The environmentalist movement has historically been associated with the progressive wing of British politics. Despite the UK Parliament declaring a climate emergency, the Conservative Party manifesto and website is tellingly silent about action taken on global warming, and Greta Thunberg recently slammed the Government’s ‘very creative’ methods of accounting for emissions. After leaving the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, I felt hopeful and inspired but also slightly concerned by my suspicion that the majority of people I was surrounded by also shared my views on Brexit, inequality and immigration.
There are many on the Right who share anxieties about the destruction of our environment. A recent poll found that 76% of British people agree that we are in the midst of a climate emergency. Despite the climate-change denying tendencies of their President, the recently established American Conservative Coalition is a Republican Youth group that has a presence in hundreds of colleges across the country and calls for market-based solutions in order to reduce carbon emissions.
Clearly then, concerns about ecological collapse are widespread across the political spectrum. The environmentalist left must recognise this and seek compromise with those many sensible people who have listened to the science, yet struggle to feel aligned with the Extinction Rebellion movement and the radicalism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’. We must win these people over if we are to win this defining battle of our generation, of any generation.
Whilst we must constantly be emphasising the deadly reality of the threat we face, we cannot fall into the same self-indulgent tribalism that sometimes characterises progressive discourses. This is an issue far too important to be a preserve of the left. Indeed, meaningful change, that will achieve the Climate Change Commission’s recommended target of net-zero emissions by 2050, will be impossible without a coalition of support.
Many on the right are understandably concerned that the Democrat’s ‘Green New Deal’ and the Labour Party’s ‘Green Transformation’, are merely Trojan horses that carry socialism disguised as environmentalism. And they are, in part, right. As a progressive, I find these suggestions for structural change to the economy, accompanying reduced carbon emissions, very attractive. I think that the provision of well-paid, secure jobs by the state, in order to help us to fulfil our Paris Agreement obligations, would be a positive thing. But we must constantly remain open to new ideas that take a different approach.
However, at the time of writing, they are the only major policies put forward that take seriously the dramatic level of change needed to avoid environmental catastrophe. But this does not mean that we should ignore the anxieties of those who are suspicious of state overreach and wary of government incompetence. I believe there are a number of ways in which we can seek compromise and, crucially, ensure we make action on climate change a non-partisan issue.
First and foremost, we must continue to stress the scale of the threat we face. Declarations of climate emergency by the Scottish and Welsh governments and the UK parliament are a welcome testament to the activism of environmentalists over the last couple of weeks. This looming Armageddon is a threat to international and domestic security so severe that it merits a mobilization of resources akin to that of total war. For all the compromises we must be willing to make with the advocates of a less interventionist state, the fact that only the central government is capable of coordinating such a response must continue to be stated.
That said, every effort should be made to devolve funding and power to local government as well, by employing people locally to establish flood defences and insulate housing, hospitals and businesses. Policies such as promoting solar energy through tax allowances are widely supported. In the UK, 50% of British emissions come from inefficiencies, including heat loss from homes. Therefore, local government can have an active role in reducing carbon emissions through addressing these problems at a community level, whilst bringing down costs to consumers by regulating big energy companies and insulating homes.
Undoubtedly, the private sector can play a part as well. The ACC is a major proponent of ‘Green Bonds’, sold to investors in order to fund the start-up of projects that will reduce the carbon footprints of big corporations. Recently, the Governor of the Bank of England argued the Financial sector will have to play a pivotal role in reducing warming levels.
However, we must remain realistic about how willing big companies will really be about putting the health of the planet before profit. ExxonMobil has just announced it is planning to pump 25% more oil and gas into the atmosphere in 2025 than it did in 2017. Shell has produced a series of proposals for ‘Green infrastructure’ to combat the increasing severity of man-made disasters, without pausing for introspection about their role in these events. It is only with a significant degree of government regulation that we will achieve substantial change.
One of the main responses of the political right to the climate protests has been to point out that India, China and Brazil are some of the world’s biggest polluters. They argue that the UK reducing its emissions is essentially pointless, as whilst we enjoy less meat and pay more for transport, Carbon emissions from non-OECD countries will continue to outstrip more developed economies.
However, as Ed Miliband argued on the Today Programme recently, in the face of typically reductive and cynical questioning from John Humphreys, until we get our house in order we will have no moral authority to tell others to do the same. As one of the richest countries in the world, we have the opportunity to invest in research and new technologies that could help us lead the way in limiting global warming levels.
We should also be measured in our despair at the apparent lack of action from these emerging economies. As David Wallace-Wells notes, India, along with six others, is one of the few 195 signatories of the Paris Climate accord that are actually in range of their targets. China are the world’s biggest investors in renewables and have as much as a vested interest in the next one-hundred years not being a period of total collapse as anyone else.
Extinction Rebellion’s demand for a Citizen’s Assembly is sensible as it tackles the problems of short-termism and political party allegiances that threaten to impede environmental action. Saving the planet should no longer be a partisan issue, and we should make appeals to conservative instincts on national security, public spending and wildlife conservation, issues that will be dramatically affected by global warming.
The fight against climate change is not an issue to be debated, it’s not Brexit, the welfare state or the battle against religious extremism. It is the stage on which all these debates will play out. It encompasses everything and will eventually subordinate all the other problems that our country and our planet faces. To save ourselves we need everyone onboard, and that means humility and compromise on all sides.