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Every political system has its share of charlatans or nutcases who deliberately try to stir up division, embrace conspiracy theories, deny reality or advocate dangerous policies for short-term advantage. But what do you do when such views are not just held on the political fringe, but are embraced at the heart of government, as is currently happening in the UK?
There are plenty of immediate challenges facing the Government – inflation, housing shortages, crumbling infrastructure, struggling public services and immigration. Internationally, conflicts rage in many parts of the world, Iran and North Korea continue to pursue nuclear weapons, and democracy itself is under threat from hostile regimes, such as Russia and China.
But by far the biggest long-term threat, which will only make all of these immediate problems harder to tackle, is climate change.
Climate change is not only already devastating animal and plant life, and exacerbating poor health, famine and poverty in some parts of the world, but also fuelling more conflict within and between states for scarce resources. It is driving migration levels higher and, through melting the polar ice cap, opening up new areas of strategic competition with Russia and China.
Climate change is not just a long-term survival threat, but an ongoing, immediate, security, political and economic threat. The evidence is all around, plain to see.
According to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation, July was the hottest month on record, possibly the warmest month humanity has ever experienced. The planet’s temperature has surpassed the crucial threshold of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. Swathes of the American South, the Mediterranean and China have endured devastating heatwaves this summer. Only last week, we saw on our TV screens thousands of desperate British tourists fleeing devastating fires on Greek islands.
Climate change is not something that only affects people in far-off lands, or will only trouble us at some far-off time, after many of us are dead – it is happening to all of us, here, and now. It is already a global problem, one from which no country can insulate itself.
Autocratic regimes like China and Russia, with little accountability to their people, may get away with delaying action for a while. But democratic governments, responsive to the needs of their people, should recognise that this is a problem which is only going to get worse, the later it is addressed.
Fortunately, with proper political leadership, it should not be impossible to persuade voters of the need for action, even at the expense of some changes to their current lifestyles. Because, as evidence of the damaging consequences of climate change mounts, more and more voters are starting to care.
According to a recent opinion poll cited in the i newspaper, an overwhelming majority of British people worry about global warming, with most laying the blame for rising temperatures on human activity and the burning of fossil fuels.
This is consistent with tracking done by YouGov since 2019, which has showed a steady figure of around 70% of people believing that human activity is driving climate change.
Political leaders in the US and EU are stepping up action in response.
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Last week, President Joe Biden announced new measures to mitigate some of the worst effects of extreme heat on workers and consumers. Although he faces resistance in Congress to stringent new climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act passed by his administration last year contains nearly $370 billion in tax credits to spur wind and solar power and electric vehicle battery manufacturing in the United States, and incentives for purchases of electric vehicles, induction stoves and electric heat pumps.
Meanwhile, under European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU has raised its climate target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 – by building up renewable energies, decreasing energy demand, and phasing-out fossil fuels. Last year, the EU agreed to phase-out new combustion engines for passenger cars from 2035 onwards. It is also working on a green industrial plan to match Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
While these actions fall short of climate activists’ ideal demands, at least US and EU leaders are willing to acknowledge the scale of the problem, and are moving in the right direction.
This makes it all the more troubling that the UK’s leadership is going in the opposite direction.
On the Wrong Side?
Right wing Conservatives have long claimed climate change fears are exaggerated, called for net zero commitments to be abandoned, and tougher measures to be taken against protestors like the Just Stop Oil movement.
But, in the wake of the Conservatives’ unexpected Uxbridge by-election victory, which many interpreted as a result of opposition to Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the Ultra Low Emissions Zone, these voices are becoming shriller.
It is no surprise that some of the loudest voices downplaying climate science are the same intellectual geniuses behind Brexit. Lord David Frost, for instance, who in classic ‘little Englander’ mode, recently argued that climate change will be beneficial for Britain – to hell with the rest of the planet. Fellow traveller Jacob Rees Mogg recently tweeted that climate change will actually save lives.
Rishi Sunak now seems to have decided to embrace this anti-climate agenda as well, even though this goes completely against the stance he took at the UN COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November – when he argued that “Putin’s abhorrent war in Ukraine and rising energy prices across the world are not a reason to go slow on climate change. They are a reason to act faster”.
Now, he is considering scrapping many of the Government’s green policies – including the proposal to ban diesel and petrol cars by 2030, reviewing the ban on gas boilers from 2035, as well as introducing a ban on low-traffic neighbourhoods and giving landlords longer to meet energy efficiency targets. This week, his Government announced more than 100 new oil and gas drilling licenses – a decision which environmental groups said would obliterate the UK’s climate commitments.
What is particularly offensive is the Prime Minister’s distorted rationale for going slow on green policies. Speaking on Monday, he said he was “not prepared” to introduce policies that will “unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their life”. This paints supporters of action to tackle climate change as insensitive to the needs of ordinary people, while his administration can posture as their ‘champion’. It also completely ignores that there are huge, and growing, costs in not taking action on climate change.
This is the same kind of disingenuous argumentation which lay behind Brexit.
Perhaps this time we can hope that the Conservatives will end up on the wrong side of public opinion. For, the same i newspaper poll which cited rising public concern about climate change also revealed support for Labour has risen since Sunak’s decision to retreat from some net zero commitments.
Chris Skidmore, a former science minister and advocate of green policies within the Conservative Party, immediately condemned Sunak’s announcement of new drilling licenses as being “on the wrong side of modern voters”. He called them “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heatwaves”.
“It is on the wrong side of a future economy that will be founded on renewable and clean industries, and not fossil fuels,” he continued. “It is on the wrong side of modern voters who will vote with their feet at the next general election for parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment. And it is on the wrong side of history, that will not look favourably on the decision taken today.”
Amen to that.
Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years’ experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity