Conservative MPs and the climate crisis: all at sea with no captain at the helm

With just weeks and days to go until COP26 – the international global climate crisis summit – the environment is centre stage in the news. Hardly a day goes by without a fresh release of scientific data stating some bald and hugely concerning facts about the state of our natural world and ecosystem. Now (almost) everyone agrees that we need swift and rapid action. Our MPs reply to concerned constituents reassuring them that they consider the climate crisis to be a real priority.

But what is the reality – and how much do our leaders and decision makers actually walk the walk, as well as talk the talk?

This week, Torbay and South Hams local press and social media was alive with the news about Anthony Mangnall MP (Totnes) taking to sea for two days aboard a beam trawler. Mr Mangnall had written extensively and talked up how this was an opportunity to ‘see first-hand the hard work that goes into catching our world-class fish’. Many were more sceptical, or simply questioned the necessity for an MP to engage in such an activity against a backdrop of so many other pressing issues on the dry and less enticing land of the constituency.

There has been growing disquiet amongst constituents over the past months -particularly Totnesians – over their MP’s lack of meaningful action and engagement with them on environmental issues. Repeated letters of concern have been replied to with stock responses containing misleading statements and inaccuracies. Meetings to discuss the climate crisis were reported to have been postponed and delayed.

Indeed, many Totnesians may still be unaware of Mr Mangnall’s voting patterns around climate issues in the House of Commons. One simple search on the informative and transparent website TheyWorkForYou reveals that the MP for Totnes (the legendarily environmentally-aware town which declared a climate emergency in 2018) voted consistently three times against specific climate mitigation proposals ‘on their behalf’.

Many constituents I spoke with have felt increasingly side-lined, ignored and belittled, and Mr Mangnall has been accused of using his privileged access to the local press to deliver a sarcastic broadside with politically divisive language that risks further polarising and demeaning concerns raised.

So, Mr Mangnall’s trip to sea in a beam trawler was always going to make for an interesting experience for everyone! Never shy of a selfie, Mr Mangnall started as he meant to go on, posting video diary updates (think Countryfile pieces to camera) of his trip. Notwithstanding the fact that he is already an ‘expert’ on the issues facing the fishing industry, he declared it his seafaring mission to ‘learn more about the fishing industry and what I can do to help’. Mr Mangnall has already supported a bid to the government’s Levelling Up fund to extend the Fish Quay at Brixham for visiting boats – which will mostly be beam trawlers – offering many millions of pounds of help that will not be going elsewhere across a constituency already struggling with housing, social, children’s care and health issues. 

Upon casting off for the deep blue yonder, Mr Mangnall’s social media feed this weekend treated his constituents to selected highlights of the messy and destructive process of the beam trawl: fish squashed in their hundreds in nets, and an image of Mr Mangnall holding up a monkfish like a proud angler, surrounded by discard and bycatch. No questions in the posts and feeds were raised by Mr Mangnall about the sustainability of the process, and likewise no meaningful attempt was made to engage with the arguments against beam trawling.

At times, irony pretty much got up and left the room: a video clip of two dolphins was posted, bringing to mind all the naïve breathless excitement of a teenager on his gap year. Until prompted, Mr Mangnall was seemingly unaware of the reality that dolphins and harbour porpoises are often bycatch and die in trawl nets, and that these stunning creatures were passing the very beam trawler that had only recently scooped the area clear of their food.

One thing that has come across loud and clear, like a ship’s horn in the fog, is that there is no strategy or joined-up thinking going on at any decision-making level in this climate crisis. The global crisis is a complex issue that demands all communities be involved and informed. That’s why many across Devon and nationally are calling for the government to pass the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill – also known as the CEE Bill. Mr Mangnall and Conservative colleagues are mostly against the CEE Bill – sadly highlighting how a global issue that affects all of us continues to be split tragically down party lines, to the detriment of all of us.

Government MPs also regularly fall back on the argument that the Environmental Bill currently passing through Parliament is adequate for the climate emergency. The Environment Bill was conceived as a means of transitioning through Brexit – it is holed below the waterline when it comes to dealing with the environmental crisis we clearly face. In contrast, CEE Bill advocates such as Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor, state clearly: ‘The CEE Bill is a very, very important way to take us towards a safer future.’

Professor EJ Milner-Gulland, Professor of Biodiversity, Oxford University, is also clear that “The CEE Bill has a real importance in addressing the degradation and loss of nature caused by the UK’s activities wherever they may be. It also prioritises refraining from impact rather than trying to make the best of things once we’ve damaged nature.”

Common misconceptions put forward by MPs maintain that the proposed Climate and Nature Assembly element of the CEE Bill ‘threatens democracy’. This has been repeated consistently and inaccurately by Mr Mangnall and his colleagues, often through the privileged press access that MPs have. The reality is that the Assembly proposed in the CEE Bill would only make recommendations, not dictate to Parliament in any way. Parliament would always retain sovereignty – and could simply vote against any recommendation it chose. 

The reality is that the greatest threat to democracy is a continuation of a party-political approach to the climate crisis, where naked party politics trump the common good. Government MPs risk gaining a reputation for diminishing those who are concerned about their government’s approach to the environment and, instead, continuing to court industries and powerful lobby groups and support their interests. That is exactly why we are where we are – after decades of allowing the fossil fuel lobby to influence politics, we are now on the brink of a monumental global catastrophe that was allowed to happen.

Margaret Thatcher herself warned presciently of the climate crisis and its effects back in 1989.  A remarkable online video preserves the speech she made to the UN.

One has to ask: why were her stark and prescient warnings not heeded adequately at the time?

In an era of extraordinary events, we need extraordinary politicians – ones who can unite communities, not divide, who are alive to nuance and debate, and who cherish the same freedoms and beliefs in transparency of decision making that we all hold dear.

What really makes a crisis? Disasters and catastrophes in themselves are not crises – they are devastating events. But it’s the inability of leaders to take the reins, employ joined-up thinking and take their communities with them that transform these terrible events into crises. Currently we are all like Mr Mangnall in his beam trawler – doing things the way things have always been done, and in the process stripping our environment to its bare bones, blinded to the need to change what we do – rapidly.  

In this current crisis – we are all at sea.

This is a fact-led opinion piece from a new writer for West Country Voices, Jim Funnell