“If we can’t talk about climate change now when the hell can we talk about it?”: Talking to Cambridge’s Green Party candidate

Extreme flooding and actual bananas found growing in Pembroke college gardens. It’s a perfect time for us to do what we do best. Talk about the weather.

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Tony Juniper, “the most well-known environmentalist in Britain” and former Green Party candidate for Cambridge, shares his thoughts on climate change, politics and practicalities.

It kind of feels like the apocalypse is coming in North West England. Extraordinary rainfall in Cumbria has left families devastated. The strangely warm December and flooding seem to be a very obvious manifestation of climate change, and yet the media and the government still avoid talk of long-term prevention.

Tony Juniper has worked as an environmentalist for over 25 years, campaigning for more sustainable local, national and international societies. He’s also recently become President of the Wild Life Trust, following in the footsteps of national treasure, David Attenborough. We hope Tony will be starring in a dramatic BBC wildlife documentary soon.

Now seemed like a great time to get over my selfie phobia.

I asked him why there isn’t more of a discussion about climate change going on. “It is almost deliberately pushed off the agenda at every opportunity. We’ve seen literally unprecedented flooding and yet the extent to which climate change has not been part of the debate is really remarkable.”

Despite the extreme weather, the Government seems to be going backwards on environmental policy. “We’re probably in the most disastrous position of environmental policy-making in this country for 30 years,” Tony says. “There’s been this relentless assault since May meaning we are less likely to be able to deliver on things we’ve been simultaneously signing up to, in Paris for example.”

Tony suggests that far too often natural disasters, like the flooding, lead to political “blame game” rather than any productive long-term solutions. “It’s all about whether we should have built this flood defence higher, or Labour didn’t spend enough on flood defences etc. rather than focussing on the cause.” Politicians are so used to shifting responsibility they can’t actually step back from the situation and look at the bigger picture. “We can’t simply adapt through traditional routes of building the walls higher because of the kind of extremes we’re seeing now.”

The Paris Conference has also seen the return of our favourite bacon sandwich-eating politician (and previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) Ed Miliband.

“Talking about [climate change] is actively discouraged,” Tony says.

“A few commentators write about this but they generally get attacked rather than people engaging in a sensible conversation with them.”

But why? Juniper says it reveals the state of politics in this country. Much like my approach to revision, it’s all about the short term. “The environment is so far down where politicians think their attention should be.” He points out their short-term fixing rather than long-term thinking is costing the taxpayer. “And what is most tragic about [the floods] for me is how it’s costing us twice.”

He explains that we have “agricultural land that is designed to move water as quickly as possible, often with large quantities of soil which also end up in the riverbed, blocking up the bottom of the rivers, thereby negating the flood defences we built the year before”. In short he suggests we’re giving money to farmers to farm in ways that aren’t always effective and then we have to pay for flood defences on top. “There’s a real cost of living argument here because basically both those things are being paid out of our taxes.” The taxpayer is literally paying the price for our inadequate green policy.

What can we do to change this? “The thing is, it’s highly political,” Tony says. “You’ve got interest groups like NFU who want the money for nothing, literally just pay us for owning land and then they do what they will with the money we give them and we finish up with these disastrous consequences with people’s houses flooded.” Tony suggests environmental policy at the moment, or lack of it, is “less to do with the worldview and more to do with the parochial politics of the Conservative party”. The government, he believes, is living in the short term and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.

Don’t want to rain on your parade but these floods are pretty serious.

In light of recent events, it seems mad that people can deny that something serious is happening to our planet. But people still do. How do you deal with climate change deniers, I ask him.

“Very calmly.” Tony suggests the denial of climate change isn’t a matter of simply ignoring the statistics, it seems to be an ideological thing. “I’ve come to understand it’s not really a question of science so much as a belief. Most of them are right of centre in terms of their political views and for most of them I think they take the view that climate change is such a big thing that takes a lot of Government intervention and Government intervention is wrong because that’s not how they think on the right side of politics. So, therefore, climate change can’t be correct.”

Tony’s campaign as Green Party candidate back in 2010 was very successful. He almost tripled the Green vote here in Cambridge but still came fourth behind the three big parties. But he reveals to me that he might stand again. “I’ve not ruled it out. I think we ran a pretty good campaign here in Cambridge.” So could the Greens win in Cambridge? “The voting system is still the same, so doing it once more… It would be the same result very likely.”

While the Green Party’s share of the vote significantly increased in the election in 2015, as it did in 2010, this was not seen in their share of the seats because of First-Past-The-Post voting system. Tony also highlighted the issue of tactical voting here in Cambridge.

I asked him what he thought of Cambridge’s current Labour MP Daniel Zeichner. “Daniel is the beneficiary of tactical voting. He is the anti-Lib Dem vote as Julian (Huppert) was the anti-Labour and anti-Tory vote. That unfortunately is how a lot of constituencies go: ‘we don’t like this party or that one therefore we’ll vote for the other one’, rather than people being inspired by positive program that people are going to deliver for them in office. It says a lot about our system.”

Students love a little bit of political campaigning. Even if it’s for the Lib Dems.

Cambridge is a marginal seat, fought between Labour and Liberal Democrats, so the Greens are often seen as an electoral impossibility. Even Green sympathisers end up voting to keep out their least preferred party instead of voting Green. But Cambridge constituency with the students’ vote and eccentric academics’ vote is notoriously “volatile”, as Tony puts it.

“There’s no doubt that our current system is a suicide machine.” Maybe it is time to give the Greens a shot here in Cambs. Because things do need to change, and Tony could be the one to change them.