In this exclusive blog, Alex Diggins talks to Eamonn Ives, a Researcher at one of Britain’s leading think tanks, Bright Blue, to discuss its policy work, the fragmentation of the environmental message, and why conservatives should be intuitive custodians of the planet.
Who is Bright Blue?
Bright Blue is a UK independent think tank for liberal conservatism. We are a quickly growing research organisation, campaigning group, and members association, with over 150 Parliamentary supporters, and several hundred members. Bright Blue works, amongst other policy areas, to promote and champion centre-right perspectives on how to achieve a more sustainable Britain and the world.
We have, for instance, enjoyed several policy wins in terms of our energy and environment work. In one of our first reports, we advocated for the phase-out of coal-fired power stations, and the creation of an international alliance for a phase-out across the world, which was later adopted by the Government.
More recently, in another report, we called for the allocation of additional public money for innovation funding on lower-carbon aviation, in order to allow the UK to get towards net-zero carbon emissions.
Doubtlessly, the left has traditionally enjoyed more of a monopoly on the environment.
We also regularly conduct opinion polling. Last year we undertook polling which showed the differences in opinion between older and younger people, as well as between Conservative Party voters and the general public at large. The results were publicised throughout the party conference season and were credited by the BBC as one of the key factors behind the Government’s recent environmental turn, including the Prime Minister’s speech on the environment in early 2018.
Environmentalism: Need only left-wingers apply?
Doubtlessly, the left has traditionally enjoyed more of a monopoly on the environment. It could be down to an image thing – with some on the right specifically not wanting to involve themselves with it as an area of concern. This, I think, is a particularly bad way to go about things – conservatives and advocates for freer markets should be engaging with every policy issue, otherwise, we will invariably become laboured with policies which we fundamentally disagree with. This is why Bright Blue has devoted so much time to its energy and environmental research: we want to try and wrestle the agenda back towards the centre, where we believe there are better, more equitable solutions available.
But that said, there is, in fact, a very long history of conservatism and environmentalism – from philosophers such as Edmund Burke to Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher. Not long after former Prime Minister David Cameron jumped on the environmental agenda, he was made the leader of the Conservative Party and used it to make them electable again. From that, a whole new generation of green conservatives was established or at least brought more to the fore. In this current Parliament, it would seem that the Conservative Party dominates in terms of MPs who are explicitly vocal on achieving a better environment.
I would like to think that Bright Blue has played an important role in really championing the environment as something which conservative minded people should not only think about but rather understand that conservatism as a mindset demands certain things which one would typically deem as environmental: for instance, sustainably conserving the land for future use, not putting pollution levels into disequilibria, and generally stewarding the natural resources we have in a most efficient and effective way
There are undoubtedly some ‘conservatives’ who deny climate change and pour scepticism on things like renewable power, but I think they are completely mistaken. Those who support outmoded technologies which threaten to radically tip the planet into disequilibrium as we know it are not conservatives at all.
Big government, or bigger individual?
Individual responsibility will be paramount if we are to solve the vast environmental problems with which we are currently faced. One of the key challenges for environmentalism (and indeed many other endeavours) is that it often makes sense from an individual perspective to free ride on the efforts of others – or to not act until everyone else agrees to act in unison. I think, therefore, it becomes all the more important for those who do instinctively believe in environmentalism to be the first to act, and to lead the change which they want to see in the world.
Individual responsibility will be paramount if we are to solve the vast environmental problems with which we are currently faced
That said, the right incentives and signals do have to be in place. So, in my opinion, this is where ‘higher powers’ such as governments are legitimated to act. Where appropriate, I think it’s perfectly permissible for governments to lay down structures and rules whereby they are effectively representing the environment, so as to ensure that we don’t fall into a tragedy of the commons situation; although such measures need to be appropriate and commensurate with the damage they are seeking to rectify. I think where governments overstep the mark and begin to infringe on liberties is dangerous in any context, and in terms of environmental action risks turning many people off the idea that environmentalism entirely.
Is it not just capitalism vs the climate?
In one word, no.
I would urge people to read authors like Julian Simon, who wrote ‘The Ultimate Resource’. He has basically been proven right that humanity appears to have an uncanny ability to overcome so-called Malthusian crises. I am entirely confident that as time goes on, humankind in the round will only ever become more secure in terms of food abundance and power abundance – provided, it must be said, that the appropriate governance structures are in place, and that science, rather than emotion, guides how we proceed.
But, even if one rejects what I’ve just set out, and believes that there is a limit to what we can consume, the operative question is thus about what political-economic framework best allocates such scarce resources in a way which ensures they are utilised in the most efficient manner possible. Here, it is undeniable the societies predicated upon capitalist principles of spontaneous order and open markets win unanimously against top-down, socialist command economies.
I’m agnostic on the idea that we need a new narrative on environmentalism, and if I’m being frankly honest I wouldn’t really know what the narrative on it is at the moment, or has been historically.
We seem to be incredibly good at patting ourselves on the back for environmental action which achieves very little at all.
However, if there’s one thing which cuts through with those on the right much more so than those on the left, it’s the business case for action. More and more, as we increasingly realise the damage which we do to the Earth by filling the atmosphere with carbon, or the oceans with plastic, we recognise that the way we’ve behaved sub-optimally. We’ve not been factoring in all of the externalities associated with our actions, and this is patently not sustainable with a broadly market-oriented attitude.
Take emissions of carbon from power generation. We can see that certain countries have been to differing extents successful in implementing carbon taxes. These taxes internalise the externality costs of carbon and thus make carbon-intensive forms of power generation less economically attractive. It’s principles like this, more so than anything else, which will see our societies steadily transition towards renewable energy sources, and live in increasingly efficient buildings with increasingly efficient appliances. It’s also what will spur innovation in technologies which utilise energy when it is cheapest to do so, which will ultimately bring down our total energy consumption needs.
There are still portions of the political right who recoil at the idea of new taxes. But I do think that pollution taxes – provided they are properly set – are perfectly compatible with a market-based mindset which those on the right would also most probably claim to share. Moreover, there’s even a good argument to be made that true free marketeers should actually be demanding of them. I’d like to see more organisations making that case, and not shying away from being upfront and honest about the need to fully factor in the costs of certain environmentally unfriendly behaviours into their business models.
And what would you say is the greatest threat?
If there is one thing which I think does need to change from the current narrative it is tokenism in environmentalism.
We seem to be incredibly good at patting ourselves on the back for environmental action which achieves very little at all. A coffee chain adopting paper straws in the UK will not rid the oceans of plastic; telling your government to engage with the less economically developed nations in South East Asia to improve governance structures there will.
Inevitably, as humans, we impact upon our environment.
Similarly, switching off the now-incredibly energy efficient lights in your house will not solve climate change, but reducing meat and dairy consumption your diet almost certainly will. You could make the argument that every little help and that small gestures are necessary to inculcate an environmental mindset in the ordinary person on the street, but failure to take on the big questions and environmental challenges of the day is utterly conceited. This sort of tokenism will get us nowhere.
A final point which I would like to raise here is that it is incredibly important that the standard of environmentalism cannot, and should not, be pristine wilderness – a state of nature-esque affair. This would be a horrible and unenjoyable situation, a holding up the environment to that level is borderline dangerous. Inevitably, as humans, we impact our environment. In order to survive, we have to turn grasslands into productive farms, chop down forests for building material, and, occasionally, concrete over green spaces. The question, therefore, should be about how best we do that, and, as I’ve said before, I think that is through the efficiency which capitalism invariably provides.