Why environmentalism is conservative

CEN coverLast week saw the re-launch of the Conservative Environment Network, an international initiative to promote conservative approaches to solving the world’s most challenging environmental problems. The timing could not have been better, as recent flooding has reminded us here in the UK that mitigating risk and properly managing the natural environment is critical to the safety of the nation and the resilience of our economy.

It has long been said that conservatives are natural environmentalists, but recently it has often been more whispered than shouted. This Government put an unapologetically hard-headed focus on economic retrenchment in order to tackle the country’s horrendous financial deficit, the true scale of which became apparent just as the need to begin investing in upgrading and strengthening our infrastructure was reaching a critical point. Politicians have struggled to make the case to hard-pressed consumers who have experienced spiralling increases in energy bills. The priority placed on the environment as a policy area and a public narrative during this time has predictably diminished.

But stewardship of the natural world has been for two centuries, and remains today, an innate conservative instinct. A responsible approach to constrained resources; a focus on stable but sustained productivity so that society prospers without compromising quality of life; an abhorrence of waste – these are built into the conservative mind-set. They are part of why we call ourselves conservatives in the first place.

The Conservative Environment Network, under the Chairmanship of Ben Goldsmith, has reminded us what many conservatives know, yet sometimes fail to remember: the environment is not just our responsibility; it also represents a huge socio-economic opportunity. The publication launched in Parliament this week, ‘Resilience and Responsibility’, is steeped in the theory of free markets, designed to deliver decentralised solutions which boost national security, improve quality of life and drive prosperity across the whole economy.

These conservatives have a wealth of experience across business and industry, politics, science and academia. They are describing a world where the potential of ‘natural capital’ is fully realised, burdensome regulation is replaced with real competition and technological innovation is a key driver for growth.  If any further evidence were required that there need be no contradiction between a rational approach to economics and the protection and enhancement of natural resources, it is provided here in abundance.

A different but equally important dimension to conservatism is our attitude to risk. Conservatives are instinctively suspicious of systemic change on a dramatic scale, particularly when it involves high levels of government interference to achieve. We are troubled by the potential undesired and uncontrollable consequences this can cause society, preferring an incremental, organic approach which leaves room for adjustments and recalculations along the way. Left-wing approaches to the environment, climate change in particular, are rarely framed in these terms – quite the opposite – and it has caused a growing disconnect with the environmental agenda for many conservatives.

Conversely, the language of risk, of responsible forward planning to ensure stability and continuity, is one with which all conservatives instinctively connect. We firmly believe it is part of our duty of intergenerational stewardship to properly manage risks and when viewed through this lens our approach to environmental issues changes. It is about rationally and honestly assessing future risks and asking ourselves as conservatives whether we have done what is needed to safeguard continued stability and progress. The threat in each case does not have to be absolute for it to merit attention. The exercise of risk management is a sliding scale and our response should be measured and delivered accordingly.

The last decade has to some extent been characterised by upheaval, from the threat of terrorism and the financial crisis to the recent extreme weather which has devastated parts of this country. There is a strong argument that what is needed now is not a rallying cry for more radical reform, but a sustained period of stability. Innovation and ambition for the future are not the same as disruption and change. A strong message from the centre-right on long-term planning and safeguarding against risk could be hugely powerful at this time and, as recent events have shown, the environment must be a key priority within this approach.

Until now, there has been no single organisation on the centre-right that devotes itself explicitly to environmental issues. This is a gap which needed to be filled. As Michael Gove said at the Conservative Environment Network’s Parliamentary launch “there is at last a place for willing volunteers to progress in this endeavour together”.

Jessica Lennard is a Director of the Conservative Environment Network and Director of Energy Public Affairs at Edelman 

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