If British prime ministers were a species of wildlife, they would be fruit flies. Whatever the rate at which they falter, another pops up to take their place: Liz Truss has gone, and Rishi Sunak is now the UK’s fifth prime minister in six years.
There is no such certainty for the natural world, however. In the 18 months that it took Beatrice Forshall to research The Book of Vanishing Species, published this month, 107 species were declared extinct. From the ivory-billed woodpecker to the splendid poison frog, distinct and awe-inspiring lifeforms are disappearing. On Thursday 13 October the Living Planet Report, by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London, announced an average 69 per cent decline in the world’s monitored wildlife populations since 1970.
The Tory party’s detachment from this existential crisis has only become more apparent in recent weeks. As activists such as Just Stop Oil attempted to highlight the threat, the government chose to crack down further on the right to protest. Having now passed its third reading in the Commons, the Public Order Bill, which civil liberties lawyers have called “draconian”, is set to introduce criminal offences for tactics such as “locking on”, and gives the police powers to prevent individuals attending protests at all.
The Conservatives’ recent climate and environment policies have worked against the abundance of the natural world, not for it. From expanding oil and gas production to rolling back EU environmental protections and allowing fracking to be restarted in the British countryside, Truss’s legacy amounted to a brief but damaging “attack on nature”.
How far Sunak will reverse this trend is still unclear. In his inaugural address as Prime Minister on Tuesday 25 October he promised to deliver on the government’s 2019 manifesto pledges, including “protecting our environment”. Green Tories, such as Philip Dunne, chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee in parliament, have backed him. An anonymous former minister told the Guardian that he would “definitely keep Elms”, a scheme that green groups believe will ensure a nature-friendly future for UK farming.
Others are less hopeful. Sunak has courted the Tory party’s most extreme right-wing advocates: he has boasted about putting up a photo in his office when he became chancellor of Nigel Lawson, an infamous climate-change sceptic; he has the backing of climate-sceptic MPs including Kemi Badenoch and Steve Baker, and earlier this year watered down Boris Johnson’s windfall tax on oil and gas companies to the point of un-greening a green idea; his appointment as Environment Secretary of Thérèse Coffey, who has called the potent and controversial weed-killer RoundUp “amazing”, is a dubious one.
After the chaos under Truss, it remains to be seen where Sunak will land on policies such as onshore wind (he has said he is opposed), and outlawing solar panels on farmland (he has said he is in favour). He has promised to “put your [the public’s] needs above politics”, but his positions on these two policies suggest he is far from immune to the climate culture war. The word “climate” was conspicuously absent from his inaugural speech and within hours he had removed Alok Sharma, president of the Cop26 climate conference and a Johnson supporter, from his cabinet, just weeks before the start of Cop27. So much for not playing politics with the most important issue of the age.
Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, tweeted that Sunak’s fingerprints were “all over” the cost-of-living crisis. “He didn’t insulate homes when Chancellor ahead of the energy crisis, he cut £1040 UC [Universal Credit] a year and boasted of money going from poor areas to rich,” she said. Certainly the country is bearing the costs of past inaction on energy reform: over £400 has been added to household food bills by climate change and rising energy prices, a report by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a think tank, calculated.
It is important to remember that it’s not just the UK that will suffer if growth-at-all-costs continues to be chosen over longer-term environmental health. What politicians and consumers do in the UK affects the prospects of ecosystems abroad, especially in terms of supply chains that involve deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. “Pitting economic growth against nature is a false choice, whether that’s here in the UK or elsewhere,” Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF UK, told the New Statesman. “We need clear plans and a timetable for action from the government to reverse the critical decline in nature, not an attack on the vital rules that protect it.”
Sunak may have another two years before the next election to see his agenda through, he may have less, but very soon it will be too late to prevent natural abundance tipping past points of no return. “There can’t be another ten-year plan after this one in Montreal,” Barrett warned with reference to the upcoming Cop15 biodiversity summit. “After now it will be too late.”