Published — 22 October, 2019

View from Westminster

Improving our environment is important to me.  I have made it central to my work representing our area.  I did this as a councillor by expanding recycling, installing ground source heat pumps in council houses or using technology to reduce the amount of energy required to heat our swimming pools.  It has been great to move that work to another level as an MP with campaigns and votes, plus as a minister delivering outputs such as the electric buses serving our area and the bi-mode trains about to deliver our London service.

Man-made climate change exists. But tackling it is not just about initiatives through public bodies, though that matters. Progress also comes through the decisions we take in our lives. Like everyone I need to constantly strive to do better, and I do.

I try and recycle as much as I can.  I walk or take public transport much of the time.  I run my office on the same principles. My team recycles everything they can.  Confidential correspondence is shredded and recycled.  Staff are encouraged to walk, get public transport to work or car share and do so where possible.

This is not unusual.  Many people do similar things in their lives.  We do these things because we know they make sense for the environment and often financial sense too. Thirty years ago we would have been regarded as a bit cranky for doing these things.  But attitudes and behaviours change as benefits become clearer.

So, given what I have said, why do I think that the approach of Extinction Rebellion is wrong?

Let me repeat, I support reducing carbon emissions – and quickly.  But this must be done in a way that wins hearts and minds. The longest lasting change is achieved when you convince people of the rightness of that change. 

Extinction Rebellion have set up tent villages on many central London streets and are staging similar demonstrations around the country.  They are preventing people going about their lives.  I have heard of desperately ill cancer patients having to walk 20 minutes to get chemotherapy because of blockaded roads; cyclists not being allowed to cycle on the roads because Extinction Rebellion have deemed the area ‘pedestrian’. 

On the Extinction Rebellion website it encourages supporters to “go to meetings your MP is attending or holding.  Take signs, placards etc” and to “occupy or chant during meetings”.  Activists are encouraged to blockade MP’s offices or public buildings.  Activists are told that their demonstrations can ‘start small and then escalate”.

What is the message that will be taken by most members of the public from these activities?

That these are rational people trying to effect positive change?  I doubt it.  The message is lost because of the extreme manner in which it is being delivered.

The cancer patient that had to walk to his treatment will remember the fatigue he suffered and how ill he felt.  The cyclist will remember how her efforts to take sustainable transport were made more difficult.  Constituents will remember private discussions with their MPs on sensitive subjects being hampered by noisy activists.

Will any of those people whose lives are being disrupted remember that the message is to reduce their carbon emissions?  Maybe some.

Will any of those people know any better how to reduce their carbon emissions?  Probably not.

So what was cranky is now mainstream. The ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’ message is widely understood and central to people’s lives and company behaviour.  

But in achieving this progress we didn’t stop people getting hospital treatment.  We didn’t stop people getting to work.  We didn’t make it so businesses didn’t get deliveries.

But we had an effect.  It was positive and has stood the test of time.

There is more to be done now – and right now.  What we all need to ask ourselves is how can we make that change happen combining persuasion and legislation.  I don’t think the answer though will come from annoying and inconveniencing people because all they will remember is the annoyance and the inconvenience – not the message.

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