Not My Department

Sunday 19th of April 2020

Over the last month or so, there has been a new feature of British national life, namely the daily Downing Street press briefing. I don’t always hear or see it, although it does often coincide with my return from work; nor do I always find it terribly enlightening, at least perhaps not in the ways it is intended to be. It has, however, fed into some of my thoughts about climate change. I would like to use this blog to explore some further ideas about tie-ups between the coronavirus and climate change.
One of the striking elements of the briefing is the number of different politicians involved, to say nothing of the figures from health and science. We have so far had the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Health Secretary and a number of others.
I think there are some benefits to having different people involved in this daily event, but it also brings home an important truth. This type of crisis needs a multi-faceted response and to think that it only requires action from certain government departments would be short-sighted.
We have needed input from the Treasury, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Department for Health, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and I am sure that I could continue the list.
I would argue that exactly the same is true of responding to climate change. There is a slight “chicken and egg” situation. Because there hasn’t been a response right across government, climate change hasn’t been taken seriously; or maybe because it hasn’t been taken seriously, there hasn’t been a response right across government.
I could name a few government departments or agencies which have clearly taken some initiatives in relation to climate change, but I’m not quite sure whether there are enough of them or whether climate change is sufficiently on their radar. I’ve therefore started to think about how we could or should organise things differently if we are going to make the progress on climate change that we have been forced to make in facing up to the coronavirus.
There seem to me to be two basic solutions. One is the approach which is currently being adopted. The coronavirus has gone to the top of the agenda for everyone and different parts of government are forced, whether they like it or not, to work together to come up with a suitable response. Ideally, such a response will be a co-ordinated one. It is a shame in one sense that we only have one politician a day “on the front line”, as it were, in the briefing, because we don’t really get a visual signal which suggests the work which is going on across departments. (Perhaps I should say that I hope that such work is going on - we don’t have a great track record when it comes to “joined-up thinking”). The strategy of combining work across departments when it comes to climate change can only work if this is the priority or at the very least one of a very few priorities.
The other approach would be to have a Department for Climate Change. We used to have a Department for Energy and Climate Change, one of over 20 government departments. In July 2016 a merger of this department and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills took place. The incoming politician heading the new department said this: "I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change."
Climate change is the last of a sizeable list and no longer features in the name of the department, which is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. So if we were to have a specific Department for Climate Change, it would need to be something very different from what has existed so far and we would actually have to reverse the direction of travel we have been adopting, which has been away from giving climate change importance.
With either of these systems, the key is the priority which would be allocated to climate change within government. What usually happens to set such a priority is that it comes from the top i.e. the Prime Minister. I don’t see how that is going to happen under Boris Johnson’s leadership. Environmental concerns barely featured in his election campaign before Christmas and although some things may have changed for him after his recent hospital stay, I’m not sure that this is going to be one of them.
Even if someone other than Boris Johnson were in charge, the Conservative Party hasn’t shown itself to be a leading light with regard to climate change. Although the Labour Party made far more reference to climate change in its election campaign, with some specific proposals under the heading of a Green Industrial Revolution, I am still not convinced that climate change would naturally be a focus for a Labour government; nor do I think it really became a feature of what happened in the electorate’s response to the Labour campaign.
The only way that I can see that climate change would be given the priority it needs to be accorded would be if there were a move to a co-leader system, which would obviously be a radical departure in the UK. My reason for suggesting this is twofold: only by having someone with status as a leader to push this forward can I believe that climate change will be prioritised and, secondly, we do have an elected MP who could potentially be co-opted into this co-leadership role, namely Caroline Lucas (who, coincidentally, has experience of co-leadership). Obviously, she is a Green MP, but there is little sign that the Greens are likely to add to her presence in Parliament. I don’t believe there is a precedent for having an MP from a different party in a ministerial role, let alone a leadership role in government except in a formal coalition, so this would be totally new.
I’m not sure which of the two models I have proposed above would work better under this type of arrangement as each has benefits and drawbacks, but I believe that having a leader driving a response to climate change is the only thing that I can envisage having the impact needed in either case. It is also difficult to see how this could figure in the political landscape as we come out of the coronavirus unless it becomes part of the healing which will no doubt be needed on many levels.
From a practical perspective, the only possible way of this working that I can see would be the Labour party drafting in Caroline Lucas to take on this responsibility within a Labour government, but even this is difficult to imagine. However, I am coming to the conclusion more and more that something this radical is needed if we are not to end up with a crisis at some point in the future which is worse than the coronavirus pandemic many times over!