme flooding could be related, results in a constituency so large that it becomes impossible to accept the "blob" can really be dismissed as a "tangled triangle of unelected busybodies".
In reality, Paterson is raging against not just the usual suspects in the green NGO community, but also against the world's leading science academies; the myriad of multinational businesses that fear climate impacts and are investing in clean technologies; the insurance industry that reckons climate change could make it unviable; the institutional investors who warn fracking could result in stranded assets; the vast majority of his parliamentary colleagues, including many in his own party, who accept more ambitious environmental policies are essential; the National Farmers' Union (NFU), which may have supported some of Paterson's reforms, but has also consistently voiced concerns about climate impacts; and the vast majority of the public who favour clean energy over fossil fuels. Oh, and given the contradiction between his protests against "heavily subsidised" renewables and his position within a government that recently passed an Energy Act to subsidise clean energy, he is also raging against himself.
When Paterson says he was ridiculed for trying to "shatter the crippling orthodoxy that growing the rural economy and improving the environment are mutually exclusive", he conveniently ignores the fact that while some within the environmental movement continue to push an anti-growth agenda, many, including those notorious hippies at the CBI, are now utterly convinced that sustainable "green growth" is possible. If he had accepted a few more of those meeting requests from green groups he would have known all of this.
The problem – as always with the increasingly frequent attacks on green thinking from the right of the Conservative Party – is how to respond.
Unfortunately, the inevitably angry reaction from green groups only serves to reinforce the perception among some Conservatives that "Big Green" has become an excessively powerful bullying force. Consequently, the temptation is there for environmentalists to simply ignore Paterson's ravings and get on with their work safe in the knowledge that the green economy is continuing to expand and public support for green policies and clean technologies remains rock solid.
However, Paterson's name-checking of Australia's Tony Abbott and Canada's Stephen Harper, not to mention his transparent desire to set himself up as a hero of the Conservative right, serves as a useful reminder of the damage that can be wreaked to the environment and the green economy when mainstream political parties are commandeered by a climate-sceptic insurgency.
The allegation that environmental policy is dominated by a "green blob" that includes the green business community demands a response, and it is better led by business groups, politicians, and academics, than by the green NGOs who are the primary target of Paterson's ire. There is no such thing as a "green blob", but there are numerous shades of environmentalists and green businesses, many of whom vehemently disagree on specific issues, who are nevertheless united by an urgent desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions and develop a more resource efficient and environmentally sustainable economic model. Within this wide-ranging and loose alliance are business leaders and politicians who when asked directly about Paterson's management of climate risk and resource issues would ruefully shake their head and privately question both his competence and judgment. Considering the Prime Minister's decision to dispense with his services, David Cameron may even count himself as one of them.
These critics will be understandably reluctant to join the increasingly intemperate slanging match between Paterson and the green NGOs, but it is critical they use whatever political capital they have to impress upon those considering joining the former Environment Secretary's war on the "green blob" that targeting such an indeterminate mass will only serve to damage a British business community that is hugely concerned about climate, resource and energy security.
Paterson's assessment of the dangers posed by the green community is about as accurate as his allegation that he was burnt in effigy by Greenpeace. Mainstream politicians and businesses should let it be known that the former Environment Secretary's occasionally legitimate concerns in no way justify his blinkered obsession with a "green blob" that doesn't really exist.
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