Prior to the implosion of the international banking system, Britain’s largest parties poured their efforts into trying to demonstrate the purity of their environmental credentials.
David Cameron shamelessly staged an Arctic escapade, complete with huskies, sled and whip; Gordon Brown called for a clean-tech revolution in the energy industry; the SNP promised to slash Scotland’s carbon footprint. Images of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and drowning continents formed the visuals of a popular apocalyptic narrative.
Today, though, it is a collapsed global economy, rather than a collapsing ecosystem, that occupies the minds of our parliamentarians and political leaders — green politics, it seems, has been reduced to a minority pursuit.
Patrick Harvie knows all about being in a minority. As co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party — and fifty percent of Holyrood’s green contingent — he has battled against the intransigence of opposition groups, the cynicism of a powerful business lobby, and the indifference of public opinion for the best part of a decade. Who better placed, then, to assess the health of the contemporary environmental movement?
I meet Harvie at his one-room box-shaped office in St. Enoch Square, from which he operates when he isn’t in Edinburgh. The MSP is surprisingly small — I dwarf him as he stands to shake my hand — and despite his 37 years he could be mistaken for a teenager; earnest, with intellectual pretensions.
He is, nonetheless, impressively succinct and articulate. He begins by drawing a distinction between the idea of green politics and the issue of climate change: “For well over a decade now, climate change has been moving up the agenda of politicians from right across the spectrum, from left to right, libertarian to authoritarian.
“[Everyone has] a response to climate change that is consistent with their own politics. So very often you’ll get a market based solution … in other places you’ll get a regulated approach to trying to reduce emissions.”
“Green politics,” he says, establishing the conceptual split, “is a response that insists that there are fundamentally limits to the extent to which we can depend on everlasting economic growth. It is the idea that everlasting economic growth on a planet of finite resources simply can’t happen without causing a huge amount of destruction.”
Harvie goes on to elaborate a further distinction which he views as being central to the shaping of public and political attitudes to green politics: that between the scientific debate and the media debate.
“Scientific debate [will] always continue. Science can give us degrees of doubt and certainty; it can give us confidence on things that we have known for a very long time.
“For instance, that the green house effect is taking place — we’ve known that for 150 years or more — like the fact that carbon dioxide [levels] in the atmosphere have risen dramatically and are dramatically out of kilter with the natural balance … there’s a degree of certainty there, but there will continue to be debate about the details.
“On the other side you’ve got a media debate, and that is not driven by the same imperatives as the scientific debate … it is not driven by evidence; it’s driven by dominant narratives — like every media debate. So even if in the many, many thousands of pages in the IPCC’s assessment [there are] minor errors … that dominates the media debate … Then you get the likes of Melanie Phillips, James Delingpole, Ian Plimmer, and Nigel Lawson seeking to influence the media debate.”
And which of these debates is winning the battle for legitimacy with the one constituency — the parliamentary political class — that can effect immediate change?
“At the moment,” he tells me, tentatively, “we’re seeing, for the most part, politicians continu[ing] to respond to the scientific arguments. Most politicians, again from left to right, have not started to come out and say that we should question the whole basis of action on climate change.”
Harvie concedes, however, that there is a crack-pot fringe of climate change deniers scratching at the door of political acceptability.
“Well, you’ll get a few of those voices in the likes of UKIP, the BNP. You’ll get a handful of the voices starting to emerge in the Conservative Party, and the new intake of Conservative MPs — if they do well at this general election — will be important: what will their attitude be?”
He leaves the question hanging in the air. I point out that recent surveys of grassroots Conservative opinion — reliable registers of the issues that prospective Tory candidates think are most important — make for grim reading from a green perspective. They indicate that, despite David Cameron’s attempts to dilute the Tory blue, new generation Conservatives are generally sceptical about the assertion that global warming is a man-made phenomenon.
“Well it’s possible,” he replies, before striking an unexpectedly optimistic note, “but it’s also possible that people, once they get into [parliament], figure out that they have to start making sense in a way that they don’t when they are just fantasising about it, and it may be that a brash twenty-something candidate will think again once they get elected.”
“But if we do see some of those attitudes becoming prevalent in UK politics, then we’re in danger … it would be easy for me to say vote Green because we’re the only party who take climate change seriously. I don’t want to say that.
“I want every political party to take climate change seriously because there will be changes in government. I hope that my party has an opportunity to play a part in government in Scotland in the future. But there will be changes of government, and we are not going to achieve the targets if only half the political spectrum is signed up.”
I conclude by asking how Harvie hopes to convince voters who are naturally hostile to the green agenda — given it advances radical proposals for re-organising the economic order in favour of a sustainable environmental settlement — to switch to his party at the election?
He hesitates a little before responding. “There’s a fair proportion of Daily Mail readers who are never going to vote green, and, you know, I’m kind of … fine with that,” he says, laughing.
“I think though, whether people have been previous Labour voters, Liberal Democrat voters, SNP or Conservative voters, there is a recognition that there are some deep fundamental questions about how we run society, how we run our economy, what our values are, that have been ignored by the other parties for decades, and I think there are people who are willing to be offered a different set of answers.”
It is reassuring to know that regardless of how the fortunes of the green movement ebb and flow, there will remain a small and dedicated core of campaigners, like Patrick Harvie, ready and waiting to offer those answers to anyone who asks for them.