Last Sunday evening I found myself in an unlikely place: at a fringe event for the Conservative Party conference, held in Manchester September 2013. The event was a RSPB question time event on the recent ‘State of Nature’ report, which is available to download via the RSPB’s website. The report, a collaboration between a number of charities and put together by volunteers, attempts to refocus the conference season on issues of biodiversity. One of the headline figures from the report is of a 60% decline in UK species. The report apparently makes for depressing reading, but, as Mike Clarke of the RSPB emphasised, it’s good that so many different organisations are working together and that the public cares about nature. Mike also commented that we know there is a problem but we also know that if we take action now, we can address the problem.
The panel was made up of Owen Paterson, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Mike Clarke, RSPB’s CEO, Guy Newey, head of environment and energy at think tank Policy Exchange, and chaired by Charles Glover, journalist. Stephanie Landymore did a terrific job on the Twittercast and also a great ‘tweet cheat sheet’ of the panel’s Twitter handles and the hashtag #rspbqt. Have a skim through the Storify here. You can also read Martin Harper’s blog about the event and some of the press reaction in the Guardian and Independent.
For me there were two illuminating moments regarding the current Government’s environment policy: one concerning climate change and the other badgers. In response to the question, ‘is the climate broken, and if it is, how can we fix it?’, Owen Paterson came across as a climate change sceptic, if not quite denier. He acknowledged that the climate is changing but maintained that people can adapt over time, and that we’re already doing the right things to deal with it. He also seemed to think climate change might actually be good for the UK, as it would lead to an increase in UK temperature and therefore fewer people in the UK would die of cold in winter. As I understand it, which is admittedly only partially, the UK may actually get much colder and besides, what about the global implications of climate change?
The panel, you may have already spotted, was all male and during the hour’s questions, only one question was from a woman. She asked which species in decline was closest to the panel’s hearts. Guy Newey took hedgehogs, Mike Clarke starlings and Charles Glover sea trout and bass. Owen Paterson? Apparently his favourite animal is the badger because he had two as pets when he was growing up. I had to remind myself of Owen Paterson’s role in government at this point: he looks after the environment and is the key figure in the badger cull. So if he culls the animal he loves most, what would he do with the animal he likes least? Owen Paterson defended the badger cull saying that hedgehogs are in decline because of sick badgers and that he wants to see a healthy badger population, not a sick one. To which @twistol responded brilliantly on Twitter: ‘Interesting answer – because badger cull won’t lead to healthier badger population, just a dead one’.
Another telling moment in the discussion was when Owen Paterson was waxing on about the countryside only to be interrupted by someone in the audience demanding that we talk about nature and wildlife, not the countryside.
We left with a small piece of paper from the RSPB asking us what we thought the Government could do to improve the State of Nature. I’m not the most political or best informed of people, but my suggestion is this: would it help if the person in charge of the environment wasn’t a climate change sceptic? That might be a useful starting point, surely.