The Health of Our Planet: Are we at the tipping point?

As stories break about the increasing challenges that the environment is facing, Harry Barton reflects on what the future of the environment might look like, its impact on us, and what needs to be done about it.

Yesterday evening I was privileged to listen to an astonishing series of talks about saving lives in Africa and the Middle East by inspiring advocates from the charity Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors without borders).  Heart-breaking personal stories, unimaginable working conditions, the true heroism of these people who face the worst possible crises in the most dangerous places on Earth.  Whether hiding in the swamps of war-torn southern Sudan or delivering babies in 50 degree heat in the Syrian deserts while dodging Isis gunfire, it was impossible not to be moved by these incredible feats of human endurance coupled with a seemingly inexhaustible desire to do good.

Why is this work so necessary in so many places we might well ask?  Disease, conflict, drought and crop failure, the root causes are as varied as they are complex.  But underlying many of these humanitarian crises are environmental ones.  The human induced ecological dead zone in the seas off the Horn of Africa, along with the ravages of an equally human induced changing climate, are often cited among the reasons why the area has suffered so much.  And at the heart of many conflicts is the burgeoning pressure on ever scarcer natural resources.  The news headlines rarely if ever report it this way, but the fate of the most vulnerable people on the planet and their natural environment is inextricably linked.

I believe we need a new Environment Act even more. Why? Because many of the protections we’ve enjoyed for the last 25 years, from safeguarding rare habitats to preventing pollution of our rivers and seas, are set to disappear without it.
Harry Barton, CEO
Devon Wildlife Trust
Comma Butterfly - Photo credit, Andy Stevens

Comma Butterfly - Photo credit, Andy Stevens

So it was refreshing and alarming in equal measure to read the sobering report from the IPPR this morning.  Entitled This is crisis: facing up to an age of environmental breakdown”, the report warns of a new type of risk which links environmental degradation to economic and social collapse, and argues that few if any of the World’s countries are properly prepared.   The report follows hot on the heels of a global scientific review of insects published at the weekend, which found that 40% of species were in decline and that we are losing numbers at the rate of 2.5% each year.  Of all countries studied, the UK was found to have suffered the worst losses.  Some might dismiss such findings as scaremongering by doom-laden environmentalists.  I advised them to read the World Economic Forum report published last month, which identified the top three global risks as all environmental ones. To quote the report verbatum, “Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.”  These are the words of our top economists, not greenies.

It’s mid-February and at the time of writing we seem to be stumbling headlong towards a no-deal Brexit.  If the economic forecasters are right this could be our own mini catastrophe – although stories like those I heard last night remind me that we should keep our worries about future trading arrangements with our European partners in perspective.  Still, we do need to be aware of the very real risk that with the chaos of a no deal Brexit all the promised changes to environmental laws could simply be kicked down the road.  They might be delayed for years while so-called higher priority issues like trade deals are sorted out, or worse abandoned all together in the push for a low regulation, no-holes-barred drive to maximise production at any cost.

Children running

Photo credit, Jo Damsell

I’m deeply worried about a no-deal Brexit.  But whatever happens, even if we’re all a little poorer or more politically isolated, we’ll survive it.  Brexit will pass and in time we’ll all move on.  But the environmental crisis that threatens us won’t.  It will intensify, and it will affect us directly - through loss of habitats and species here in the UK – and indirectly, because of the collapse of natural systems abroad and the human consequences.  Nature does not recognise boundaries.  What we do here in Devon has impacts everywhere.  And who will really feel the pain of this?  In time we will feel it yes, but our children will feel it more so, our grandchildren most of all.

 

What do we want?

So I think we should remind our politicians about what’s really important.  Yes of course we need to sort out our current political mess.  But I believe we need a new Environment Act even more.  Why? Because many of the protections we’ve enjoyed for the last 25 years, from safeguarding rare habitats to preventing pollution of our rivers and seas, are set to disappear without it.  Because even these protections, among the best in the World, have not been enough to stop nature declining.  Because we need to do more than just stop nature declining, we need to start bringing it back.  And because, unlike Brexit, the destruction of nature won’t just pass by and be forgotten.  It will come home to roost and may in time prove irreversible.

But we don’t just want any old Act, we want a real show stopper.  One that sets ambitious targets; one that holds our government to account.  And perhaps as much as anything, one that can be the envy of other governments when the UK goes to the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2020.  We want our Environment Act to set a truly impressive bar for others to follow, and hopefully exceed.  That way, we could set a seed for the recovery of nature all over the World.

Back in the Autumn, we encouraged all our members and supporters to write to their MPs and ask for an ambitious Environment Act.  An impressive number of you did just that.  In fact, here in Devon we’ve generated more responses to our local politicians than any other part of the UK.  I’m really proud of this, and I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the trouble to pen letters or pester their MPs for a meeting. 

And how have our MPs responded? Some have signed the Charter for the Environment and lobbied their own political parties to take more action.  Some have responded with party-line greenwash.  A few haven’t responded at all.  No matter, we’ll keep on reminding them.  I’ve just written to them all again today.  And I do believe we’ll win this battle in the end.  Because I hold onto the hope that even a small bunch of committed people with a strong sense of what’s right and what really matters will ultimately prevail.

Thank you all for your support.