While discussions about the climate crisis continue to dominate international headlines, the Ministry of Ecology is rather discreet, and public expectations about them seem quite low. The situation is completely different vis-à-vis Ministries such as those of the Economy, Defense or Agriculture depending on the country, as everything they do is highly scrutinised. Due to its crucial mission, it is time to do the same with the Ministry of Ecology.
Defining the Ministry of Ecology
The name of the Ministry of Ecology inspires a mixture of sympathy and great responsibility. Instinctively, this institution and its Minister are imagined as being fervent defenders of the climate cause. However, more or less recent political events have already proved the opposite.
In September 2016, Donald Trump’s appointment of Myron Ebell as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the equivalent of the Ministry of Ecology in the United States – sparked a huge backlash around the world. Ebell, a long-time lobbyist for the energy industries, is well known for his continues attempts to lessen the gravity of climate change and minimising the detrimental impacts of human activities on our planet. In his words, he questions “global warming alarmism” and opposes energy-rationing policies.
This event is not isolated. In January 2023, Albert Rösti, former head of the SwissOil, an association that strives to defend the interests of fossil fuel companies, became Switzerland’s Minister of Ecology.
These examples illustrate how much a Minister of Ecology is not necessarily the best ally of ecology. It may, in some cases, even be his own worst enemy. These types of tragicomic situations urge us to reflect on what these ministries’ prerogatives truly are. Concretely, what can a Ministry of Ecology do?
The answer to this question is not straight-forward and a general vagueness surrounds it. This imprecision is felt in the very name of this Ministry. Depending on the country, the context, the government or the era, the Ministries of Ecology invariably change qualification in their official name: “Ministry of the Environment”, “Ministry of Ecology”, “Ministry of Sustainable Development”, “Ministry of Sustainable Energies”, etc. Do these differences in names imply differences in capacities and importance for these institutions?
A first element of response is that changes in the names of ministries happen frequently. Unfortunately, this is mainly a characteristic feature of smaller ministries. The sovereign domains of the State are generally gathered in a few Ministries known to all. History has sometimes even given them a particular name. We will thus speak of the “Chancellor of the Exchequer” to refer to the Minister of Finance in the United Kingdom or even of the “Secretary of State” for the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the United States. Their names inevitably reflect their political weight, their special place and seniority.
The hesitations on the contours of the Ministry of Ecology, even in its name, refer to its young existence and its fragility. However, at a time when the environmental issue is a priority simply because it conditions the continuity of life on Earth as we know it, it is up to us to clarify this in order to effectively combat climate change.
The Creation of the “Ministry of the XXI Century”
The creation of a Ministry of Ecology is the fruit of a decade, that of the 1960s, during which the subject of the environment gained traction. At first, it did so by being embedded in the anti-war and civil rights movements. Significant events will strike the spirits, whether it is Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which is addressing the risks of pesticides for the first time, or the infamous first oil spill following the grounding of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon off the coast of the United Kingdom in 1967.
This popular and intellectual effervescence will result in a pivotal year: 1970.
In Europe, the Council of Europe called it the “Conservation year”. This translated into an important meeting that took place in France in February 1970, bringing together all the member countries of the Council. On April 22, 1970, demonstrations took place in the US following a series of oil spills and emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, giving rise to largest secular observance in the world: Earth Day. The pressure worked. In October 1970, the UK appointed Peter Walker as the country’s first Minister of the Environment. The US followed with the creation of the EPA in December. France did the same in January 1971.
The 1970s will consolidate the ecological cause mainly due to the multiplication of environmental disasters. In this regard, we can cite the 1976 Seveso disaster, the explosion of a small chemical plant located approximately 20 kilometres north of Milan, Italy that resulted in a leak of a large cloud of pesticide which killed thousands of farm animals. In 1978 a second oil spill occurred off the French coast with the grounding of the Amoco Cadiz. In 1979, in a prelude to Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster seven years later, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania melted, resulting in the release of a significant amount of radioactivity into the air.
Despite growing awareness of the environmental impacts of these accidents, the contours of this new Ministry remained unclear for a long time.
The Ministry of Ecology Comes in All Shapes and Sizes
The competences of a Ministry of Ecology can vary in proportions that are difficult to imagine. The best way to illustrate this is by looking at ministries in two different continents, which bear an almost identical name.
In 1980, India instituted the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which is responsible for protecting the environment, conserving the country’s natural resources, ensuring animal welfare, fighting against deforestation, and preventing the risk of pollution. Nine years prior, Canada instituted a Ministry of Environment and Climate Change which, however, has somewhat different goals: clean growth and fighting against climate change, preventing pollution, conserving nature, predicting weather and environmental conditions.
To simplify, the Ministries of Ecology can have three main categories of attributions. The first is to preserve the environment. This mainly entails the fight against deforestation and pollution of aquatic environments as well as the degradation of the richness of the soil or air pollution. A second axis is related to climate change and it is all about a clean economy. The last point is research. Ministries such as those in Canada or the US play an important role in collecting data on these subjects.
The choice to prioritise one axis over another is eminently political. The dichotomy between environmental conservation and action against climate change is found in the very names of these entities. What differentiates the Ministries of India and Canada is that one is more focussed on the environment, while the other supports the dimension of climate change. Consequently, at the same level as the competences of these Ministries can vary, their names matter. A particularly influential Ministry for the ecological cause would naturally be called a Ministry of Sustainable Development.
Sustainable Development As the Strong Arm of an Omnipotent Ministry
This is where things get complicated. These Ministries relate to sustainable development. But what exactly is that?
The term dates back to the 1960s with the work of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, the term was not popularised until 1987 with the famous Brundtland report of the World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The concept of sustainable development has since evolved further. In 1972, a report by the Club of Rome, a think tank historically linked to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), introduced the idea that there is a danger of infinite growth in a finite world. In 1979, the economist René Passé conceptualised this idea with the theory of the three spheres. He explains that for years, for the sake of meeting basic needs, governments around the world have prioritised the economic sphere. However, this sphere is highly interconnected to a second one, the social sphere. The development of the economy puts pressure on the latter. For Passé, a third sphere – the environmental sphere – has long been forgotten. This third dimension is under pressure from the socio-economic developments of societies.
Passé’s work has since been redesigned in order to establish the commonly accepted definition of sustainable development. Sustainable Development is the intersection of the three aforementioned spheres: environment, economy and social. It is only by combining these three areas with contradictory objectives that we achieve sustainability within a society.
This is the essence of ecology and the exceptional potential of its Ministries: they are intended to have competence or at least a say on all societal and therefore governmental subjects. Their ability to fulfil this mission depends on the political power assigned to them.
A Ministry Plunged in the Political Arena
The Ministries live and die according to their political weight. This is why the Ministry of Ecology needs to impose its priorities in relation to other Ministries such as those of the Economy, Finance, or Agriculture.
However, there is no doubt that the Ministries of Ecology are generally not very influential. When we consider their protocol rank in most of the Governments of our world, they are generally second class: 12th ministry in Germany, 11th in France, 27th in Canada, 15th in the United Kingdom, 23rd in Indonesia. A counter-example is Spain, where the Third Vice-President of the Government is in charge of Ecological Transition.
The low political weight is also confirmed when we consider that being a Minister of Ecology is not a stepping stone towards becoming Head of State. Since 1970, the ten leading economic powers in the world (United States, China, Japan, Germany, India, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy and Brazil) combined have had a total of 132 heads of state. Of these, only two had previously covered the role of Ministers of Ecology: Angela Merkel in Germany and Liz Truss in the UK.
Aside from complicating its task of imposing its decisions, the political weakness of the Ministry of Ecology inevitably also limits its ability to demand a budget commensurate to its task.
To break this circle, it is imperative to have higher standards for our Ministries of Ecology. In order for them to be influential, they must get more of a political role, clear functions and an ability to express themselves in all areas relating to sustainable development. This is the only way to promote such a critical institution in times of ecological crisis.
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