Are the University, YUSU (York University Student Union) and the City of York doing enough for climate change? I met and interviewed Patrick Thelwell, a second year Politics and International Relations student and Green Party candidate for the local council elections.
Hi, could you just tell me briefly a bit about yourself?
I’m a second year Politics and International Relations student at York, I’m president of the University Garden Society and I’m running as a Green Party candidate for Hull Road Ward. I got interested in environmental activism back in October because I’ve always realised that climate change was a big concern. I used to be a member of the Labour Party, I’m a proud socialist from a background with both parents as teachers. I realised that climate break down is going to have the worst effects on working class people in the UK and around the world and I want to do something about that, so I became involved in the group Extinction Rebellion.
How was your experience with Extinction Rebellion?
It was really important for me, I’ve been on marches before and it’s hard not to feel defeatist when they never listen to you and they’ve been used repeatedly for decades. People have been saying the same things for ages and been ignored by the people in power. It was important to do something more radical (I can see why some people might find it off-putting and almost extreme) but the reality is, the level we’re at, is very clear that we need to act a lot faster. I was arrested in London and that helped to start a conversation and a national conversation about climate change, that will hopefully be able to make some real difference.
Why are you running to be a green Councillor in York?
I believe that in the ward (currently represented by three Labour candidates) there seems to be some endemic problems related to the local environment that haven’t been addressed, and the people who live there deserve better. One thing I find particularly distressing is that Hull Road is one of the biggest roads linking to the city and where there are two local schools amidst a terrible level of air quality. Every time I walk to university I just feel angry, and just choked. Litter is also a massive problem, there’s a big problem with fly tipping and there’s also no public bins. These are the sorts of things that have been ignored in the past which just perpetuates a poor situation. I’m sure residents feel quite passionately about their local area because it’s where they live and everyone wants to look after where they live, but there’s no alternative provision, that’s what I want to help provide.
Aside from environmental politics, what are you other political interests and motivations?
Like I’ve already said, I’m a proud socialist and the Green Party in York has done a huge amount to tackle homelessness and that’s one of their biggest priorities. Also to implement nationally a living wage because that’s a huge problem as people are living in poverty at work. In York, that would be through working with local charities and organisations to try to make that happen. Public transport – not only does this contribute to the pollution aspect but also to people’s lives massively, so the Party want a radical overhaul of the bus system. Also housing, making housing more affordable and part of that is making more efficient housing. The Green Party in York are absolutely committed to looking after working people as well as local businesses which is really important.
80% of current British environmental law comes from the EU, are you worried about the potential effects Brexit will have?
If we have a no deal Brexit it will be absolutely disastrous for environmental protection as most of it comes from the EU and there have been claims they will implement “like for like” policies when we leave, but first of all that’s not going to happen because they’re very patchy and also, we’re going to find ourselves in a very weak position in terms of our trade arrangements with other countries. We will get trade agreements with America, but in return for that we will have to reduce our environmental protections to allow for their lower quality products and that will be a big thing that will impact our food production and poor products like battery farmed chickens – things that are not currently allowed within the EU law. I think really it’s going to be terrible.
Do you think a “green” Brexit is possible?
No, the scale of climate breakdown is an international issue which no single country can address by itself and I think the measures the EU have implemented have not been strong enough, but we’re hearing louder and louder calls across the continent that will increase co-operation and co-operation to actually reverse this instance. This is the type of thing I think this country needs to be involved in and leading.
York University has £217,000 worth of investments in fossil fuel companies. What are your thoughts on this? Are the University doing enough to combat climate change?
I’m involved in the Divest University of York campaign – so I have been protesting with Extinction Rebellion in co-operation with the Trade Unions to demand that the university divests from the investment in fossil fuels. The University have claimed they are “indirectly invested” through hedge-funds and my response was, I don’t really care. The University’s money and this brilliant institute of education that it is, which produces the very academics which are saying that climate change is the biggest problem we face, are saying we need to divest and yet they’re politely nodding at that and continuing to fuel the industries. And I think this is an absolute disgrace, we’ve had meetings with the acting Vice-Chancellor, who said that he would “listen” and read our literature, and see what he thinks – but obviously that is not enough. We are just going to keep pushing until the university stands up for its ethical values.
Why do you think the University aren’t taking it seriously enough?
For one part, there are good financial returns with investments in fossil fuels and university’s across the country are strapped for cash and really struggling, and that’s something I am sympathetic to. However, another part would just be an ignorance of the impact that a university being linked in with these companies can have. It is not only that the University are invested in fossil fuels that is an issue, they have partnerships with fossil fuel companies like Shell and BA systems who produce missiles. So these are the sorts of companies the University partners with, to promote to science graduates as a career path, “you could work for a fracking company”. So that is something I think is completely at odds with the ethical values that the University claims.
The YUSU elections last week saw the election of new environmental officers Merry Dickinson and Mark Matthews, part of their manifesto was aiming to force YUSU to declare a “climate emergency”. What are your thoughts on this? Are YUSU doing enough?
Everyone who you speak to will acknowledge openly that climate change is an emergency. The Student Union has a particular power in terms of the platform it has to express certain views, recently we had a referendum which students backed calling for a second referendum on the EU. The Union knows it won’t cause this to happen, but they know it’s worth doing anyway as it’s about promoting values and educating people and that’s what they should be doing. Students are incredibly concerned about climate change and want to know ways in which they can do more and want to achieve as much change as possible. The SU has a responsibility to represent the students and to be educationally honest and do everything in its power to do everything to make sure people can understand, and be aware of the consequences of climate change and how it will affect everyone.
Do you think YUSU should declare a “climate emergency?”
I do, yes.
So what can the everyday student do to be more sustainable? Is the individual powerless in making change?
Every individual impact is important. The biggest contributors in terms of CO2 emissions for the average person is flying and international travel, how much meat you eat and what your diet is made up of, transport (whether you drive, walk or cycle) and then more everyday things like turning lights off etc. For a student it can be really hard because you’re skint, it’s an overwhelming issue and there’s only so many personal sacrifices you can do. But eating less meat – just reducing by a couple of days a week through introducing substitutes, another important one is fast fashion which is an incredibly polluting industry – a thousand liters of water goes into producing one kilogram of cotton, and how it is grown and transferred across the world, second-hand shopping would be one to make a really big difference. Just use, reduce, recycle.
Do you not think there needs to be more change within the big companies?
Definitely, that’s the thing, we’ve been sold a myth it’s down to individuals and their choices that will impact climate change. The reality is, 100 companies make up 70% of the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide, obviously that’s producing products that we all buy but they are selling them and there’s not alternatives. One thing that I want to do in the York Green Party is to work with local supermarkets and shops to try to introduce plastic free alternatives and introduce a “pay as you feel” option for food which is technically past its best before date, but can often still be eaten.
In a nut shell, why should people vote for you as their Councillor?
People should vote for me because I would be a passionate representative for them and for students, who I think are massively underrepresented in general and in particular within local politics, but also all residents across Hull Road because I want to work for them to make their ward a better place to live. I am incredibly passionate about this. I study politics anyway, so it is a practical application of my course, I might struggle a bit with the work load but my priority will always be achieving positive change for the local community. This is what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to, so I think this is the best place to start.
The York Council local elections will be held on May 2nd 2019.
Phone number: 07394709964