Credit: Christian Gamauf

How do we fix the environment? In conversation with Patrick Harvie

Co-leader of the Scottish Green Party, Patrick Harvie speaks with The Glasgow Guardian on environmental policies, regrets in his career and the importance of young people in politics.

When I asked Patrick Harvie whether he felt hopeful about the upcoming COP28 summit, starting this month, he said that “might be putting it a little too strongly.” He went on to state that most governments globally are not considering how serious the climate crisis really is. “It’s not an emergency response that’s taking place…it’s frustrating because we clearly need a multilateral international process like this, but it tends to move at the pace of the slowest, not at the pace that the science demands.” Harvie also believes that international climate conferences such as COP summits give too much voice to contributors to the climate crisis, primarily the fossil fuel industry. Those who are most affected by the climate crisis, namely the Global South, are not heard enough. In a moment of reflection, Harvie was “conflicted between trying to be hopeful and optimistic and … realistic and kind of sober.”

He does, nonetheless, admit that hope is something necessary in our approach to the climate. While we are in a bad situation in terms of global warming, “every fraction of a degree that we can restrain that by is the avoidance of huge amounts of suffering and avoidable death.” Two years on from the COP26 summit, hosted in Glasgow, Harvie reflected on its impacts. “I think the Glasgow COP really put [the global status of debate on loss and damage] onto the agenda in a more substantial way and I think that there is now more momentum on addressing those issues of loss and damage than there was before.” Although, he believes its successes were ultimately limited. There have been COP summits since 1995 and “the window for change is so small and is closing so rapidly on us.” He blames a large proportion of the climate crisis on the fossil fuel industry, and their successes at “delaying climate action for decades.”

Even when it comes to the Greens, Patrick Harvie believes that no party’s environmental policies are good enough. Actions being taken now should have happened “decades ago.” The Greens’ role in the Scottish Government is advancing climate policies, but “I’m never going to say that it’s good enough or that it’s fast enough.” A lot has changed in recent years, especially around attitudes on oil and gas licensing. As recently as the last Scottish Parliament election, the Greens were the only party saying that “the policy of maximum extraction of oil and gas to an end.” Now, the only major party contesting this is the Conservatives, who are “pretending that you can just keep on with the policy of maximum extraction.” Adaptation is important, especially for those whose lives and careers revolve around the fossil fuel industry, such as coal mining. “If we want those communities whose livelihoods have been dependent on fossil fuel to have confidence in their future, we need to demonstrate to them that we are investing in the long term jobs that will be there for the future.”

Another priority for the Greens is young people. They try to create opportunities for young voices to be heard, especially in shaping policy. The Greens have been instrumental in a lot of legislation making a difference to the lives of many, but particularly students and young people, such as capping rent and restrictions on eviction. Patrick Harvie believes that the Greens are “ahead of other parties” in their inclusion of young people in policy making. When asked about the homelessness crisis particularly among students in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Harvie admitted that there would need to be more work done, even after the new housing bill is introduced next year. “I think that the fundamental mistake that they’re seeing is treating housing as though it’s just a market commodity, when in fact it should be seen as a human right.”

Harvie believes that society needs further education on the climate—which should come from politicians and activists, but also businesses. “I think there’s still a mismatch between the awareness of the issue and the understanding of the scale of change that’s necessary.” Air pollution in Glasgow exemplifies why we need a change in attitudes. The debate has been going on since 2003, and only this year has a Low Emission Zone been implemented in Glasgow’s city centre. While there are a “handful of disgruntled voices,” most people have “accepted and recognised” its effectiveness.

Harvie has himself been involved in politics from a young age—he was, famously, a member of the Labour Party during his time as a student in Manchester,  although he made it clear that this was only for one year, and he did not renew his membership. He states that this did not have much of an impact on his later career in politics, and that “wider student activism” was more influential. LGBT+ and sexual health activism are what led him into a career in politics. After graduating and moving back to Glasgow, he became an LGBT+ youth worker. Section 28, a “homophobic hangover” of Thatcher’s Britain banning the teaching of LGBT+ issues in schools, which Harvie was instrumental in campaigning against, was repealed in 2003.

To Harvie, devolution was not simply about ideology. “In LGBT+ communities, quite a lot of people were genuinely quite anxious, what would a Scottish Parliament do with our rights? Because at that time, Scotland still had this story of itself as a more socially conservative part of the UK, where it had taken longer to get decriminalisation, where there was a sense of bishops wielding block votes and social conservatism still having a lot of political influence.”

For a long time, Harvie believed his work in the Scottish Parliament was making a huge difference to the LGBT+ communities. However, in recent years, he feels there has been a rollback on human rights in this way, particularly with the rise of transphobia, which is “deliberately stirred up by those who never supported equality in the first place.” He is hopeful for the future, and that will again progress into a more accepting and inclusive society, although “it does feel like we are fighting some of those early battles all over again.”

Pressuring governments remains important to Harvie, who is a member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Even though some of their methods are controversial and at times illegal, Harvie believes that to incite real change we need “political action, economic action, grassroots campaigning, as well as civil disobedience and more disruptive tactics.” Although he deems violence a step too far, protesting is important to Harvie. Even when it comes to Just Stop Oil, they are “right to want to draw attention to the fact that this crisis affects every aspect of our lives and that it’s going to be vastly more disruptive than even the most extensive protest would be.” Although, pressure groups need to be careful—“there’s a danger that they alienate more people than they convince.” Their targets need to be selected with more care, so people understand “why it’s being done, what it’s about, rather than just seeing the effects of the disruption.”

Patrick Harvie went on to talk about his fondness for the University of Glasgow, and even mentioned how he ran as a candidate for Rector in 2008. He lives in Partick and feels the University “shapes…how it feels to be in the West End of Glasgow.” The Scottish Greens even put UofG student Cameron Eadie up as candidate in the Westminster by-election in Rutherglen last month. Harvie reflected that Eadie was a “great candidate.” When asked about the fact Cameron is only twenty, Harvie retorted, diversity is also important in politics – parliaments and councils should be “reflective of the whole community,” and not only middle-aged people.

Despite having a student as a Green candidate, Harvie believes the University is not doing enough for the environment. There are “interesting, challenging and groundbreaking” things happening at Glasgow University, especially in terms of the environment. However, there are simultaneously academics who can’t wait to “fly off to their next junket somewhere around the world.”

Although, change does not come without disruption. With twenty years in politics, Patrick Harvie has not avoided his fair share of controversies. He defended his banging of heads with Donald Trump over his presence in a Scottish Parliament inquiry into renewable energy. “It was necessary to call him out on a lot of the kind of climate denial conspiracy nonsense.” He believes that controversy is necessary for a meaningful career in politics, in order to incite change.

A career spanning three decades cannot come without its share of regrets. Patrick Harvie told The Glasgow Guardian that his biggest regret was the outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. If Scotland had chosen to leave the United Kingdom, the future could have been easier as we may still have been in the European Union, and less “chaos” would have happened in following years.

Harvie believes that independence is the right choice for Scotland, even though it will probably not happen within the next decade. The path to independence is not as clear as it was before Brexit and Covid-19. He admits there are other aspects of politics that are more pressing right now but suggests that it is not about fighting for one thing over the other. “It’s about showing why independence is relevant to that wider agenda.” They share the same desire as the SNP to achieve an independent Scotland, although it is perhaps not the main priority of the Greens.

Harvie concluded the interview that he is trying to remain positive for the future, in terms of society and particularly the environment. Even the smallest actions can make a difference—“The fact we’re living in the midst of a crisis doesn’t change the fact that every fraction of a degree that we hold back the average global temperature rise is worth the effort.”

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