I’m a Conservative who cares about the environment.
This is a bewildering statement to some. Indeed, some parts of the media would have you believe that people like me only exist in universes where pigs can fly, and Christmas comes twice a year.
This is because some in the Parliamentary Conservative Party have portrayed to the world that environmentalism and conservatism are inherently incompatible. However, a closer look at the intellectual history of conservatism reveals a different story—one where a strong case can be made for conservative environmentalism.
This case has strong historical and philosophical underpinnings. Edmund Burke spoke of how society is a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born. He spoke of how the living were ‘temporary possessors and life-renters of society’ who had a responsibility to leave a habitable world to their descendants, not one they had destroyed for their own gratification. This was later echoed by Margaret Thatcher, who said “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy — with a full repairing lease.”
Sir Roger Scruton introduced the concept of "oikophilia," which embodies a love for one's home and a desire to conserve our heritage for future generations. For Scruton, this concept carried a fundamental moral idea: those responsible for causing harm should also take responsibility for its repair.
Environmentalism and conservatism are not only compatible, but deeply intertwined, driven by a shared commitment to stewardship.
Nonetheless, to some of today’s MPs, environmentalism has been artificially welded to the conservative cause, and combating climate change is mistakenly associated with left-wing activism, central planning, and market interventions. What they fail to recognise is that this association forms the basis for the political case advocating for conservative environmentalism.
Climate change consistently ranks as the fourth most important issue for voters, and its significance continues to rise. An increasing number of voters are demanding action. The differences between conservative environmentalism and its socialist or liberal counterparts are precisely why it is essential: it offers an alternative path to achieving net-zero emissions without compromising core conservative principles such as free markets and individual freedom.
Therefore, it is vital for Conservatives not to backtrack on their commitments. Doing so only allows left-wing radicals advocating for extreme measures like degrowth and net zero by 2025 to gain ground. Such ideologies could inflict immeasurable harm on our country. Conservative voters, 73% of whom support the net-zero target, must look elsewhere for action. The recent surge in support for the Green Party at the expense of the Tories during local elections serves as a clear sign that climate change policies are not electoral liabilities; it is being perceived to not be doing enough that poses a risk.
The environmentalism that Conservative MPs oppose is only one of many forms. There is an economic case for a pragmatic, conservative approach. Over the past decade, UK carbon emissions have fallen by 29%, whilst GDP has risen by a fifth. This demonstrates that harnessing the power of markets can incentivise responsible business practices and facilitate the adoption of clean technologies, all while fostering economic growth.
Bold government targets, increased funding for research and development, tax incentives, and light-touch regulation can all encourage businesses to innovate, develop, and deploy clean technologies. This not only addresses climate change but also creates jobs, bolsters industries, and boosts tax revenues and investments across the country.
In the words of John Stuart Mill, "From points of view different from his, different things are perceptible; and none are more likely to have seen what he does not see than those who do not see what he sees." To achieve these goals, it is imperative that Conservatives remain actively engaged in the environmental debate. Now is not the time to withdraw, but rather the time to step up and lead the charge towards a sustainable and prosperous future.
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to email@example.com.