Climate playbook: David Cameron policy guru offers tips for activists

Don’t talk about carbon dioxide levels, keep it local and above all, don’t get political says Steve Hilton

(Pic: Policy Exchange/Flickr)

(Pic: Policy Exchange/Flickr)

By Ed King

British politics lacks fresh voices on climate change and the environment. Instead the public is stuck with green lobby groups and a stale left versus right debate.

The stasis is placing the country at risk from future disasters, leading to the slow erosion of soil health and distorting the public’s view of what nature is and how they relate to it.

That’s the analysis of Steve Hilton, head of strategy to UK PM David Cameron from 2010-2012 and now a visiting professor at Stanford University, California.

His views are outlined in his book, More Human, published in June and heavily covered by the media for its critique of how the UK’s democracy is controlled by “vested interests… money and influence”.

But Hilton’s remarks on climate change are equally intriguing; this from a man who was in a close circle of David Cameron’s advisors before and after he assumed power.

Taste, touch and smell

Environmentalism is really just a love of nature, he argues, but suggests that the “branding and politicising” of the issue has lost it widespread support across the country.

“People understand what they can see, hear, touch and smell. At that level I think most people really do care about the environment – even if they hate green politics and can’t stand talk of climate change,” Hilton writes.

“I’ve yet to meet someone who is in favour of dirty air and water, dead forests or poisoned landscapes.”

In the book there’s a call for campaigners to not only ratchet down divisive rhetoric on the environment, but to also think about how the impact of – say – climate change is communicated.

“Climate change doesn’t mean sea level rise (though this may happen), it means that farmers lose their crops and livelihoods, entire species of animals and plants are lost forever, and centuries-old villages are wiped out by the sea,” he says.

“Noble as fighting for ‘parts per million’ is, it just doesn’t mean anything if you’re not a scientist.

“We have to make sure that nature is accessible to everyone so that everyone can have their own experiences, their own memories to draw from, their own reason to care that we don’t destroy it all.”

Nature’s services

What’s clear from his book is that Hilton – who apparently voted for the Greens in 2001 – is passionate about conservation and tackling global warming.

Acidification is an “urgent problem” facing all the world’s oceans, soil health is worsening while overuse of fertilizers is killing off “entire marine ecosystems”.

Hurricane Katrina – which devastated much of New Orleans in 2005 – illustrated the fallacy in destroying the precious and storm soaking wetlands that once surrounded the city.

“Nature doesn’t only mitigate the impacts of future disasters, it provides us with essential services every day – often cheaper and more reliably made than made-made services can,” he adds.

Hilton contends that politicians and conservationists are well meaning but their strategies to address these – some of the world’s most pressing issues – are making matters worse.

Far from creating a wide united field they have morphed into Big Green, making the environment a partisan and contested battlefield.

So what’s the answer? If a degraded environment and soaring levels of greenhouse gas emissions are this serious, what can the public and governments do?

It’s not new laws, or new policies. “It’s the simple act of being in nature, walking in nature, playing in nature, getting out into nature, seeing the world’s wonder.”

But it’s also pushing for a new politics within the UK system, one that offers a space for voters who have Tory views on taxes, “Green views on the environment and Labour views on social justice”.

“Our views are as complex as we are but our politics is not. Our views are not politicians’. We need our politics to reflect this.”

Vested powers

It’s a simple – at times simplistic – analysis that does not get bogged down in numbers such as the need to avoid 2C of warming or the costs of clean energy versus fossil fuels.

Certainly, Cameron appeared to take climate change more seriously when Hilton was in Number 10, although that perhaps had more to do with pressure from his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Recent policy decisions by his government have left many green groups fearing the worst for the UK’s climate stance, despite tough talking from envoys on the international stage.

That’s not a subject this book – written in advance of the 2015 election – tackles, but Hilton does offer a theory on why politics and policy rarely seems to change.

“We’ve allowed it to be captured by the insiders and the vested interests and the people with money and influence,” he says.

“They’re counting on you to be put off by it all, by the hassle, the complexity, the difficulty. That’s their bet. That you don’t actually care that much. That you don’t really want change.”

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