As a member of the science and technology select committee I am delighted to have secured and be participating in an inquiry into public understanding of climate change.
As we have interviewed expert witnesses and considered a range of written evidence, one thing has struck me in particular. While there is an ongoing public discussion on climate change that needs more scientific input and greater participation, a clear development in recent years has been the rise in the numbers of people prepared to do something about climate change.
The annual British public attitudes survey has recorded a rise in the proportion of people recycling, from 42% in 1991 to 51% in 2001, to 86% in 2010. When asked why they recycled, 89% of people in 2010 identified the danger of climate change as a motivator. As household budgets are squeezed it is not surprising that more people are also cutting down on energy use. More surprising perhaps is that more than half of those doing so say that the risk of climate change is a motivating factor.
These statistics should be considered alongside more serious figures; the results of this year’s State of Nature report on the UK’s wildlife. This pioneering environmental audit, carried out by 25 conservation groups, revealed a picture of broad decline in British wildlife, driven in part by climate change. As someone lucky enough to hail from and represent a Cornish constituency, these numbers confirmed visible trends in the landscape in which my constituents and I live.
These two sets of figures, showing a rise in actions to combat climate change running in parallel with noticeable changes to our natural environment, are closely linked.
The philosopher Roger Scruton has written about a powerful, but often overlooked, driving force within society that he has christened “oikophilia“, a family of motives at whose centre is love of one’s home. As recent developments in the UK demonstrate, concern at seeing the changes to our home environment can readily translate into action.
Witnesses of decreases in wildlife or flooding as a result of extreme weather have not stood idly by. In addition to recent surges in energy saving, community flood prevention schemes and popular campaigns to save threatened species we have seen people, experts and policymakers come together to protect the environment. As the State of Nature report testifies, these campaigns have achieved some spectacular conservation successes in recent years.
While important public discussions continue about the rate of climate change and subsequent energy policy, we should not overlook this fightback against the impact of climate change, now gathering pace in homes, gardens, parks as well as village, town and city halls across Britain. As a Conservative, I believe this natural urge for people to want to work together to protect their environment should be nurtured. Over the past three years we have seen Conservatives in government do just that, helping people tackle climate change in order to protect the places they call home.
Householders looking to save money and reduce the amount of energy they consume can now fund energy efficiency measures through the green deal while energy companies, in line with new responsibilities placed on them by government, are spending £540m a year on improving the energy efficiency of low-income households.
Communities looking to move away from carbon-based energy can put this priority at the heart of their future through neighbourhood planning; which allows local people to set out the future of their area. In my own constituency, the Truro and Kenwyn neighbourhood plan has the need to improve community resilience to tackle the impacts of climate change as one of its founding principles. A new community energy fund, and a forthcoming community energy strategy, gives people power to come together to produce clean energy.
At a regional level, local enterprise partnerships (LEP), drawn from local businesses and local authorities, have been charged with growing their local economies. Recognising the economic benefit of producing more energy in our own country and developing new renewable energy technologies to export, many LEPs have used their new freedoms and funding to support the renewable energy sector; the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP is focusing support on marine renewables.
For me such localism is the cornerstone of what environmentalism should be about in the 21st century. Not the top-down imposition of a political agenda, but the nurturing of people working as a community, as residents concerned by local environmental impoverishment come together to protect and enhance that environment for future generations. Thinking global and acting local.
• Sarah Newton is the MP for Truro and Falmouth