Tony answers our questions
What attracted you into the field of sustainability and climate science?
I had a passion and fascination for Nature as a child - birds, fish, plants, reptiles, weather, fossils and all the rest. That carried me to a degree in animal behaviour, a Masters in conservation and then a career as an environmentalist, including being director of Friends of the Earth when we ran the campaign that led to the 2008 Climate Change Act.
Which area of science or science policy been a persistent challenge?
The main challenge that I have seen is the disconnection between science and policy. On the one hand we have a growing body of evidence as to the need for urgent action to reduce pollution, reverse the decline of wildlife and conserve resources, and yet so often we continue to travel in the wrong direction, with short-term convenience often trumping longer-term imperatives. At the same time, the disconnection between science and policy is deliberate for reasons of politics. Donald Trump’s decision to take the United States out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement is a recent case in point. Under those kinds of circumstance it does’t really matter how good the science is.
What – about conservation in general or specific responses to your work – has surprised you most over the last few years?
I take a lot of hope and encouragement from the growing acceptance during recent years, in some quarters at least, as to the extent to which the apparent choice between economic growth and the protection of the environment is a false one. More and more influential people, including the Chief Executives of some large companies, now openly and loudly say that we need to protect the environment to sustain economic development. Just a a few years ago many of them would have said that damage to the environment was a regrettable but nonetheless inevitable ‘price of progress’. Now many of them say the without looking after Nature that there can be no long-term progress. This is positive but also surprising.
Where do you think you have made the most (positive) impact on the environment?
I have been lucky enough to be involved with some important work over the years, from helping to save various rare birds from extinction, to protecting wildlife habitats across the UK and Europe to the passage of the Climate Change Act and the saving of the tropical rainforests. Across all of this though I’d say that the opportunities I’ve had to raise awareness about these and other questions has been the most important. When people know what is going on they want to do something about it, not only in their daily lives but also in what they want the people they elect to do on their behalf, especially when they know solutions are at hand. I very much hope the recent Ladybird book on Climate Change will be another little contribution to all of that.
What advice would you give to your 20-something self?
Work hard toward things that inspire you.
What type of destination is your go-to to unwind / go off-grid?
I make a lot of visits to Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. It's a remnant of the wild fen country that once covered much of East Anglia but which is now largely gone. It is full of wildlife and is like taking a journey back in time, seeing birds like snipe, marsh harriers, water rails, reed buntings, redshank, garganey and hobby. Charles Darwin used to travel up there when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, to collect insects. The fact that one can still walk and think where he he walked and thought is hugely inspiring for me. Even more inspiring than the history, however, is the large scale rewinding project going on there. Former wheat fields are being returned to renaturalised wetlands that are not only rich in wildlife but also sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Being in a place like that, where you can see environmental destruction actually being reversed, and the wildlife coming back as a result, that really does give hope, energy and power.