Who should take responsibility for the climate epidemic in Kent?

Sam Honey

In 2019 alone, we have seen fires tear through the heart of the Amazon rainforest completely destroying habitats and causing wildlife to flea and perish, flooding on mass scales ripping apart ecosystems, and countless other disasters that have scarred and wounded mother nature, worse than ever before. So, whose hands hold the future of our planet’s health, who do we turn to?

Children are the future. This is one of the phrases I've heard most throughout my life, spoken from the mouths of politicians, teachers, parents and pretty much anyone in between. So, what does it mean when these children are leaving their schools to protest, raise their voices and demand a change be made to save our planet; yet still no one listens?

“Just look at Greta Thunberg, it took one little girl to stand up and face the world, to point the finger at those who, when you really look at it, are accountable for this stuff, and it got the world talking, it’s incredible and sad at the same time.”

Kristina Atkins- Environmental activist

Growing up, I was always taught to be environmentally conscious. You must recycle like this, you should never litter, respect the environment. It was drilled into me from a very young age. One year at school we even planted trees and another I was nominated Eco-guardian for the class. At my school every class had one, and it was their job to help make their class more environmentally aware, I remember feeling so honoured to have that job.

My school was very focused on this kind of thing, and I know a lot of others in the area were too, seeing as we were in quite a rural area surrounded by woodland. As a child I assumed this kind of thing was going on all over the country, so it came as quite a surprise as I grew older and saw just how poorly our planet was being treated. I didn’t understand how this could have happened and more importantly, why no one seemed to care. After growing up with such a focus on the natural world and taught to be so conscious about keeping the world clean, growing up to see the harsh reality of how the planet was being treated was devastating.

Environmental awareness is an issue that the world as a whole is currently facing, with more and more evidence arising on a daily basis showing that the Earth is currently going through a very dramatic change in its climate. Temperatures are continuing to rise on a global scale year to year, the average wildlife populations have declined by 60% in 40 years and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest that it has been in 3 million years.

Air pollution continues to harm our planet every day.

The effects of this change will be felt the world over, on national and local scales, and the UK is no exception to this. The UK experienced its highest ever recorded temperature this summer of 38.7°C. The summer of 2018 was the hottest summer recorded since 2006, and on February 26 of this year (2019), a record-breaking temperature of 21.2°C was recorded, the warmest winter date in UK history ever seen.

On a more local scale, Kent is also very clearly seeing the effects of climate change. Current projections show that winters temperatures in Kent could rise as high as 2.8°C by 2050, and summer temperatures could raise by 3.7°C whilst rainfall during this time could fall by 19%. The Sheerness area is in need of emergency planning following projections of sea level rise that place great threat to the area, current estimations state that by 2100 the mean sea level in Sheppey is expected to be 39-49cm higher than the recorded levels in 1900.

With such drastic changes happening on such a local level, the question is raised as to what is being done within Kent to raise the issue of environmental awareness and to combat the negative effects of our change in climate. Many different organisations, both independent and government, have differing attitudes towards the concerns regarding the local environment and what actions need to be taken into effect in order to address various issues that are present across Kent.

I spoke to Paul Hadaaway, the director of conservation for the Kent Wildlife trust, to find where the main issues lie in Kent and the steps that are being made to address key problems within the area.

“There are many problems facing Kent, but mainly the general pressures on the county through development, through climate resilience and through general loss of habitat and biodiversity. It needs a massive shift in policy on a governmental level and a shift in awareness at a community level. People need to understand the importance that the environment and the natural world plays in supporting the life support systems that we rely on. It’s about linking the importance of the environment with tackling climate change; we’ve lost contact with nature.

“Simply the government has not done enough, the environment has slid down the political agenda consistently over the last few government cycles, it’s not given the resources, it’s not given the importance it needs to have. The government absolutely needs to do more, at the minute we don’t get the awareness we need to get.”

This is the main point of conflict in the debate of climate change, with most people facing the blame toward the lack of intervention from the government.

“There was a draft environment bill that was going through parliament, but parliaments currently suspended so that’s not going anywhere at the moment.

“There were three key things within that bill we were calling for: very specific metrics around tackling climate change and environment improvements, the second was to have an independent body that would oversee that, which could hold the government to account for what they should be doing for the environment and third was to restore nature at scales, looking at a big landscape scale to reconnect habitats and to increase the biodiversity within those habitats. Those are the things that fundamentally we think need to change”

Independent activism continues to be a very popular method of broadcasting the voice of the people

'Change’, this is the word that has occurred the most across my investigation. It seems that enough people are acknowledging the need for a wide spread change, in fact this is the point that almost everyone is in agreement for, however, the issue is that not enough is being done to actually make a change.

This change can come from many different places from simple changes within a household, to a nationwide change from the government that changes how we as a country operate. The ongoing argument however, is which of these two takes a higher precedent when considering such a large issue such as this.

Government action is undeniably important when considering the environment, this again can be applied at a local and a national scale. The actions of local councils and the overall acting government both play a huge role regarding issues as large as the environment, from the introduction of new laws and regulations, to small scale improvements of the local environment, the actions of the official governing bodies will undeniably have a very significant impact on large scale issues such as the environment.

As made clear in the above interview, many feel that the government as a whole is not doing nearly, but what about on a more local scale?

Pat Marsh, the joint coordinator for the Canterbury District Green party, discusses the effectiveness of the local council within Canterbury regarding its own environmental issues.

“I think the council is guilty of a bit of green-washing, as far back as their discussion of their transport strategy, they talked a lot about modal shift. Although there were very fine words in that strategy, there was nothing about what the council needs to be doing and when. I think they’re very guilty, they declared a climate emergency on the 18th of July, which made us think they were now going to consider the environment in everything they do, but at the first hurdle they seem to have fallen.

“In August they brought out new plans to extend the park and ride in Wincheap so they have decided that the best plan is to extend the car park onto the water meadows which involves chopping down at least 100 trees and building on the water meadows. The meadows and the trees protect against flooding, which absorbs 67 times more than grasslands does, it’s a huge protective barrier that we have at the moment to fight flooding in the Wincheap area which will be gone.”

“I cannot imagine how you could possibly justify chopping down over a hundred trees when you’ve just declared a climate emergency, it just doesn’t make sense. It really just seems to be greenwashing and they're really not doing anything.”

This suggests that the issues that exist regarding the environment are not only being left to the way side by the main government it would appear, but also on more local levels, with local councils not following promises made regarding the environment.

It seems not only is little being done to help the cause against climate change, but in fact the decisions that are being made are actually worsening the situation. Marsh continues on to discuss how the existing issues in her area are in fact being made worse by the acting council.

“Air pollution is a very important issue in Canterbury, and now it’s being used to justify cutting down trees because the council says “we’re building this park and ride so that people don’t drive down Wincheap”, a very polluted area, and saying that if you want better air quality then you need a park and ride which isn’t justified. It’s actually been shown that park and rides actually increase traffic. So the air quality question is not solved by having a park and ride, it has to solved by all kinds of things like banning diesel cars which they are starting to do in Bristol whereas Canterbury doesn’t seem to be doing anything at the moment.”

With what appears to be little to no effective action being taken by the main government and acting local councils, many are turning to independent activism, an increasingly popular way of voicing the concerns and needs of the people.

This activism can come in many different forms however, from simple marches and protests, the likes of which have been seen recently across Kent in areas such as Maidstone, Canterbury and Medway as part of the Global Climate strike, to the more intense methods currently being adopted by the Extinction Rebellion group. Whilst these methods can be deemed rather extreme, the media attention that it has received demonstrates that these protests are working, generating much more attraction and discussion around the topic of environmental awareness.

I spoke to Kristina Atkins, a student at the University of Kent who actively participates in environmental activism within Kent and has attended several Extinction Rebellion rallies:

“These rallies are really so important right now. The government is all caught up trying to work out Brexit that it’s completely turned its back on the issues that really matter. Issues that don’t only have immediate impacts, but down the line are going to have a huge impact on our children and their children.

“Just look at Greta Thunberg, it took one little girl to stand up and face the world, to point the finger at those who, when you really look at it, are accountable for this stuff, and it got the world talking, it’s incredible and sad at the same time.

“It seemed after that the issues of climate change and the environment was back in conversation after really being put to the side for a while, but the fact that it had to come from such a young girl, who spoke with such anger and desperation, to get the right level of attention, it’s heart-breaking.”

The controversy and outcry that came as a result from Greta Thunberg’s speech earlier in the year marked one of the biggest turning points for environmental awareness in recent years, sparking a global conversation around the matter and attracting mass media attention. Is this what the cause needed?

“It’s all well and good us turning our lights off and recycling more, obviously that stuff is still contributing, but we need to point the finger at the people who aren't giving the money to help the planet. If we wanted to truly introduce renewable energy sources, clean up our cities and our oceans, and reduce the amount of the co2 emissions being produced, a much bigger change needs to be made and that can’t come from the people, that’s a government level change.

“That’s the point of all these marches and protests, we’re trying to grab the attention of the people who can really make the big changes, point the finger back at them and tell them, something needs to be done, and it needs to be done soon.

“It’s a shame that it’s had to come to this, that we’ve had to go to such extreme measures just to stress points that pretty much everyone is in agreement with, and that everyone acknowledges but no one’s doing enough to actually make a change, but if that’s what we have to do, then so be it.”

Many feel that this kind of activism is the way forward, seeing it as the only way to draw the attention of the government and push for that change that so desperately needs to happen.

Though, some argue that these more controversial methods of activism actually do more harm than good for the cause, whilst others think it is the only way to get the world governments and leaders to actually stop and listen to the voice of the people on behalf of the environment.

Martin Randall from the Kent Wildlife trust discusses the effectiveness of these kinds of protests and the methods that we can start to get people to change.

“I think they (Extinction Rebellion) are helpful for the cause. I think every organisation has to consider how it makes it’s point and I think there is a very careful balance to be struck, there is a time and a place for the sort of social disobedience side of things but I think there is also a need to maintain dialogue.

“There is clearly a passion there and an awakening of what people have felt for a long time which is desperately needed but every organisation needs to consider how it walks that line. You want to raise people’s awareness; you want to make sure people can see how important an issue is and sometimes the approach that extinction rebellion take is the most suitable.

“It’s more about how you help people to change how they live their lives and how businesses run to help achieve that sustainability. Awareness and social responsibility are a huge part of it, we’ve seen that with the Blue Planet bounce that threw the waste plastic in the ocean into people’s face and that created a ripple across the world and that’s brilliant. That sort of public information is needed, people will never change unless they know why and have to emotionally be brought into that change, that’s really important.”

The flag for the Extinction Rebellion, a symbol of the voice of the people

By opening up this kind of discussion, we start to understand the different perspectives in the debate surrounding the future of the environment. The concerns regarding climate change for the future are made very clear, particularly the types of change that need to be implemented in order to begin effectively protecting the environment and very strong sense of immediacy is being felt across the globe. Action needs to be taken, but it can be debated as to where the main change needs to be made, within the acting government and councils or within the homes of the general population.

But, are the government and acting councils solely to blame in this instance? There are many factors the go into governmental decisions, especially regarding issues as large as the environment, questions of resources and funding. Again, this leads us to raise the question, where does the main catalyst for true environmental awareness lie?

I spoke to Sian Pettman, a Canterbury based environmental campaigner to understand her perspective on the role that our local councils have in the battle against climate change.

“Canterbury City Council and Kent County Council have many excellent policies on the environmental front, but lack the resources to implement them properly. There are also many active community groups in Canterbury who are trying to promote greater environmental awareness, but their capacity to do so is limited by the fact that they are operating at a volunteer level.

“Some of the councils' plans and polices also have perverse side-effects, like the plan to extend the Wincheap Park & Ride onto the Stour Valley floodplain. The merit of the expansion is that it should help to reduce congestion and air pollution, in the Wincheap area of Canterbury. The demerit of the plan is that it will destroy a functional floodplain in an Area of High Landscape Value, a Green Corridor and a Local Wildlife Site. In other words, the price that is being paid for environmental progress in one area is environmental destruction in another.

“As local councils are being starved of funds by central government, many of them are seeking to sell off or develop what they perceive as 'unproductive green space'. This is resulting in numerous battles right across the country between local communities seeking to protect local green spaces and councils seeking to make money out of them.

“Given the difficult trade-offs which will inevitably be made in the pursuit of different environmental goals, I think that it is very important that the public is involved in a meaningful way in the very early stages of policy development by the council so that they can help to shape and inform the debate.”

Perhaps it can be argued that there is not one group to blame, that a balance needs to be struck between our governing bodies and the general population in order to push us onto the right path, but there needs to a catalyst from somewhere to spark this change.

There are clearly many differing perspectives and points that need to be considered when looking at the issue of climate change both on a local and national scale. Right now however, the main point that can be drawn is that not enough is being done on any level to actively fight against the current rising environmental pressures.

Whose fault this is however is an issue that still does not have a definitive answer. Change needs to be made from several different places in order to push society into a more environmentally conscious state, and in order for this to happen, differing degrees of change need to come from all areas of society, from nationwide government action to simple changes within households across the UK.

The planet is in danger, that is the main argument being drawn and voiced from many directions, but it can be combatted, a change just needs to occur, and soon. Mother Nature can be saved, we just have to fight for her.