Fri, 01 Nov 2019
West Berkshire’s first Climate Conference – a space for education, debate and discussion around green issues – was held at Newbury College on Monday.
The event attracted a strong turnout, with delegates drawn from a variety of local activist and charity initiatives.
These included Extinction Rebellion, Climate Strikers and the Green Party, as well as representatives from the town and district councils.
An introductory address was given by Newbury MP Richard Benyon.
Mr Benyon said: “I thank every single councillor on West Berkshire Council for stepping up to a national, international and very much local challenge.
“Today is not about a case of ‘end-in-itself-ism’ – the idea that we can come along to a conference like this and feel like we’ve done something for climate change. Today is not about any particular party or campaign group or individual or achieving more column inches in the Newbury Weekly News.
“It’s about what comes from events like today.”
He commended the initiative of West Berkshire residents on ecological matters, highlighting Newbury and Thatcham’s refill schemes, as well as tree-planting in the Hungerford area.
Mr Benyon said: “Climate activism is today’s rock ’n’ roll.
“It’s now apparently cool to miss school.
“I hope you have a great conference today and I hope you take from this a message of hope and a message that we can, working together, play a big part in changing how we manage our environment, and how we protect our planet.”
The keynote speaker of the morning was BBC News rural affairs correspondent Tom Heap.
Mr Heap’s talk sought to place West Berkshire issues in a global context.
He said: “As Richard just outlined, we are living in a very interesting time for the planet, for countries, for counties, for councillors, for individuals and for politics.
“The amount of carbon dioxide going to the atmosphere is increasing.”
While acknowledging good work at local level, Mr Heap stressed the need for a systemic response to climate change.
He said: “People drive more, fly more, buy more.
“2030 ain’t long – very close indeed.
“Our civilisation has been built on fire and fire is what we have to snuff out.
“One of my concerns about current campaigning strategies is that I’m not convinced turning up the volume on that tune will necessarily have the desired effect on the broad population.
“Having said that, it is difficult to get people to change their behaviour and change their lifestyles.
“We do need to move to a new definition of a ‘good life’ that isn’t simply based on consumption of stuff.
“And that is going to take time and it’s going to be very rocky along the way.”
A ‘Green District’ panel of experts and local dignitaries explored the regional dimension alluded to by Mr Heap.
Other speeches and seminars were more general in their scope.
This included a lecture by JBA Consulting’s Fiona Hartland on Climate Change and Land Use, as well as a keynote speech by Giles Perkins on Future Mobility and Air Quality.
In the afternoon, Reading University professor Keith Shine gave an overview of The Science of Climate Change, while a panel of local recycling interests – among them representatives from Veolia – addressed the topic of Circular Economy and Waste.
West Berkshire Council chairman Graham Pask ended the conference with a summary of the day’s events and their relevance to life in the county.
Organisers and visitors alike praised the event, which drew hundreds to the college.
West Berkshire Council leader Lynne Doherty noted the diversity of the audience, saying: “I think we’ve had an excellent turnout.
“It’s good to see a cross-range of different people here today, so high numbers, which was really good.
“We’re looking at what we’re doing about our climate emergency and we’ve really got to get this right.
“We really need to take everybody across the district with us.
“We’ve obviously been looking at this a lot and building on previous work and the previous administration’s work.
“This session’s about maintaining a green district, and that’s really a key strategy for us going forward.”
There were, however, some detractors.
Climate Strike leader Lois Ryan said: “While I’m really pleased that the council have had the initiative to put on such an event … it’s a shame that the message from Richard was one of optimism, hope and unfortunately a level of denial.
“His whole introductory message was unfortunately aimed at smaller, individual changes, reinforced by his language in still refusing to refer to it as a climate ‘crisis’ and instead insisting on calling it change.
“Whilst it’s great that the issue is finally being spoken about in West Berks and I’m very grateful to the council for this.
“We still have a long way to go for it to be taken as seriously as it needs to be.”