Brexit Puts A Cat Amongst the Green Pigeons

UPDATE 13 June 2016

On 1 June the RSPB and WWF announced that they had changed their position and would make it clear to their 1.7m members/ supporters that on the balance of evidence, it would be better for the UK to remain in the EU.  It seems that in the end, they decided to follow the ‘moral compass’ lead of the Wildlife Trusts (see blog below) and do what is right, even if it might upset some members.

Prime Minister David Cameron who supports staying in the EU, visited Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve near London on 3 June.  Mike Clark RSPB CEO said “we will not be telling anyone how to vote in the referendum. However, when considering the implications solely for wildlife and the environment, we have concluded that the safer option for nature is for the UK to remain a part of the European Union.”

Cameron said: “EU membership underpins many crucial environmental protections in the UK, while amplifying our voice in the world on vital issues like cutting global emissions”.  WWF and RSPB emphasised that this means support for the EU Birds Directive and Habitats Directive. While Cameron’s words fall short of an outright endorsement of EU green protections they probably indicate some sort of deal with RSPB and WWF to at least change the political mood music on environmental protection, and are in stark contrast with Chancellor George Osborne’s attack on green protections going back to 2012 when he stated  “wildlife protection rules were “placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.

The bad-mouthing of environmental protection by Cameron and Osborne has involved years of attacking rules as a burden to economic activity and ‘green crap‘ and is an evidence-free zone.  It has been purely political and doctrinaire, a combination of ideological commitment to less regulation such as the ‘Green Tape Challenge‘ which is  part of a ‘better’ (ie less) regulation initiative, and anti-green positioning designed to please right-wing potential UKIP supporters.   The government’s own evidence in fact showed social and economic net benefits of environmental regulation (£3 for each £1 invested) while it’s own case by case study of 26,500 land-use planning decisions found no economic obstacles to business in 99.5% of cases.  That review cited only one such example which was a wind farm refused planning permission on environmental grounds !

The RSPB-WWF announcement leaves the UK environmental movement united in endorsing the value of staying in the EU on conservation grounds, and if it helps a reorientation towards backing green regulations it will have given RSPB and WWF something to show for their efforts.   Presumably Cameron and Osborne did not anticipate that they might need the support of green groups to help swing the EU Referendum.  Whether this kiss-and-make-up comes too late to make much difference, remains to be seen.


My last blog ‘The Brexit Values Battle‘ showed how values differences are probably a very strong underlying driver of the UK debate over ‘Brexit’.  It now seems that this divide may be posing a dilemma for some the UK’s environmental NGOs, some of whom have a more values-mixed support base than others.

Broadly speaking, Pioneers and some (Now People) Prospectors will lean towards ‘Remain’ (stay in the EU) and the instinctive support for ‘Leave’ comes from the Settlers and ‘Golden Dreamer’ Prospectors, motivated mainly by a yearning to recover an old national identity.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have both come out strongly in favour of the UK remaining in Europe, because on balance, it seems highly likely that would be better for the environment in the UK and beyond.  Their support base is strongly Pioneer.  Sometimes this is a weakness in terms of gaining broad support (as Pioneers are only about 40% of the population) but it probably makes it much easier to declare a view.

Others such as the National Trust, RSPB, WWF and the Woodland Trust, have discovered that their members are split on the EU issue and some of them vehemently so.  Faced with what some fear could be a damaging divide, they have opted not just to stay out of the campaigning (which all these NGOs have) but not to express a view one way or the other.

This ostentatiously neutral position involves sitting somewhat uncomfortably on the fence because the overwhelming analytical evidence is that leaving the EU would be very high risk for the environment, on matters from nature protection to waste, climate and renewable energy, and pollution.

Of course the staff of these organisations are well aware of this.  There simply is no even half-serious case for thinking that the ‘leave’ option will be better for the environment. Many of its leading proponents are climate sceptic for example and some have shown a visceral dislike of all sorts of ‘greenery’.


soc env ends eu study

Last week the environmental professional’s intelligence magazine ENDS Report  (issue 495) published a hugely detailed poll (893 responses)  of its readers showing they were overwhelmingly (77%) in favour of ‘remain’.  It was commissioned with the Society for the Environment and can be downloaded here.  That poll shows that on measure after measure including non-environmental ones such as attitude to the honesty, efficiency and accountability of the EU, the professionals have a vastly more positive view than the wider public.  Values (a factor in intuitive decision making) will have played a part but direct experience, knowing what really happens through regular involvement, will be the main reason these environmental professionals are so pro-EU.

E4E logo

This is also why a bevy of ex-Chief Executives of environmental NGOs and other environmental luminaries came out as very pro-EU earlier this year in support of E4E, the non-charity campaign group ‘Environmentalists for the Europe’.  The Guardian reported:

Leaving the EU would be damaging for the UK’s environment and quality of life, a group of academics and former high-ranking government officials has said.

“The case is clear: we will be better able to protect the quality of Britain’s environment if we stay in Europe,” said the group, which includes past heads of the RSPB, the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Natural England, in a letter to the environment secretary, Liz Truss.

“Britain’s membership of the EU has had a hugely positive effect on the quality of Britain’s beaches, our water and rivers, our air and many of our rarest birds, plants and animals and their habitats,” the 13 experts wrote.

Of course this doesn’t much help those NGOs who face a dilemma.  Their supporters are vanishingly unlikely to read such material.  Instead they use values (how they feel) and ‘System 1’ heuristics or what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘a mechanism for jumping to conclusions’, to decide about Brexit.

This is why the green NGOs cannot be said to be ‘split’: none are in favour of a leave option.  The divide is between those who have weighed the evidence and shared their conclusions, and those who have the evidence but have chosen to remain silent about what they think.  This may be expedient but is it the right thing to do ?  It’s a dilemma NGOs can face on many different issues.

The Unexpected Case of the Badger That Spoke Out

WTrusts logo

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are campaign groups which are used to dealing with controversy on a daily basis but the same cannot be said of Britain’s Wildlife Trusts.  They are normally one of the quieter organisations with a much lower profile than say the RSPB or the National Trust.  Perhaps they had in mind Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows when they chose a badger for their logo, for that character says “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”

Yet this spring the Wildlife Trusts spoke out very clearly on whether or not it was best for Britain’s environment if we were to stay in the EU:

In accordance with its charitable objects “to promote the conservation and study of nature” and in keeping with Charity Commission guidelines, the UK Council of The Wildlife Trusts has considered how the outcome of this Referendum may affect nature and decided to make its conclusions publicly available …

The Wildlife Trusts believe that our wildlife and habitats will be better off if they continue to benefit from EU environmental legislation and a cross-Europe framework for nature conservation. We have formed this view because of the positive impact they currently bring to the UK’s wildlife and the uncertainty of the alternatives

It hasn’t exactly been a silent spring on the topic for groups like the RSPB and WWF which have so far adopted the fence-sitting position but they have chosen not to reach a ‘view’ and instead to call for ‘more information’ from the Leave and Remain camps about what they would do for the environment.  To my mind, this is not really the issue.  Even if such information is as objective as independent studies, which seems unlikely, their followers and the wider public look to such NGOs as brand trusted to analyse the wealth of evidence that ordinary members of the public have neither the time nor capacity to do, and at least tell them whether they think that on the balance of evidence, it would be better to stay in or get out.

It’s one thing for groups like WWF and RSPB to say that they will not campaign on the EU question, or that it’s not their job to ‘tell people how to vote’ but to my mind it is their job to speak out on the evidence.  RSPB for instance has a pro-wind/ renewable energy policy although that was a divisive issue and UKIP for instance wants to bring back coal.

The strange thing is that the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF all quote extensively from the same study they jointly commissioned from the authoritative Institute for European Environmental Policy, as the basis of their current positions.  Anyone reading that very detailed report could be in no doubt as to what the evidence shows. For instance on p 48 it concludes:

Under Scenario 2 (entirely outside), most of environment legislation would no longer apply, and the UK would be free to relax and lower environmental standards, creating as a result a scenario with real and uncertain environmental and health risks

Several other expert analyses and Parliamentary studies reach similar conclusions.

The Known Knowns: Dirty Man of Europe

Donald Rumsfield was much pilloried for his inscrutable remarks about the ‘unknown unknowns’ in war scenarios (although he had a point) and nobody knows for sure what would actually happen to the environment in the event of Britain staying in or leaving, not least because that depends upon politicians.

What we do know for sure is Britain’s track record in the EU, which has all too often been one of trying to resist, stifle, ignore or opt out of progressive environmental policies, often while disingenously trying to hold the moral high ground by claiming to have a better idea.

This attitude and behaviour as much as it’s actual poor environmental performance was why in the 1980s it got the reputation as ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’.

dirty man of europe book

I wrote a book called The Dirty Man of Europe (Simon and Schuster), about it, published back in 1990. On page three it stated:

‘From entering the [European] Community in 1973 to the end of the 1980s, Britain was in increasingly frequent conflict with the European Commission and its European partners over the environment.  At the time of writing, for example, Britain faces the possibility of legal action by the European Court over the contamination of groundwater by pesticides and of drinking water by nitrates.

Without pressure from Europe, it is difficult to see how Britain would have made any environmental progress (possibly with the exception of curbing radioactive emissions) in the 1980s.  Britain had the legal and administrative machinery to require FGD on power stations but, before an EC Directive was drafted, showed no signs of using it; even small pilot schemes in the 1950s were shut down.  Left to its own devices, Britain would probably still be setting standards for fumes from diesel engines by running lorries past people sitting in deckchairs (the EC will instead require specific, measurable emission limits).’

[The deck chairs thing is not a joke].

The rest of the 320 pages explored the track record of the UK Government on the gamut of pollution issues in more exhaustive detail than I could be bothered with today.  It’s a ripping read and I thoroughly recommend it, especially the 34 pages of references.

All in all has anything really changed in the intervening decades ?  Not really.  On a long list of green issues from air pollution emissions to neonicotinoid pesticides, the UK has often been obstructive in the EU.

The basic problem is that Britain the nation has never been as ‘green’ as its NW European neighbours such as Germany and Denmark, and  to be so has been out of step with the mainstream in both the two main political parties, Labour and Conservative.  Of the two, the Tories have tended to be the worst but there’s little to chose between them.  Senior British politicians who really stand up for the environment have been the exception rather than the rule.

So the simple answer to the question, ‘would it be better or worse for our environment if Britain left the EU’, is easy to answer.   It would be worse because Britain would be left to its own devices.   Or rather England would, for both Scotland and Wales have started to become ‘more European’ in their attitudes to the environment, nature, pollution and so forth.  This is another big reason why sitting on the fence is on the issue not a very convincing position: to ignore the UK’s track record in Europe in the hope that Brexit would be accompanied by a Damscene conversion of green-haters into greenies also requires hiding your head in the sand at the same time.

The Cat Factor

So what’s kept some of the green pigeons sat on the fence ?  I fear it’s the cat factor.  All NGOs involved in seeking change have to triage opportunities and challenges when it comes to deciding whether to take risks or expend resources: things we don’t need to try and change, things we could change, things we couldn’t change if we tried.  Fair enough but sometimes you also have to do what is right, even if it looks very risky or hard to change.

Cats are an example.  Britain is known as a nation of pet lovers and many cat owners make little distinction between loving cats and loving other animals, eg birds.  This is may well be the reason why neither WWF and RSPB has to my knowledge ever done anything very proactive about the cat problem in the UK.

fat cat no bell

Domestic cats are non-native introduced species. Evidence from a Mammal Society study found:

‘the British population of approximately 9 million cats was estimated to have brought home in the order of 92 (85-100) million prey items in the period of this survey, including 57 (52-63) million mammals, 27 (25-29) million birds and 5 (4-6) million reptiles and amphibians’.  

Brought home dead of course.  By any standards that’s quite a lot.  And that’s without any they snacked on while away from home.  Plus they are also progressively wiping out the native Wildcat as a genetically distinct species by inter-breeding.

The obvious question for any NGO, is ‘what would our members think ?’ if we launched a campaign about cats.  The shortcut way to answer this is simply to ask ‘how many of our supporters have cats ?’ – answer quite enough not to want to go there.

This goes some way to explain why our woodland nature reseves are studded with high seats from which to cull introduced Muntjac deer, large sums are invested in anti-grey Squirrel campaigns in favour of native reds, extinction programmes are set up to eliminate introduced American crayfish from water catchments, and we have traps for Mink but cat flaps for cats.  The cat evidence is essentially ignored.

[The RSPB cites the above study and says there is no evidence that cats are causing declines in bird species that do not often come across cats.  The Society also argues that cats often take young birds (amongst which there is high mortality anyway) or sickly ones but that’s true of many predators.    It does sell cat deterrents for gardeners (‘what you can do to help’).  I find it unconvincing that so many cats killing so many birds and animals in effect, has no effect.  Lack of studies rather than lack of impact probably best supports such a conclusion.]

fat cat bell

Putting a bell on a cat is said to reduce bird kill per cat by about 30%.  Not having a cat cuts it by 100%

Setting aside my personal enthusiasm for a well-structured campaign to start reigning in cats, I think it would be entirely understandable if the green groups sitting on the fence are concerned that they might lose some support, maybe legacies and donations, if they were to inflame pro-Brexit members by going public with their analysis of the evidence on the Leave or Remain question.  But this is a much more important issue, with a huge amount evidence, than even the cat problem.  And in most such cases what feels like a torrent of complaints often turns out to be a trickle of desertions so long as your actions are based on your values and mission (see below).

In the Final Analysis

This is one of those questions where what you decide to do, depends on how you decide.  All ’cause’ organisations need two ways of deciding: by strategy (what’s effective) and by morals or ethics (what’s right).

chart graphic

What’s the best route to take ?

Making strategy is like making and using a map to chart the best route to your objective, preferably along a Critical Path.

Ideally what’s effective coincides with what’s right but sometimes, due to lack of certainty or information or extreme urgency or importance, you have to do what’s right, even if you don’t know it will be effective.  Then you need a compass, an ethical or moral guide that simply says ‘this is the right way to go’.

 compass graphic

Which is the right way to go ?

There is no doubt that the EU in/out question is an almighty mess and divisive, even in families (eg Boris Johnson, an outer, versus both his brother a pro-EU Minister and his dad Stanley who is an in-er and a founder of E4E).  And it’s ironic that the Remain camp of the Government now wants NGOs to speak out in favour of staying in but has frightened the life out of them by a campaign of vilification against charities (in order, it’s rumoured, to reduce any influence they have at the next election) and a lot of restrictive new rules.

But whatever the result of the Referendum, environmental NGOs are going to have to live with the politicians now taking sides.  All of them have had run in’s with government before: taking them to Judicial Review for example.  It’s also true there are a lot of instinctive pro and anti Europeans in the UK, and the latter are a lot crosser about the whole thing but there are also a lot of undecideds.   And although whatever green groups say is not in itself going to decide the issue one way or the other, if organisations which exist to pursue a cause and which want evidence based policy from governments, do not themselves weigh up the evidence and at least share the result, that is not a good thing.

WWF, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have asked the Leave and Remain campaigns to say what they will do for the environment, so there is still time for them all to arrive at a considered view on whether the evidence shows in or out looks better, in the coming weeks.  I hope they do.

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One Response to Brexit Puts A Cat Amongst the Green Pigeons

  1. Phillippa Dutton says:

    If we have weak policies on environmental issues then we need to be held to account by the rest of Europe. If by some miracle we started to lead the way environmentally then we need to be in a position where we could influence the rest of Europe. Either way working with Europe is far better for the environment, it can’t be tackled by countries working alone.
    RSPB may not want to appear to be political but it’s not a political stance it’s practical. Big problems can only be tackled through cooperation.

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