A former top civil servant just broke rank to shame the government over climate change

Ashton May Climate Change fracking
Steve Topple

A former senior climate change official in the Coalition government has broken rank over fracking. He didn’t mince his words, accusing the government of wanting to ‘have its cake and eat it’ when it came to climate change and the fracking industry.

“Choices inflicted upon us”

John Ashton CBE was a diplomat for decades, most recently being the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s special representative on climate change until 2012. But speaking at an anti-fracking ‘vigil’ on Monday 26 February in Lancashire, he made overarching criticisms of both the Conservative government and oil and gas companies, in relation to fracking.

Ashton said that demonstrations and vigils held by residents at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site were to “defend our country”. This is because, Ashton said, it is about asking ourselves:

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Do we want to live in this troubled, divided country? Do we want a country where the choices that are made are choices that are made with us? Or choices that are inflicted upon us?

And the struggle over fracking is the struggle about whether we do politics with us, or politics that gets done to us.

“Bigger lies”

He went on to accuse the government and fracking companies of peddling “lies” about the industry, its affect on the environment, and the people who object to it. But he also took direct aim at the government, saying:

Then there are the bigger lies… They said ‘we can be in favour of fixing the climate, and we can be in favour of fracking at the same time!’ Well, listen. For six years, I was Her Majesty’s special envoy on climate change… The one thing I do know something about is climate change. Take it from me: you can be in favour of fracking, or you can be in favour of doing something about climate change. But you certainty can’t be in favour of doing both at the same time.

We’re hearing a lot about people who want to ‘have their cake and eat it’… That is ‘have your cake and eat it’, it really is.

Fracking in Lancashire

Preston New Road, near the village of Little Plumpton, is at the centre of a row over fracking. Cuadrilla has permission to frack the site. But local people are against the company’s plans. And they have stepped up their protests since January 2017.

The government gave the go-ahead for Cuadrilla to frack there – reportedly the first site of its kind in the UK – in 2016. The company officially began work on 5 January last year. Ever since, protesters have been at the site.

A controversial decision

The government’s decision to let Cuadrilla frack has been controversial. Lancashire County Council originally refused the company’s application to frack the site. Then, communities secretary Sajid Javid stepped in back in October 2016 and gave the company permission. And since Javid’s decision, Cuadrilla has been dogged by numerous scandals. These include:

  • Campaigners and local councillors accusing police and private security at the site of “disproportionate force” and trying to “provoke violence”; something both groups deny.
  • Political interventions from shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and from Green Party co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley. Police at one point “dragged” Bartley away from the site.
  • The Environment Agency altering the terms of the company’s licence. Friends of the Earth branded the decision a green light for Cuadrilla to “intensify” fracking at the site.
  • Accusations by campaigners of attempts to “sway” a council planning vote on the site in its favour; something Cuadrilla denied.

Are the Tories for turning?

Campaigners’ concerns about fracking are over-arching. They range from polluted drinking water and earthquakes, to its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. But the intervention of a former diplomat with such an illustrious career should not be understated. Ashton believes, with a hint of sarcasm, that:

It’s even clear that our great Conservative Party in this country is starting to feel embarrassed about the support that they have hitherto given this industry, and they probably wish they hadn’t given it so much support… I don’t think the Conservative Party is going to be with this industry for very much longer.

If Ashton is right, and campaigners keep up the pressure, we could very soon witness one of the greatest victories for the environment and the public that we’ve seen for a very long time.

Watch Ashton’s full speech:

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Featured image Chatham House/Wikimedia and Estonian Presidency/Flickr

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