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9 July 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:44am

Why are there 200 muddy wellies on the steps of Defra today?

It's time for the PM to sack the Environment Secretary, argue campaigners.

By Guy Shrubsole

This morning, Friends of the Earth campaigners dumped around two hundred muddy wellington boots onto the steps of Defra, the UK’s environment department. Our message: Give Environment Secretary Owen Paterson the boot. Here’s why.

Our protest should have some resonance for Mr Paterson. In January this year, he notoriously turned up to visit flood victims in Somerset – without wearing any welly boots. As a symbol of an unprepared and out-of-touch Minister, it was hard to beat.

But Paterson is not just Owen the Unready. He also has a Canute-like attitude towards our rising seas and worsening downpours. “We are very good as a race at adapting”, he has opined on the subject of climate change, urging the public to just chill out about a dangerously warming world. “People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.”

Were Paterson content to keep his Dark Age-views of modern science to himself, that might be OK. But he has been in charge of Defra since September 2012, and his brief includes protecting the country from the impacts of climate change. In that time, he has had just two cursory briefings on climate change from his civil servants; no briefings at all on the matter from his chief scientist; and has studiously ignored efforts by the Met Office’s head honcho, Dame Julia Slingo, to offer him support. With access to some of the best climate scientists on the planet, he has ignored them, spurring one of his Cabinet colleagues to claim that Paterson’s “not climate sceptic, but climate stupid”.

Worse, he has acted to purge such expertise from his decimated and demoralised department. Last year, he cut the number of officials working on climate change adaptation from 38 down to just six. These civil servants are expected to plan the defence of the entire British Isles from rising seas and worsening floods. Defra’s own projections state that the number of households at significant flood risk could increase from 370,000 to almost one million by the 2020s. Faced with this threat, you might have thought it would be a priority for Owen Paterson’s department. But in Paterson’s reshaped set of departmental priorities, neither climate change nor flooding merits a mention.

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Worse still has been Paterson’s performance on flood defences. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that cuts by the coalition have led to a huge investment shortfall – some half-a-billion pounds, and rising – if it wishes just to hold flood risk levels steady. Because climate change is tipping more and more homes into risk of flooding, the coalition’s policies are essentially putting thousands more homes at flood risk.

Had Paterson been honest, and simply ‘fessed up that yes, spending had been cut – and that his predecessor, Caroline Spelman, had presided over the initial big cuts – then maybe onlookers would have forgiven him. But instead, he proceeded to spend the winter spinning the figures – repeatedly claiming that his government was spending more than ever before on flood defences. After Friends of the Earth, the Labour party, the ONS and Channel 4 pointed out that this wasn’t actually true, Defra finally squeaked out an announcement that it was ‘clarifying’ the figures, to show that less was being spent after all.

Yesterday’s revelations by the Guardian compound the impression that Owen Paterson’s department put more effort into defending itself against risks to its reputation than defending households from flooding. A leaked Defra communications strategy for the winter floods, obtained by the Guardian, warns of the “risk” that “the media make a link between climate change [and] the risk of flooding and whether the government is doing enough to prepare”. Well, quite.

There are a number of things that the government needs to do to better prepare the UK for climate change. One is to spend enough on flood defences to keep pace with our changing climate. Another is to do much more to tackle the root of the problem by slashing carbon emissions and arresting climate change itself.

But it’s clear that Britain would also be better protected from climate change if it had an Environment Secretary that actually accepted the science of global warming. That’s why David Cameron should give Owen Paterson the boot as soon as possible.