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‘If You Ask People to Change their Minds Quickly, they Struggle with It’: Chris Packham on the Need for Political Parties to Step Up to Save Our Planet

Stuart Spray speaks to the activist and TV presenter, who has announced he is challenging the Prime Minister on the legality of abandoning key net zero commitments

Chris Packham outside Westminster. Photo: Stuart Spray

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Probably best known for presenting shows like The Really Wild Show in the 80s and 90s and the BBC’s SpringWatch, Chris Packham has been enthusing about wildlife on our TV screens for more than 30 years.  

In recent years, however, Packham has increasingly used his high-profile platform to raise awareness of animal welfare issues, bird of prey persecution, the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

In his latest Channel 4 documentary, Is it Time to Break the Law?,  he controversially explores the idea that mass civil disobedience could be the only way to save the planet. 

Byline Times caught up with Packham at the ‘Restore Nature Now’ rally outside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs offices in London, where he and 40 conservation charities had gathered to challenge the Government on its poor record of protecting the environment, following the publication of a damning report which concluded that the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth.

The presence of organisations not renowned for blocking roads – such as RSPB, The Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation and the Bat Conservation Trust – is a small but significant change of direction for the UK conservation movement, which boasts a combined membership of eight million potential voters. 

“What a thing we’ve done,” Packham declared to a cheering crowd. “We’ve come together as a community at last. Something that we needed to do for some considerable period of time. For those of you who have taken this first step, let me tell you now that you are activists. You’ve been scientists, you’ve been naturalists, you’ve been entomologists, I could run through all of the ‘ists’. But now you are activists. You have taken direct action. Look! you’ve blocked a street!”. 

Photo: Stuart Spray

Following the publication of the latest State of Nature report, how concerned are you about the ongoing decline in biodiversity in the UK? 

To précis the report in its simplest form, it tells us that the UK’s nature is in a terrible state. Sixteen per cent of our species are threatened with extinction. 

But what it also tells us is that we have the capacity to restore and recover that nature. Conservationists are proving that all the time that, where we focus our conservation endeavours, where we’ve got good funding, and we’ve got our skill and expertise being implemented, we can make a difference. 

The problem is we’re not doing it broadly enough. We’re not doing it rapidly enough, and we don’t have enough central support from Government. In fact, they’ve been cutting conservation spending effectively when it comes to departments like Defra and Natural England.

We need more meaningful, robust and resilient policies when it comes to recovering nature.  

What do think of the Government’s latest strategy for a compulsory 10% Biodiversity Net Gain for new developments? 

I’m not sure what to make of Biodiversity Net Gain, but then I can’t be, can I? Because it’s just been kicked down the street again for another six weeks at least. So we don’t know what’s going to come onto the table.

I’m a naturally sceptical person when it comes to these sorts of policies. We have a policy for net zero that’s being constantly eroded. Only last week, Mr Sunak stood up and said that they weren’t going to meet some of the targets when it came to vehicles and gas boilers. The same thing could happen to Biodiversity Net Gain. 

We conservationists know how to conserve wildlife. We know how we could, if we had more public funding, more support in farming, fishing and forestry, turn things around. That does mean public spending, but it means focusing that money in the right way, putting it into farming, fishing, and forestry practices which benefit nature.

My request is that that should be mandatory, not something which it is as at the moment voluntary, and sometimes very difficult as a farmer to implement.

What mark out of 10 would you give the Conservative Party for what it has achieved for the environment and biodiversity over the past couple of years?

Nought point one? I don’t know. It’s difficult to score that because we tend to focus on all the bad news and not the good news – and undoubtedly some good things have been happening.

When it comes to animal welfare, we lost the Kept Animals Bill, we lost foie gras and fur. And we are concerned about trophy hunting. We’ve had nutrient neutrality, we’ve had 100 new oil and gas licenses, and a coal mine sanctioned. They’re not scoring very highly are they? 

But what about the Labour Party? What are they actually offering in terms of opposition at the moment? Because there seems to quite a lot of ambiguity there.

As far as I understand it, they’re saying that, should they win the next election, they won’t grant any new oil and gas licenses, but they will honour those granted by this Government. But you and I know in the run into the election, it’s likely that they’ll grant  lots of licenses. So that really doesn’t help. I’d like to see a much stronger opposition, perhaps a clearer division between the parties.

But, ultimately, this isn’t about party-politics. This is about our future, the future of life on Earth. So I want all of the parties, whether it’s Labour, Conservative, SDP, SNP, all of them, to put something robust and meaningful in their manifestos so that, when we do get to that election, we have something to vote for. And what we know at this point in time, a recent poll has shown, that second only to the cost-of-living crisis, climate breakdown is at the top of everyone’s agenda.

We’re growing increasingly concerned. We’re watching it on our news. We’re watching the world flood and burn. People get displaced, people are starving, and we are genuinely concerned about our welfare and that of our children and grandchildren. So I think the next election will be quite unique. Perhaps for the first time in the UK, environmental issues will be near the top of the agenda.

So they ought to be listening to us, listening to the scientists, listening to the people, listening to the protestors, because ultimately they’re going to need our votes, if they want us to trust them to lead us to a healthier future.  

What advice would you give to a prospective MP in the run-up to the next general election?

If you are a prospective MSP or MP, and you’re ignoring this issue, you’re doing so at your peril – because, daily, concern is growing. It’s not that we don’t have the answers to start acting. If it were something which were entirely impossible, then there might be some sort of bizarre excuse to just run away from it. But that isn’t the case. 

We have the technologies, we have the answers, we have the people, we’ve got – if we invested in it – the infrastructure. We could be moving in the right direction today. So I would suggest to them that they give us an assurance that they will, if elected, move in that direction tomorrow.

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Just Stop Oil gets a lot of criticism for the disruption it causes the public by blocking roads. Do you think these tactics are working?

I support Just Stop Oil. When comes to social justice movements, you need a range of different methods and techniques – so you need a radical flank, you need people to really push the outside of the envelope and generate real noise.

And what we’ve got to make sure is that their stunts – if that’s what you like to call them – aren’t the media attention, but it’s the message that gets through. And their message is very clear, “just stop oil” and transition as rapidly as possible to renewables.  

To make it really clear, Just Stop Oil don’t want to turn off the tap tomorrow – it is about transition. But it’s very difficult to gather media space at the moment. There’s always some frippery taking place. I don’t know, Strictly Come Dancing, the World Cup, some such nonsense.

We are trying to keep the single most important issue of our species existence in the news. And if Just Stop Oil do that peacefully and without hurting anyone, then they’ll get my support. Because I need a platform to be able to tell you ‘no new oil and gas!’

The East African Crude Oil Pipeline Project (EACOP) is a 1,443 km pipeline that will transport oil produced from Uganda’s Lake Albert oilfields to the port of Tanga in Tanzania, where the oil will then be sold onwards to world markets. Do you have any advice for companies insuring and investing in this and similar projects?

At this point in time, there’s no ambiguity about the fact that fossil fuels should stay in the ground. That’s what all of our leading scientists are telling us. Here in the UK, that’s [the view of] our Climate Change Committee. Across the world, it’s the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Even the UN have stood up and said that to continue to exploit these [resources] is moral and economic madness. 

Investing in pipelines like this, which will be redundant at some point in the very near future, is a catastrophic waste of resources. It’s damaging to the environment and it’s damaging to people’s lives. It should not happen.  

And one of the ways to target that, is people who still think that it’s the right thing to do to invest in these projects. That’s the wrong thing to do. It’s investing in bad old business. Let’s get them to invest in bright new businesses, the businesses of renewable energies. 

We come to a point where, in life, we are much more careful when it comes to scrutinising the things that we do. I scrutinise where my energy comes from. I scrutinise where I bank.  I scrutinise what I buy when I go shopping for my food and I scrutinise my insurance companies.

I don’t want to invest in a company which is giving money to weapons, which is giving money to fossil fuels and the destruction of the environment. If you are an insurance company and you’re still making those investments, you will be found out and you will lose business. So now is the time to transition away from that and move into a fully sustainable but method of money management.

You and your family get an inordinate amount of abuse on social media. How do you cope with it? 

We get an enormous amount of pushback from some sections of the people that we are asking to change, and I understand that. The human species is a remarkable organism. But it’s not very good at changing its mind and therefore its practices – and if you ask people to change their minds quickly, they struggle with it. And some of them, a small percentage will lash out.

I’m a target for that lashing and so are my family. For me, it’s part of a process. I just have to get through it. I can’t stop doing what I’m doing.

I believe what I’m doing is right and I believe that I’m doing it for the right reasons. But I don’t pick fights because I think I can win them – I pick fights because I think they are the right fight to pick. And for me, winning is not giving up. It’s not about crossing the line, getting a cup, winning a medal. It’s about keeping going. 

So whatever they throw at me on social media with the right-wing press, I’m just going to keep going. That’s the only way I can win.

What are your plans for future campaigns? 

For the next year, we’ve all got to ramp up our campaigning. For me, that means using my imagination and coming up with creative ideas to get public attention for the issues that we want to talk about.  

So I will continue to support those who take peaceful, non-violent, direct action. But in terms of my own plans, I’m at the drawing board with my team and we’re constantly mulling over ideas of how we can come up with ways of getting media attention to get this message across.

One of the things that we will be doing is a series of ongoing campaigns asking all of our political parties to put robust and meaningful environmental policies in their manifestos. So that when it comes to the election, we can be assured that we avoid voting for the wrong people.

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