CLA Director General, Sarah Hendry reflects on her experiences working in climate change and how recent public campaigning has renewed a public sense of urgency.
Just occasionally something makes you view things differently.
I used to be a climate change campaigner. In the sense that it was part of my job and I was licensed to persuade the world that tackling climate change, before it got to dangerous levels, should be the top global priority. Unusually for a civil service role, it was an exhilarating experience. In most areas of government, you are busy apologising for not doing enough, but on this we were genuinely world-leading. We had some success moving the UN negotiating process forward and I accepted a CBE on the strength of our results in 2006 before moving on to something less exhausting. No need to prove my climate change credentials after all that, surely?
Then along came the striking schoolchildren and Extinction Rebellion demanding immediate action. I thought the articulate young strikers were brilliant and I was envious – I’ve never been on a demo in my life! However, it was my reaction to the extinction rebels that made me stop and think how much I’ve changed. 15 years ago, my team and I would have cheered ourselves hoarse to have that momentum and media profile on our side. When the Extinction Rebellion protests were first announced I was thinking, “for goodness sake, this isn’t the way, it’s hopelessly impractical and it’s just turning people off climate change”.
However, I’ve just read Greta Thunberg’s speech to Parliament and it made me feel ashamed because she punctured all the reasonable arguments people like me shelter behind even though we believe climate change is an urgent issue, because it’s easier than sticking our necks out and getting emotional. For example, last week I met a strongly opinionated person and I ducked telling him to his face that in my view he was downright wrong in denying the majority scientific consensus on climate change and human activity’s role in it.
So, from now on, I’ve decided I’m going to be more courageous and champion the cause more openly. Which starts today with me urging CLA members to attend the CLA Climate Change Summit in London on 2 July. I would encourage you to join what promises to be a lively and stimulating debate.
I completely understand why many of our members find it hard to be told that the land management sector needs to get to net zero emissions uncomfortably fast when they see other, more visually polluting, sectors still churning out carbon. This is often coupled with an attack on livestock farming, which for many of those who keep livestock is a way of life.
Our task is to do what the CLA team is so good at – looking not only at the challenges, but also at the opportunities, while helping to foster a more forward-looking, can-do attitude from the wider sector which delivers for the public good, yet remains in our members’ longer-term interest.
It’s not an easy mission, but with half the rural land in England and Wales in our members’ hands, we’ve a huge responsibility to help them play their part in delivering solutions to the biggest environmental challenge of our time.
The CLA Climate Change Summit will be an ideal opportunity to kick-start this conversation.