Changing the climate of the climate change debate: a conversation with Tony Juniper

Have you heard the one about the climate that changed? Tony Juniper has. For the past three decades, Juniper has been a prominent environmental campaigner and researcher, advising government, international companies and the public about a range of climate related issues. The Green Party candidate for Cambridge in the 2010 General Election, and former national director and international vice chair of Friends of the Earth, Juniper boasts such fearsome titles as “the most effective of Britain’s eco-warriors”.  I met him for a brief interview before he spoke at an event hosted by the Oxford Student Green Party.

The Paris Climate Change Summit in December 2015 was hailed by many as a turning point in the road towards environmental sustainability. However, certain phrases in its agreement appear vague, like the commitment to a global temperature increase of “less than 2°C” and “efforts” to limit the increase to “1.5°C”. I wonder whether this vagueness is a problem for all environmental gatherings. “Actually,” Juniper remarks, “that’s pretty precise. If you interpret the implications of this point in terms of greenhouse gases, you see that this is telling us that we can’t burn a large proportion of the fossil fuels we have in the ground, and that we have to move to the low carbon economy very quickly.” Comparing the Paris Summit to the underwhelming 2009 Summit in Copenhagen, Juniper calls the recent agreement “a great triumph”.

In the past, however, Juniper has argued that climate change summits “mark success more than they make it”. “This is a point which reflects the extent to which countries turn up at these meetings with clear positions,” Juniper says. “The Chinese and the Americans agreed to do a deal the year before […] A lot of the politics going on is invisible and it’s in quiet conversations.” This is not to play down the significance of such conversations: “bear in mind that the previous 23 years people had been trying [to achieve an agreement] and had failed,” Juniper observes.

So what caused this new environment of consensus at the Paris Summit? Should a closer relationship between America and China be viewed as the source of a renewed energy for change? “It’s a number of things,” Juniper replies. “The science of climate change is becoming ever more certain, and so you can no longer claim uncertainty as a reason for doing nothing.” A further aspect is certainly that there are now “different politicians who are more willing to act, [Barack] Obama in the USA and Xi Jinping in China.” Both, according to Juniper, understand “the need to move their economies away from coal and gas and towards […] low carbon technologies […] and actually are both making quite rapid progress.” In this effort, Obama and Jinping are proving the lie to the classic criticism of environmental sustainability: that it damages a country’s economy.

Juniper has convincingly argued that, like the covalently-bonded odourless and colourless gas produced by our coal burning power stations, this claim is a lot of hot carbon dioxide. In his 2013 book, What Has Nature Ever Done For Us, Juniper remarks “there is a view that economic development is held back, and growth slowed, if we insist upon protecting nature”, but suggests “nothing could be further from the truth”. But what is the basis for this entrenched point of view, I wonder, and does any kind of justification for it exist? “There’s two bits to it,” Juniper explains. The first is “the misconception that the old way of doing economic growth is the fastest way towards progress”. In this model, “limits on greenhouse gas emissions, protection of ancient forests and measures to reduce pollution” are deemed bad because “they look like they’re trying to slow down economic development”. The second part of the perspective is ideological: a focus on environmental sustainability is often equated with a left wing political position. “Large government is what’s required to implement environmental rules,” Juniper points out, “and so getting rid of them speaks to a small governmental agenda as well as a pro growth one”. This perhaps explains why politicians sceptical of climate change often belong to UKIP and the Conservative Party, such as the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson.

Juniper goes on to describe the way in which this logic can be seen to affect the current ruling party. Highlighting “the removal of incentives to encourage the development of renewable power”, the interruption in “the program of energy efficiency”, demonstrated in the pause in the construction of “zero carbon homes and low carbon buildings”, and “a reduction […] in the proportion of agricultural subsidies spent on environmentally friendly farming”, Juniper reveals the prominent flaws in the Conservative government’s environmental policies. They have, according to Juniper, “embarked upon a path which is more ideological than rational thinking”, emphasising controversial shale gas and expensive nuclear power over and above renewable energy sources.

Support for these kinds of environmental policies may be a fair-weather friend, however, given the increasing number of extreme weather events in the UK, which appear closely linked with climate change. While Juniper acknowledges that “the really serious effects [of climate change] will occur first in parts of the world that are not here”, in the Arctic and the tropics, he points out that “we’re not immune to the consequences here, as witnessed by those floods in Cumbria last Christmas, and similarly in the South West last year”. Additionally, an increasing frequency in storms may be the best vehicle for whipping up a political storm, as “both of those phenomena […] are consistent with changing climactic conditions”.

While the Conservative government’s environmental policies are evidently unsatisfactory, it is also difficult to judge what kind of changes are necessary. Although many agree with the Green Party’s take on environmental issues, their economic policies are less convincing, such as the Robin Hood tax on banks proposed in their 2015 General Election Manifesto. I’m interested in Juniper’s response to the myriad problems involved in the path towards environmental sustainability. In his answer, he outlines three interacting parts of society: the consumer, the private sector and the government. The three are involved in a continual feedback loop of influence and dependency. This means that efforts to protect the environment involve “working at three different levels at once”. While Juniper recognises that “they’re all important”, he also suggests that their roles change over time. “There was a period in early 1990s when green consumerism was a very big thing,” he observes, “and then in late 90s and early 2000s governments became dominant in setting standards and regulations”. Since 2005, however, “it’s been the companies themselves setting high ambitions [for environmental sustainability] and beginning to change the market”.

In his talk, entitled ‘The Politics of a Sustainable Economy’, Juniper explained the kind of approach which he thinks is necessary for countering the significant and growing threat to the environment. By shifting the measurement of economic growth away from GDP, and through a recognition of the long term benefits of protecting the environment, Juniper believes that we can arrive at a political approach which does not oppose economy and ecosystem, but understands the ways in which they are dependent upon each other.