Michael Gove, the environment secretary, told the Conservative Party conference yesterday that “climate change is one of the biggest challenges and threats to biodiversity in the UK” – but pursuing climate policy must not come “at the expense of the economic growth that we also need in order to make sure that our country and other countries are resilient and can deal with the consequences of climate change”.
Gove made the comments at a fringe event hosted by his former staffer Henry Newman from Open Europe, the self-professed “premier thinktank of the Eurosceptic world”.
Gove said that he wanted to use his position to ensure the environment was protected, while not blocking activities that could be good UK business.
He said: “I take a view towards the natural world and environment which is driven by a desire not just to conserve but to enhance the beauty and the resilience and the wonder of the natural world.
“But it’s also the case that I do think we need economic growth as well. Because unless we have economic growth then we can’t provide the resilience against extreme climate events and the more equitable distribution of goods that are necessary for us all to enjoy the natural world.”
“Now, the balance is the critical thing. How do we ensure a recognition that we need economic growth doesn’t turn into capture by big business and lobby groups? And how do we ensure that proper reverence for the environment doesn’t turn into the deployment of the precautionary principle so extreme that you never allow anyone to do anything new for the first time? You have to strike that balance.”
That means ensuring the UK’s animal welfare standards were never lowered, as well as using Brexit to reform EU policies including the Habitats Directive and fisheries restrictions, Gove explained.
When Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Gove Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), some green groups cleaimed her decision was like putting the “fox in charge of the hen house” due to his patchy record on climate change while education secretary.
Evidence and science
Referring to his controversial efforts to cut climate change from the national curriculum during that time, Gove said:
“When we were thinking about how to deal with climate change in the curriculum, I wanted to make sure it was done on a properly rigorous and scientific basis, and that people understood the physics of climate change.
“And I won’t blame anyone, but one or two people thought this was an opportunity to exploit this to suggest that they had somehow saved climate change in the national curriculum. And my view during the coalition was that our junior coalition partners had enough bad happening in their lives for me to be prepared to be forebearing if they wanted to make a political point at the time.”
Gove also indicated that as Defra secretary he is trying to listen to a wide variety of experts.
“I’ve taken the view that in an area that relies so much on following the evidence and the science, that it’s important for me to get to grips with that evidence and that science as quickly as I can, and get to understand the range of views that exist from lobby groups to enterprises to individuals who have a long track record in campaigning, to the huge number of people who are members of environmental or conservation organisations.
“I’ve gone deliberately out of my way to try and get a sense of where the need for change is greatest.”
He was quick to deflect credit for leading efforts to campaign for the UK to leave the EU, however, despite being one of the most prominent faces of the campaign.
The title of leader belonged to foreign secretary and political rival Boris Johnson and the campaign staff, he said, with Vote Leave’s headquarters at times “feeling like a start-up” such was the level of enthusiasm for the cause and commitment of young, underpaid staff.
Nonetheless, “Defra is getting ready for Brexit” he said, as he re-affirmed his commitment to a transitional period of around two years, in line with the prime minister’s pledge.