Conservatism and environmentalism

13th March 2014


Related Topics

Related tags

  • Local government ,
  • Mitigation ,
  • Central government ,
  • Adaptation

Author

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.


Transform articles

IEMA reacts to UK government's Net Zero Strategy

IEMA has raised concerns around a lack of funding for proposals outlined in the UK government's Net Zero Strategy, which was published earlier this week.

21st October 2021

Read more

Demand for fossil fuels will peak by 2025 if all national net-zero pledges are implemented in full and on time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast.

15th October 2021

Read more

Climate change remains one of the top issues most concerning the UK public, despite the economic turmoil experienced over the last 18 months, a poll commissioned by IEMA has found.

15th October 2021

Read more

Almost one-third of Europe's largest companies have now set net-zero emissions targets, but far less are set to deliver on their ambitions.

7th October 2021

Read more

A group of world-leading climate scientists has today warned that carbon pricing is currently too low to deliver a just transition to a net-zero economy, and that "urgent reforms" are needed.

30th September 2021

Read more

The Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in Kew has today unveiled a new strategy to tackle biodiversity loss and develop sustainable nature-based solutions to some of humanity’s biggest global challenges.

28th September 2021

Read more

How to Save Our Planet is call to action that aims to equip everyone with the knowledge needed to make change. We need to deal with climate change, environmental destruction and global poverty, and ensure everyone’s security.

23rd September 2021

Read more

Hannah Lesbirel and Beccy Wilson speak to IEMA members about climate anxiety

23rd September 2021

Read more

Seven of the UK's 17 key industry sectors are still increasing their emissions year-on-year, and most will miss their 2050 net-zero targets without significant government action, new research suggests.

23rd September 2021

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert