UK Election Chaos Leaves Climate Opponent In Charge Of Environment

Michael Gove's appointment fits into a larger recent pattern of the British government not taking its climate responsibilities seriously

New environment secretary Michael Gove. — Getty Images
Jun 13, 2017 at 12:46 PM ET

In the wake of last week’s disastrous election result for her and her party, British Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed onetime rival Michael Gove to her cabinet as the new environment secretary. While the move is seen as a largely political maneuver to shore up May’s teetering position within the Conservative Party, Gove’s poor record on climate change has attracted fierce criticism from environmentalists and fellow politicians.

Gove is not a full-fledged climate denier like, say, EPA head Scott Pruitt. But he has consistently voted against most legislation intended to get businesses to cut carbon emissions or to take other concrete steps to mitigate the effects of global warming. A major advocate of Britain leaving the European Union, Gove made the opportunity to get rid of EU environmental regulations a key part of his pro-Brexit arguments. While serving as education secretary in 2013, Gove attempted to remove climate change as a required subject on the geography curriculum.

He was blocked in this effort by then energy and climate secretary Ed Davey, who has blasted this new appointment as environment secretary as being like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas has said it’s hard to think of many politicians less qualified to look after the environment than Gove. Greenpeace head Jon Sauven told The Guardian that Gove would have to move quickly to prove he’s better than his record suggests in dealing with air pollution, overfishing, and rising levels of plastic waste in the waters surrounding the UK.

Gove’s appointment fits into a larger recent pattern of the British government not taking its climate responsibilities seriously, at a time when the Trump administration’s outright climate denial means the rest of the world can ill-afford to slack off. In order to remain in power after losing her majority in the House of Commons, May has spent days negotiating a deal Northern Ireland’s far-right Democratic Unionist Party, of which several prominent members reject the scientific consensus on climate change and have praised President Donald Trump’s exit from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Naming Gove the environment secretary may have also added extra enticement for the DUP to ally with May’s government. And while the Conservative Party’s policy manifesto says the UK will be a global leader in fighting climate change, the Prime Minister faced her own round of criticism for not joining the leaders of France, Germany, and Italy in a joint declaration condemning Trump’s Paris decision.

None of these individual moves mean the United Kingdom is necessarily abandoning its climate policy in the way the United States is under Trump. But they all fit a pattern of May and the Conservative Party prioritizing short-term political expediency over more principled commitments. Moves like the Brexit vote and the planned DUP alliance have already threatened to destabilize the European Union and the still fragile peace in Northern Ireland. The fight against climate change could just be the next under threat.