Obama and Cameron – who is the greenest of them all?

Friday 27th June 2014

This week Barack Obama stepped up and showed powerful leadership on the issue of pollinator declines. While the draft National Pollinator Strategy is shaping up to be a useful focus for developing action to save our disappearing pollinator populations Barack Obama’s intervention and commitment to tackle this key issue for food security and the health of the environment puts our under-resourced efforts in the shade.  Barack has grabbed the issue of bee decline by the antennae and instigated a high level – cross government approach – this is what we need in the UK.  It’s about time that David Cameron showed leadership on green issues such as this.

Last week Barack Obama put out a powerful Presidential memorandum on pollinators in which he sets out a comprehensive and high level agenda for saving America’s bees, butterflies and other pollinating bugs. It is a fantastic example of statesmanship and leadership and to those of us who have been working to raise the issue of pollinator decline up the political agenda for many years it provides an inspiration and intense sense of hope.  I will come back to the lessons for pollinator action in the UK later, but first here are some highlights from the memorandum.

The memorandum starts by setting out the problem to be addressed:-

“Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.”

“Pollinator losses have been severe.  Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels.”

Barack Obama then moves on to set out how he expects this to be achieved, including:-

“by the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I hereby direct the following:

Establishing the Pollinator Health Task Force. There is hereby established the Pollinator Health Task Force (Task Force), to be co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to the Co-Chairs, the Task Force shall also include the heads, or their designated representatives, from:

(a) the Department of State;

(b) the Department of Defense;

(c) the Department of the Interior;

(d) the Department of Housing and Urban Development;

(e) the Department of Transportation;

(f) the Department of Energy;

(g) the Department of Education;

(h) the Council on Environmental Quality;

(i) the Domestic Policy Council;

(j) the General Services Administration;

(k) the National Science Foundation;

(l) the National Security Council Staff;

(m) the Office of Management and Budget;

(n) the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and

(o) such executive departments, agencies, and offices as the Co-Chairs may designate.”

“Within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, the Task Force shall develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy (Strategy), which shall include explicit goals, milestones, and metrics to measure progress.”

“Task Force member agencies shall develop and provide to the Task Force plans to enhance pollinator habitat, and subsequently implement, as appropriate”

“Task Force member agencies shall incorporate pollinator health as a component of all future restoration and reclamation projects”

“Future landscaping projects at all Federal facilities shall, to the maximum extent appropriate, use plants beneficial to pollinators.”

“It shall also include recommendations for a coordinated public education campaign aimed at individuals, corporations, small businesses, schools, libraries, and museums.”

“The Department of Agriculture shall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, substantially increase both the acreage and forage value of pollinator habitat in the Department’s conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, and provide technical assistance”

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on bee and other pollinator health and take action, as appropriate, to protect pollinators” Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) (c) Steven Falk

In addition Barack Obama has asked for a budget of $50 million to implement the strategy, of course in the American system this is the potential sticking point as the budget is signed off by the House of Representatives who have the ability to reduce or refuse the request.  Therefore while the memorandum sounds grand and many of the federal agencies and department will act on elements and progress them, reversing the decline in American pollinators is still pending further political decisions.

Obama is President until 2017, his first term of presidency was criticised for a lack of environmental content, particularly as it had been a prominent part of his election campaign; he seems to be taking a much stronger stance in his second term.  Climate change has risen up the agenda with new rules proposed this month to set limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that new and existing power plants can emit, a measure that should reduce CO2 pollution significantly. In the same month he has announced plans to use his executive authority to establish a huge marine nature reserve in the Pacific, to protect 782,000 square miles of marine wildlife from fishing, energy exploitation and other damaging activities. Now with this memorandum on pollinators he has set a clear intention to be the ‘Greenest President Ever’.

In contrast David Cameron’s first term runs until May 2015.  The Government’s approach towards climate change is confused with the Department of Local Government and Communities appearing to be waging a campaign against wind farms and the Department of Energy and Climate Change making resolute noises, but apparently unable to hold a steady line on solar energy markets. On marine conservation the UK’s own network was supposed to have been completed by 2013, but remains incomplete, and proposals to designate a 320,000 square mile pacific marine wildlife reserve around the Pitcairn Islands appear to been met with silence by the UK Government who are still considering the concept.

In the UK the Welsh Government has already produced a pollinator action plan, in England the Government is currently developing a National Pollinator Strategy, and there is an EDM in the Scottish Parliament with cross party support calling for a Scottish action plan.

In terms of UK pollinator action the Welsh Action Plan is well intentioned and helpful, but rather lacking in resources and new actions.  The draft National Pollinator Strategy in England has much to praise but also some very obvious shortcomings that we detail here in our Consultation Response.   The draft NPS is subject to a current House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry for the oral evidence session this week and Buglife’s written response to the EAC inquiry is here.

The really big contrast between the UK and US approach not in the types of solutions proposed, but the level of commitment. Our approach is within department and minimally resourced.  The proposed steering group of our National Pollinator Strategy consists of senior civil servants in the Department of Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra), without even a Defra minister on the group, the US Plan will be led by Secretary of Agriculture and the CEO of the Environmental Protection Agency with senior representatives from all other significant departments.  Our NPS does not even contain a clear remit for the Department of Local Government and Communities or Department of Education – both key to making the changes that pollinators need.  Obama is seeking a budget of $50 million to deliver a healthy pollinator rich environment, while England can’t even scrape together a few pennies for a pollinator website.

This comes down to leadership.  Obama said he would tackle environmental issues and is leading from the front, on the other hand David Cameron promised us the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ but was last heard saying “get rid of all the green crap”, the contrast could not be greater.

If David Cameron wants any sort of positive environmental legacy then the National Pollinator Strategy is his opportunity to show us he does care – he can do this by adopting it and making it a cross departmental priority.  Should he want to establish a mandate for a second term in which he contributes to a healthier UK and planet then he must act now.