Interview: Stephen Hale

Stephen Hale
Stephen Hale

With Copenhagen looming large, Stephen Hale, director of influential environmental think tank Green Alliance, has become something of a 'peacemaker' between politicians, big business and the voluntary sector. How does he think the UK can save the world from climate change?

By Liz Stephens

Although there's no doubting his passion for the cause of climate change, Stephen Hale is, above all, a pragmatist. One of the big accusations against environmentalists is that, much like the left wing in the 1980's, they tend to get bogged down in the details, leading to division and inertia. Hale is almost the 'politician's environmentalist' - a man who sees the bigger picture, and more importantly, can sell it.

As third sector chair of the ministerial task force on climate change, the environment and sustainable development, Hale's solution to the fractured nature of the voluntary sector is not to conquer but to unite.

"The challenge of NGO's is not about building one 'super tanker'," he says. The voluntary sector is very diverse. We need to create a 'flotilla'. Climate change is not a problems we should be seeking to 'own' - it's a problem we should be seeking to 'share'."

He once said: "Climate change is too big an issue to be left to the environmentalists." This bold statement, which may at first seem like a slight against the environmental lobby, is just another example of Hale'k s philosophy of inclusiveness. He sees climate change not as an environmental issue but rather as an over-arching problem which is both social, economic and political. In other words - it's everyone's problem.

"It is so important to highlight that climate change is an economic issue, not just an environmental one. That's what Stern tried to do and I think that's how we will reach the most people," he goes on.

He is positive about environmental groups such as Climate Camp: "They are putting the issues on the front pages and that will put the debate on the table." But he is cautious that groups which advocate direct action can sometimes put off politicians. "I think there are people we need to bring on board who wont be persuaded by their actions but that's fine."

To Hale, all are welcome in the fight against climate change. Although he stops short of Machiavelli's 'means justify the ends' philosophy, there are times when his viewpoint could best be summed up in the lyrics of the Oleta Adams song 'I don't care how you get here just get here if you can'.

"Different people will engage for different reasons - some will engage with climate change for employment, some want better public transport - and that's fine. Motivations are less important than engaging people and creating solutions."

This doesn't always play well with the environmental lobby and many environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth are angry about Green Alliance's support of controversial climate change solutions such as carbon trading (where companies can buy and sell carbon), which they view as a 'cop out'.

Undeterred by criticism, Hale continues to facilitate dialogue between the politicians and environmental groups to reach a consensus. In September, Green Alliance are even running a day long dialogue event on carbon capture and storage which will bring together sworn enemies Greenpeace and E.ON under one roof. The scale and determination of his peacemaking is impressive.

Hale is extremely well placed to unite the voluntary sector with politicians. Prior to becoming director of Green Alliance, he worked as an adviser to the Labour government for several years and before that he chaired Sera, Labour's environmental campaign group. However, do his past links with the Labour party place Green Alliance's independent think tank status in jeopardy?

"Relationships ebb and flow in all walks of life. All think tanks have different relationships with different parties. I left the government because I wanted to speak out and get what we need. We work with all political parties in public and private. Like everyone else we are looking at the issues that would be attractive to a different government."

Hale sees politics as the "biggest strategic challenge" for climate change. So what are his solutions?

"Politicians need to earn trust and they do so by acting in a consistent way and keeping on message. You can't say yes to Climate Change and to Heathrow - you have to have a consistent message. Politicians need to lead by example and if they fail that erodes their credibility and that's something the next government has to crack.

"One big problem is that there is limited power in national governments. The EU is central - from an economic perspective, the larger the market, the more possible to share. Politically it's important not to be unilateral."

Perhaps the biggest question is, how does the Green Alliance hope to secure government funding for developing a sustainable economy when the deficit is so high and public services will see unprecedented swingeing cuts in the next decade?

"We will be unashamed of making the positive case for spending on climate change. It requires a big increase on spending. We need to support developing countries more too. We need to think of more imaginative ways for developing countries to make money to invest in climate change. For example, we own quite a few banks at the moment - we could use that to our advantage.

"Politicians need to back targets with spending both at home and internationally after the Copenhagen summit. It's the action that people taken when they get back that will make the difference."

One thing is for sure, Hale will be ready and waiting to hold the politicians to their promises when they return from Copenhagen.

Stephen Hale is currently working on a pamphlet for politicians for Copenhagen. Green Alliance are publishing a joint manifesto on climate change and environmental issues with the Green Standard Coalition before the party conferences in September. The third sector group of the ministerial task force on climate change, the environment and sustainable development is due to publish a set of recommendations for the government in November


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.