On Solid Ground?
It’s always surprised me that the arguments around Brexit were, on both sides, so poorly made. The leavers made attractive but vague promises of £350 million a week more to the NHS and ill-defined visions of freedom whiled the Remainers warned vaguely of isolation.
In the end, I don’t think either side really thought it likely that we would actually leave the EU and the argument was conducted more as if it were a university debate or an argument in a TV studio – rather than something that would change the course of UK history for decades and perhaps unknown centuries to come.
- Must not be dismissed with derisory shrugs of liberal shoulders -
The same mistake must not be made about the environment. Those who say a pledge to Net Zero is an unnecessary constraint on our freedom and the lifeblood of our businesses – must be taken seriously. They must not be dismissed with derisory shrugs of liberal shoulders. If it is true that we need to control our behaviour and willingly restrict the ability to do what we want, then it is only right that those who are sceptical about environmental concerns are met with convincing arguments.
The greatest mistake that can be made by those who believe in the danger of environmental change - is to dismiss the views of those whose beliefs they disagree with.
Those who believe we need to do something, need to explain why that is necessary, on two fronts. One is the general argument – already well made – that environmental change could be damaging, indeed cataclysmic to the world in general. In this, reference is usually made to rising sea levels, changing temperatures and melting polar caps. The problem with this as an effective argument for change, is that people don't live in the time scales of environmental change - we live in the moment - concerned with the weather today, the price of bread today, the journey to work today.
The phrase 'climate crisis' is often thrown around in conversation and headlines, but Covid has shown us what the response to a crisis actually looks like. The response to many people's environmental concerns looks nothing like a response to a crisis. There is no evidence of it on the streets. Lights remain on in closed shops and offices throughout the night. The roads are filled with petrol and diesel cars. Once we were allowed to, the planes quickly filled up and even with the huge rise in energy bills coming down the line - there is no serious talk of quick shifts from gas-powered central heating to something less polluting.
- The greatest mistake ...is to dismiss the views of those whose beliefs you disagree with -
So more important than the big macro argument, that those worried about the future must make, is what change looks like for individuals. That is the lesson of Brexit. No one properly explained that the freedom from the EU also meant companies experiencing huge delays in exporting, an inability to get staff to harvest crops properly, problems with Northern Ireland and a challenge to our financial service centre – so too, environmental change be explained in terms of what it means in our daily lives. If we don’t do something now -what does that actually mean?
So rather than ignore the views of those who don't agree, those concerned about the environmental need to engage on a very practical level with answers to what environmental damage will mean for:
Which parts of the UK will be flooded and uninhabitable?
What happens to food prices?
How many people in the UK are likely to die from extreme weather?
How will the economy be affected for UK businesses?
What happens when nature can’t respond to change for our life expectancy?
It might seem like a rather pedestrian question for the high minded and dedicated academics and environmentalists to concern themselves with the price of bread when they are trying to warn us of the end of an age that has provided benign conditions for humans to survive. But in the end, it is exactly things like the price of bread that may be the clinching argument.
It is crucially important that those concerned about the environment now make cogent, responsible, and easy to understand arguments about why we need to act and they need to make those arguments quickly before other views become entrenched.
The environmental damage is a crisis in the same way as Covid is – but there is a difference. With Covid, people in the UK were dying – we could see it in crowded hospitals and it had a direct and immediate threat to everyone.
The environmental crisis is different. It's like a man walking to a cliff edge. He is truly facing a huge danger which is coming ever closer. But unlike Covid, all looks fine for most of the time. Sure the ground gets soggy and a little unstable as he nears the cliff edge – but he dismisses it as just something that happens to the ground once in a while. Indeed when he finds a stony patch of ground again, it confirms his view that people are making too much of a fuss, the evidence of his eyes and feet is that all is fine – so surely there can be no real danger here to mean he needs to turn back.
Only when his leg is about to be put down on that last step – hovering above the space where the ground ends - only then when he places it down and his shift of balance changes irrevocably so that his weight carries him forward to the empty space that was once solid ground - does he realise that he really was walking into danger. And now as his body follows his leg, only now does he realise he can’t reverse time and go back – that he is committed to the fall off the cliff.
That is the danger of the environmental debate – it looks dodgy but not cataclysmic until it really is too late.
It is the responsibility of journalists not to dismiss the doubters but to take them seriously and explain the effect of what we are doing – so we can change our behaviour and stop us all walking off a cliff edge.