Conservatism and environmentalism

13th March 2014

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Mark Williams

Paul Suff looks at the claim that environmentalists should be conservatives and concludes that when it comes to policy making political leanings are irrelevant

The Conservative Environmental Network (CEN) has published a collection of essays by “centre-right” thinkers that set out why environmentalists should consider conservative political parties their natural homes. Roger Scruton, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, writes, for example: “Environmentalists, if they’re honest with themselves, should be conservatives.”

He argues that conservatives naturally want to protect the environment, while the accompanying manifesto from CEN claims that the environment is not a progressive cause but sits within the purview of conservative politics.

In his essay, the estimable environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean reminds us that it has often been conservative politicians, notably Margaret Thatcher, that have shown recent leadership on environmental issues.

It was Thatcher who, in 1990, spoke out about climate change and her government that, in the same year, published the first white paper on the environment – entitled Our common inheritance. Thatcher also established the Environmental Protection Act, which strengthened pollution controls and introduced heavier fines for non-compliance.

Yet, it is conservatives that generally shy away from regulation, often preferring market solutions to problems. Hence the preoccupation of some coalition government ministers with reducing perceived regulatory burdens on businesses. This obsession is seeing planning controls weakened and important Defra guidance pared back.

Markets, however, do not always work for the benefit of the environment. Launching his groundbreaking 2006 report on the economics of climate change, Nicholas Stern described climate change as the “greatest market failure the world has ever known”.

Although CEN largely agrees with Stern’s observation, it argues that such failures are best fixed, not by regulation, but by allowing markets to function more effectively. “A proper market … is one in which each agent pursues the benefits and pays the costs of his own activity – including environmental costs,” says Scruton.

Most environmentalists would agree that businesses should pay the cost of damaging activities. Yet governments continue to shower the fossil fuel industry with subsidies to extract the last dregs of oil from its wells. Just a few days after acknowledging that climate change was implicated in the recent floods, the conservative prime minister, David Cameron, was in Aberdeen announcing financial support to help recover an additional 3–4 billion barrels of North Sea oil and gas.

The truth of the matter is not whether a government is right- or left-leaning, but that the economy will always trump the environment when it comes to policymaking. That’s why environmentalists and businesses have to take the lead.

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