So that’s it then. The final shred of credibility of “the greenest government ever” has been doused in petrol and ignited with a casual flick of a gold-plated lighter. The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary, is a declaration of war on the environment, and another sign that the right of the party – fiercely opposed to anything that prevents business from doing as it wishes – has won.
Alongside the signs that the government is preparing to renege on its pledge not to build a third runway at Heathrow, this appointment reinforces the impression that Cameron’s professed environmentalism is – and always was – phoney.
Paterson is steeped in the mythologies of the anti-environment movement. A letter about wind farms he sent to his district council is riddled with schoolboy howlers of the kind that are endlessly repeated by climate change deniers. For example, he expresses the belief that if the capacity factor of a wind turbine is 30%, this means that “the wind blows sufficiently to generate useful electricity, typically, only 30 percent of the time”.
Perhaps such mistakes are unsurprising: much of the letter was cut and pasted verbatim, without acknowledgement or circumspection, from a document published by an anti-wind farm group called Country Guardian. As Environment Secretary, Paterson will have to weigh up conflicting claims, and make decisions based on the best available evidence. Though Paterson will not have responsibility for energy policy, this cutting and pasting should give you a sense of what we’re up against.
In May, when Owen Paterson was Northern Ireland secretary, Conservative Home reported that he set out a three-point plan for economic growth in a Cabinet meeting.
- “Exemption of all micro businesses from red tape, following the model Ronald Reagan pursued in the early 1980s;
- Ending of all energy subsidies and then fast-tracked exploitation of shale gas;
- Urgent review of airport policy to ensure Britain gets its full share of global trade.”
Perhaps it was sentiments like this that secured his new job. His predecessor at Environment, Caroline Spelman, though blighted by some terrible junior ministers (the worst of whom remains in post), and though wildly illogical on certain issues (such as the badger cull), at least appeared to understand that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis, and that action needs to be taken. This could be why she was said to have no voice within the Cabinet.
The reshuffle pushes the coalition further towards the politics of the Tea Party Republicans: in denial about about the underlying problems, opposed to democratic constraints on business, prepared to treat the planet as a dustbin. Paterson’s appointment appears to exemplify the shift.