The new Gove – ‘I am an environmentalist’

New Cabinet Ministers after the 2017 General Election
Pictured Michael Gove,
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

 

Michael Gove’s speech ‘The unfozen moment – delivering a Green Brexit‘ is very, very good.  It’s, by far, the best speech made by a government environment minister since at least 2010.

Not only is it erudite and clever, it shows a better grasp of the issues than his two immediate predecessors could muster after months or years in the role. We have a serious player at Defra who says he wants to do some serious good and we should support him in those aims. Although Mr Gove has a lot to live down in his past he is making a very good attempt to get that done as quickly as possible.  Please read the whole thing, but here are some quotes (and I will come back to this with more comment later in the day):

I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, I draw inspiration from nature and I believe we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter. We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to an earth we share with others even as we dream of capturing the heavens.

But I am also an environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart. We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster.

Unless we take the right environmental action we risk seeing more species die out, with potentially undreamt of consequences in terms of the health and balance of nature. We risk flood damage to the homes in which we live and devastation to the islands others know as their only home. We will see the forward march of deserts compelling populations to be on the move and the growing shortage of water creating new conflicts and exacerbating old rivalries.

 

I deeply regret President Trump’s approach towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I sincerely hope the recent indications that the President may be minded to think again do signal a change of heart. International co-operation to deal with climate change is critical if we’re to safeguard our planet’s future and the world’s second biggest generator of carbon emissions can’t simply walk out of the room when the heat is on. It’s our planet too and America needs to know we can only resolve this problem together.’

 

Environmental organisations – from WWF to the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – enjoy memberships in the tens and hundreds of thousands, the support of millions more and a capacity to move hearts more powerful than any other set of institutions in our civil society.

Their campaigning energy and idealism, while occasionally uncomfortable for those of us in power, who have to live in a world of compromise and deal-making, is vital to ensuring we continue to make progress in protecting and enhancing our environment.

And on everything from alerting us all to the danger posed by plastics in our oceans and nitrogen oxide in our air, to the threats posed to elephants by poaching and cod by over-fishing, environmental organisations have driven Governments to make progress. They have demonstrated that we can halt and reverse those trends and forces degrading the natural world and we can improve the environment we are handing on to the next generation.

 

The decision to leave the European Union has been interpreted in many ways, and I won’t revisit the debates which led to that decision being made. But now that decision has been made, it creates new opportunities, and challenges, for the British Government. And nowhere more so than in the area of environmental policy.

We now have an historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality and so much more.’

 

In this unfrozen moment new possibilities occur.

I can understand why, for some, this is a moment of profound concern.

The European Union has, in a number of ways, been a force for good environmentally. Beaches are cleaner, habitats are better protected and pesticides more effectively regulated as a consequence of agreements reached since we entered the EU. And I have no intention of weakening the environmental protections we have put in place while in the EU.

But the EU has not always been a force for good environmentally. In this decade alone, the EU has ordered member states to vote against international action to protect polar bears and to abstain on measures to protect bluefin tuna. And as the UK Climate Change Act shows, this country is more than capable of bringing in our own strong legislation to protect the environment, independent of the EU.

Environmental policy must also be insulated from capture by producer interests who put their selfish agenda ahead of the common good. And here the EU has been weak recently. The EU’s handling of diesel emissions, the way in which car manufacturers rigged testing procedures, and the consequent risk to public health which we have to deal with, do not reflect well on the EU’s internal processes. The EU’s laboratory-based mechanisms for testing emissions have proven inadequate, and allowed manufacturers to game – or directly cheat – the system. Outside the EU, we can do much better. We will be saying more when our Air Quality Plan is published later this month.

 

But farming is so much more than a business. 70% of our land is farmed – beautiful landscape in so many cases has not happened by accident but has been actively managed. The Lake District, which recently secured World Heritage Site status from UNESCO, is both a breath-taking natural landscape but also a home to upland farmers whose work keeps those lakes and hills as Wordsworth saw them, to the delight of millions of visitors.

Support for farmers in areas like the Lake District, upland Wales or the Scottish borders is critical to keeping our countryside healthy. Indeed, whether it’s hill farmers or island crofters, or those running small family farms in England and Northern Ireland, there is a need to ensure that the human ecology of rural areas is protected.

But while continued support is critically important, so is reform. And indeed I have been struck in the conversations I have had with organisations like the NFU, The Farmers Union of Wales and the CLA that it is farmers themselves who most want the CAP to change. I have particularly appreciated the open, constructive and imaginative engagement shown by the NFU’s passionate and energetic President Meurig Raymond.

 

‘And from all the conversations I have had so far I with farmers, land owners and managers I know there is a growing appetite for a new system of agricultural support which puts environmental protection and enhancement first. Our approach should be, in Byron’s words, to love not man the less but nature more.

That means support for woodland creation and tree planting as we seek to meet our aim of eleven million more trees. Because trees are not only a source of beauty and wonder, living evidence of our investment for future generations, they are also a carbon sink, a way to manage flood risk and a habitat for precious species.

We should also support those land owners and managers who cultivate and protect the range of habitats which will encourage biodiversity. Heathland and bog, meadow and marsh, estuaries and hedgerows alongside so many other landscapes need care and attention if they are to provide home to the growing diversity of animal and plant life we should wish to encourage. Doing this well depends on developing the skills and farming practices of land owners and managers. Understanding how to create and protect habitats should be as much a part of good farming as understanding the latest crop and soil science.’

 

But while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science. There will, of course, always be a need to make judgements about the best method of achieving environmental goals, in ways which improve rather than upend people’s lives. But it is only by adherence to scientific method, through recognising the vital importance of testing and re-testing hypotheses in the face of new evidence, through scrupulous adherence to empirical reasoning, that we can be certain our policies are the best contemporary answer to the eternal questions of how we live well and honour the world we have inherited and must pass on to our children.

 

Outside the European Union there is scope for Britain not just to set the very highest standards in marine conservation, but also to be a global leader in environmental policy across the board. Informed by rigorous scientific analysis, we can develop global gold standard policies on pesticides and chemicals, habitat management and biodiversity, animal welfare and biosecurity, soil protection and river management and so many other areas.

 

I have set out what I believe is a deliberately ambitious agenda today because I believe the times demand it. Leaving the EU gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform how we manage agriculture and fisheries, how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet. In short, it means a Green Brexit. When we speak as a Government of Global Britain it is not just as a leader in security or an advocate for trade that we should conceive of our global role but also a champion of sustainable development, an advocate for social justice, a leader in environmental science, a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital, an innovator in clean, green, growth and an upholder of the moral imperative to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it. That is my department’s driving ambition – it should be central to our national mission.

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41 Comments

  1. Random22 says:

    This is just the week for bad jokes from high offices, isn't it?

    I'll add this to the pile of things I'm not prepared to swallow at any price.

    If he's an environmentalist (half right, he's flipping mental) then my mini metro is Optimus Prime in disguise. I don't care how many fine words he throws around, some things are just unbelievable from the getgo and this is one of them.

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    • Tim Dixon says:

      What would you have preferred him to say?

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      • Random22 says:

        "I'm sorry, oh god, I'm sorry, I'm appalling, I'm so damn sorry, I'm retiring to a monastery to atone for my life under a vow of silence; and here are all the files which contain all the indictable offences my cabinet colleagues have committed. I had to lease a freight train to carry them all"

        That is what I'd prefer him to say.

        Frankly though he could just make the "waaah waaaaaaah" noise the teachers in Charlie Brown make when the speak, it isn't like he says anything worth believing.

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    • Ben Haworth says:

      Moan, moan can't yoiu give Gove the benefit of the doubt?

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  2. Jonathan Wallace says:

    Gove is one of the more complex characters in government who does seem prepared to bring a thoughtful approach to his briefs even if I wouldn't agree with his position on many things. I believe he can take credit for correcting some of Chris Graylings ham-fisted errors when he took over from him at Ministry of Justice.
    His words on the environment below certainly give cause for a degree of optimism - let's hope that his actions over the coming months and years (not too many I hope) match the rhetoric of this speech. He has, in the past, shown a tendency to 'know better' than experts in the field (ask teachers) so I hope that he will be prepared to listen - and not just to the NFU - as he grapples with determining how our countryside will be managed post Brexit.

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    • Tim Dixon says:

      I agree with you Jonathan - although I don't think that he has been listening to the NFU, whom I imagine are probably spitting tacks at the moment.

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  3. Dr m parry says:

    has he been struck by lightning or something?

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  4. Richard H says:

    Wow - good words indeed. Will be fascinating to see how this will be delivered in the wider context of cuts in public funding and de-regulation.

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  5. Rob Sheldon says:

    Cautiously optimistic, but let's what he actually does.
    At the last election manifesto commitments inspired by the Countryside Alliance back-fired on the current Government, let's hope that Mr Gove really is listening, and he's hearing the 8million voices that are members of NGOs (or whatever the figure is).
    And let's also hope that the NGOs start to properly mobilise and engage their memberships - not seen much sign of that yet.

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  6. John Cantelo says:

    Many, particularly on the right, think they know all about education because they experienced 'school' and so consider their insights as viable and worthwhile as educational experts. Gove's approach as Education Secretary was doctrinaire and deeply flawed as a result. Perhaps in his new post, he's more willing to listen to expert voices as he's less confident about his own knowledge and understanding. The evidence from this speech certainly indicates that he's been listening to the right people. However, he must be judged not on his honeyed words fresh in office but on his actions. A good start but let's see some 'follow through' before we pass judgement

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  7. Alf King says:

    Let's give him a chance, no matter what our fears. The words that he has uttered in this speech effectively provide something against which he will be measured and tested, and I don't think that he did that accidentally.

    Now let the wildlife bodies continue to challenge government wherever and whenever they fall short. Complacency on their part will not be acceptable.

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  8. Alan Bateman says:

    Gosh

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  9. Lyn Ebbs says:

    I am interested in the change of heart from his views on experts during the referendum to his current opinion: 'Informed by rigorous scientific analysis, we can develop global gold standard policies on pesticides and chemicals, habitat management and biodiversity, animal welfare and biosecurity, soil protection and river management and so many other areas.‘
    And does this mean abandoning the badger cull?

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  10. Richard Wilson says:

    Mark,

    These are indeed, fine, fine words. But that is just what they are - words.

    If Gove is indeed an environmentalist, who has had is Damascene moment, then I would expect the following to be undertaken in short order:

    1) reversion of Liz Truss' decision not to ban lead ammunition;
    2) open a consultation process on the published Wildlife Bill as presented on the Law Commission's website to take in to account Brexit with the clear intention of it being included in the next Queen's speech;
    3) pause the Badger cull; and
    4) re-evaluate Natural England's purpose, objectives, priorities and funding and make it a science-based organisation and remove any requirement relating to financial economics from its advice.

    I'll be amazed if he did any of the above - Nos. 1 and 3 would be easy; No. 2 would add meat to the bones of his speech; and No. 4 would provide financial clout to his words.

    In my view, he is a politician who plays to his audience. Words are to him, as permanent as a light rain shower on a summer's day. It may well have been the best speech given by the SoS for the Environment since 2010; but I have no confidence that it'll be anything other than that.

    Richard

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    • Greenfly says:

      Spot on. Gove's words are great and I really want to believe he means them...but I can't help remembering Cameron's promise to have the 'greenest government ever' and what a shocking lie that turned out to be. I'm afraid I think he's trying to lull us all into a false sense of security...we need to keep a very close eye on his actions.

      Richard's list of actions are great. I'd add another- keep the Birds and Habitats Directives and install a mechanism to ensure that governments stick to them (to replace the current ability to take the government to the European Court). I believe he did refer to this in his speech - but will he really do it?

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      • Roger Weeks says:

        One giant step would be to give Natural England the same brief as English Nature and return their autonomy, with independence from Government interference.

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  11. circus maxima says:

    He might be on the road to Damascus on paper..... But he has never talked about wanting to get there before! Indeed he has consistently shouted that the environment was a problem. I will wait to judge his actions........

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    • Keith Dancey says:

      I do believe it was Cameron and Osbourne who claimed environmental consideration was a bar to economic progress, not Gove.

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  12. peakaboo says:

    Here are tow things I know to be true:
    1. I really have a strong dislike of Michael Gove
    2. Unlike his predecessors he is a politician who likes to make his mark, and to effect change. I don't agree with many of the changes he made whilst education sec, but he made them.

    Liz Truss and O-patz both seemed happy to not rock the boat when it came to vested interests. Gove's rhetoric is different.

    The proof, as they say, is in the pudding!

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  13. Douglas Mcfarlane says:

    It's a smoke screen to silence his critics.
    As education secretary he tried banning climate change from geography lessons and removing it from the curriculum, thanks to Ed Dave's protests he backed
    According to Ed Davey he played up to climate change deniars in the cabinet and stopped Amber Rudd from going to what was the ground works of the Paris accord, does it not worry anyone that the CLA are fully backing him on proposed changes?
    Still its one way of keeping people silent

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  14. James Hogg says:

    Rather interesting and shows some promise. Cynically, there is something for everyone in the speech and more or less keeps everyone happy. Also a chance for a quick dig at the EU. Interesting to note the praise for the EU regards pesticides whereas the UK has often been against tighter regs.

    However, most things related to Brexit and the aftermath have proven more complicated than at first appearances. The future of farming, the countryside and conservation will largely depend on the national budget. Any new tariffs / trade arrangements will affect the profitability of farming and we might see a lot of changes. I think it will be those arrangements that dictate what will be possible, and we won't know those for some time.

    So possible all a bit premature and still a lot of uncertainty on the horizon. I expect quite a lot to be rolled back on as the reality bites.

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  15. Paul Fisher says:

    Putting my natural and usual scepticism aside, it is an amazing speech.
    It's also a huge bag of sticks with which to beat him later.
    In quoting Philip Larkin and Jared Diamond he is telling us that he recognises the mistakes of the past. This is the theme all through the speech.
    How can anyone make such a powerful speech without meaning at least some of it?
    Well, we will see.
    I have printed off the speech to refer to in the future. I am sure all the CEOs of our NGOs will do the same. After a speech such as that, he will be watched more carefully than any before him.
    Time will tell.
    If he finds a way, an incentive, to reduce litter, to increase R & D in green technologies, to protect land and marine environments and to support the people who look after our land and not just the landed gentry, he will truly be a man my son.

    But it's a very big IF.

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  16. Ralph says:

    hmmm...anyone remember vote "blue to go green".

    Good words but I trust Gove and the tories even less far than i could throw them.

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  17. Filbert Cobb says:

    He has filched so many points from the Brownies that Mrs May will be spitting feathers

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  18. Keith Dancey says:

    This is truly astonishing. Gove is certainly 'talking the talk', we must HELP him 'walk the walk'.

    Likes(3)Dislikes(1)
    • Messi says:

      He does have form: only a few months ago he was claiming that the Nature Directives were somehow scuppering house building in the Surrey Heaths and that they need to be substantially reformed. The fact is that house building here is going ahead but the Directives have caused decent mitigation to be put in place so the heaths aren't harmed.

      An intelligent person can work out the facts; an intelligent person who's also a politician can twist the facts.

      Let's not mention the various Brexit assertions he made.

      I agree he's certainly talked the talk: let's see if he's able to walk the walk and, if he delivers, he'll be applauded.

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  19. Ed Hutchings says:

    Promising words. Let's see it put into action. The Tories don't have form here.

    He clearly hasn't read George Monbiot's articles on the Lake District.

    Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
    • Mark says:

      Ed - but he has read the same bits of Byron that has George

      There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
      There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
      There is society, where none intrudes,
      By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
      I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
      From these our interviews, in which I steal
      From all I may be, or have been before,
      To mingle with the Universe, and feel
      What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

      Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
      • Martin WW says:

        Tory environmental policy has been more akin to 'Darkness' by Byron (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43825/darkness-56d222aeeee1b) than anything else. I'll be amazed (and more than pleasantly surprised) if anything major actually changes.

        This IS Gove we are talking about here. He represents a 'party' that has for a long time said one thing and done very much another.

        Please please let me be wrong........

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  20. Mairi says:

    I don't know if he has written this himself, or if a 'secretary' or such-like would have written it. I think it makes a difference.
    In the paragraph re Environmental Organisations "Their campaigning energy and idealism, while occasionally uncomfortable for those of us in power, who have to live in a world of compromise and deal-making, is vital to ensuring we continue to make progress in protecting and enhancing our environment" - the words 'compromise and deal-making', whilst true, are perhaps, the nub of the matter.

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    • Mark says:

      Mairi - I don't know either - but I'd be pretty sure that the Sec of State had a very big input since it really doesn't read/sound like a standard speech written by a civil servant. The literary allusions, the political history and many other touches sound just like Gove to me. Let's put it another way - Liz Truss world not and could not have given this speech.

      Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
  21. tim says:

    Mark described Gove as a consumate politician. That, I think, means he speaks to an audience, but provides neither tools nor accountability to pin him down. What Gove has done is a high level speech: mechanisms, timescales and cash are missing. Oh, there is always that £380,000,000 per week/day/month or whatever, he can use to underpin the case. Or, was that, like the speech, the imagination of a consumate politician speaking to a target audience?

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  22. Mike says:

    Ok, so he Talks the Talk, let's see if he Walks the Walk. I'll make my judgement on deeds and actions not merely on an ability to deliver a speech well targeted to an audience.

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  23. Mike Potter says:

    I've been heavily involved for 10 years with the practical issues of flooding, land drainage, land management, Natural Flood Management, climate change, fracking etc (and the academics, studies and environmental issues involved). Consequently, my cynicism has massively increased over that time. I have dispaired at the line of previous Tory Environment SoS's and both continued and increased my dispair at the news of Mr Gove's appointment. That said, I could barely have asked for a more promising and heartening speech and even with considerable experience, haven't yet managed to pick out the weasel words and half truths. I often say that any number of fine words, consultations, plans, inquries etc will achieve absolutely nothing without DELIVERY, so he must walk the walk. However, by talking the talk, he has given us plenty to hold his toes to the fire with.

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  24. Roger Weeks says:

    A silver tongue will always impress and Mr Gove is a past master. Words are not enough, its actions that are so badly needed. Badgers are once more to face their annual rolled out slaughter of thousands of their number, in spite of scientific opposition and questioned efficacy. With humaneness thrown to the wind along with much of its regulations, while it clearly isn’t working as disease control. Mr Gove was minded to investigate but after meeting the NFU it was business as usual within days.
    Whilst an environmental threat by Government within his area of responsibility, so heinous as to destroy whole swaths of English countryside, rendering it uninhabitable for wildlife and useless for food production, is about to befall. All thrust on the unwilling and unsuspecting public whilst our diminishing police force acts as its facilitators and protectors. I refer of course to fracking, with even our most precious of places under threat.
    Then there is our vulnerability to the agro chemical companies. After BREXIT will Mr Gove stand robustly against their economic might when he apparently yields so easily to that of the NFU over the culling of Badgers or will we be swayed by his oratory skills making his apologies and excuses, so ably displayed on the Andrew Marr show over the bung to the DUP, where he almost had me believing it was for philanthropic reasons. Its sincerity of action we need, not silver tongued placatory statements.

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