Spectre of Greenism in UK Workplace is Backward Step for Climate Change

UK Telegraph

Rowena Mason

Rowena Mason writes about energy for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.

We’ve had it with sexism, racism, religious prejudice – all now considered utterly unacceptable in the workplace.

Will employees across UK Plc now have to start watching their tongues in case they are guilty of greenism?

After yesterday’s legal landmark ruling, “a belief in man-made climate change … is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief” akin to religion. This judgment means a company must not discriminate against someone because of their deeply-held environmental convictions. So no more jokes about the office hippy at the sustainable water-cooler then.

It has all come about because Tim Nicholson, 42, of Oxford, won the right to sue FTSE 250 company Grainger Plc claiming that his dismissal as head of sustainability was connected to prejudice against his fervent opinions on climate change. Mr Nicholson accuses senior staff of showing “contempt” for his green morals.

Examples of this alleged disrespect include the fact that Grainger’s chief executive got a staff member to fly out a missing Blackberry to Ireland and other employees refused his requests for data to set up a company-wide “carbon management system”. Grainger argues that Mr Nicholson was made redundant purely as part of operational restructuring.

Whatever the cause of the dismissal, some of the arguments throw up seriously troubling implications for companies. It is one thing for a member of staff to ask that they are not persecuted about their views – or even that they are given specific dispensation because of a strongly-held belief. I suppose Mr Nicholson might at a pinch argue that he shouldn’t be forced to fly and must be provided with recycling facilities.

However, it is quite another for an employee to complain of contempt when his personal views are ignored – when certain green values are not adopted by other employees. By all means object to the Great Blackberry Dash, but don’t take it as an insult when the chief executive doesn’t have the same priorities. It’s tantamount to one employee taking offence because not all staff are adopting certain religious tenets.

People will have different opinions about climate change – the extent of its urgency, how much to spend, different ways to tackle it and even whether it exists at all – and Mr Nicholson appears to be suggesting, like a fundamentalist undermined, that everybody should think about the problem in the same way.

Ironically, setting aside environmentalism as a sensitive, protected issue of personal conviction is hardly likely to help Mr Nicholson’s cause. Companies unavoidably have to talk about climate change in a practical way. Directors don’t tend to sit around arguing about whether Jesus walked on water – or the vast majority of other religious or philosophical beliefs wrapped in cotton wool by this law – but they do need to have rational debate how and where cash should be spent on reducing emissions as something that may affect corporate image, profitability, customer loyalty.

A move to make critical debate about the environment into a personalised issue in the workplace can only give rise to unhelpful corporate paranoia about endangering people’s feelings.

Companies, individuals and governments ought to be talking about the costs and opportunities of climate change at every juncture, especially in the run-up to Copenhagen, but any legal pressure that makes discussion harder can only be counterproductive