Political inaction takes UK deeper into climate crisis
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The first stories of the pandemic have been written, and they converge on a single truth. In March 2020, the scientific evidence became so overwhelming that conscientious Western political leaders declared an emergency. They acted more drastically than they ever imagined.
Stories about climate action are also being written, and they read very differently. In recent years, the scientific evidence has become so overwhelming that conscientious Western political leaders have declared an emergency. Then they delayed – acting timidly, sporadically, belatedly.
The contrast is maddening. In what sense does the UK government, or any other government, view the climate as an emergency? Where are the austere press conferences, the calls for solidarity? Imagine calling the fire department for a fire, then watching them sit down and discuss the first way to save a cat from a nearby rooftop. This is where we are at.
London has suffered flash floods twice in the past month. Water poured from metro stations. Raw sewage gushed into the houses. People were rightly alarmed. Did Boris Johnson or his ministers seize the opportunity? Did they wade through the water and explain that the worst will come if we don’t take action? Have they released any charts showing that the trend of extreme weather is even worse than climatologists predicted? Have they announced new policies to reduce emissions? They do not have. If only the floods had washed away a few canoes of asylum seekers, the government might have done something.
What is the obstacle to action? You could start with Johnson, a prime minister whose climate engagement is better than many center-right leaders but still in good weather. To his credit, he has set a new legal 2035 emission reduction target, which means the UK’s emissions must be cut by more than half within 15 years. It should lead to urgency and hard choices, but instead there are too many vague strategies. Johnson promised there would be no carbon tax for individuals, like a tax on meat, under his watch – a pledge privately dismissed as fancy by his own ministers.
Johnson’s ambivalence explains the hesitations of the Treasury, which wants to know how the net zero will be paid. Economists can come up with good environmental incentives, but politicians need to buy into them. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is a fiscal conservative inclined to limit borrowing after the coronavirus madness.
At least some Conservative MPs want to go even slower. Steve Baker, the backbench MP who helped defeat Theresa May’s Brexit deal, protests against the “cost of net zero”. This ignores the cost of inaction, and therefore is just the latest variant of climate denial. The risk is that Johnson will be intimidated by a guerrilla campaign, even if she disagrees with the public. Before the pandemic, and even now, the environment is one of the top three concerns of British voters, before immigration.
What politicians from both main parties are really wrong is treating climate action as a puzzle, not a heart attack. Their priority is to return to a post-pandemic “normal”. They believe or hope that the warnings of climatologists can be taken with a grain of salt. (Perhaps this is a coping strategy.) They approve long-term goals and apologize for any urgent responsibility. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, but too few MPs have entered politics because they care so passionately.
Isn’t Britain already doing a lot of things like banning the sale of gasoline cars from 2030? The problem is, if you’re trying to reset your entire economy within a few decades, doing a lot isn’t enough. “We continue to make mistakes with high carbon choices,” the Climate Change Advisory Committee wrote in June. “A pattern has emerged of government strategies that are later than expected and, when they appear, fall short of the required political ambition. Climate action has been sucked into the usual political quagmire. Better to subsidize heat pumps and green renovations now, reducing costs for the future, than spending months designing the perfect program.
Ministers feel constrained by the appetite of the public. But one lesson from the pandemic is that the public will come on board, if you communicate clearly. Last week, UK spokesperson for this year’s UN climate summit, Allegra Stratton, said citizens should not rinse plates before placing them in the dishwasher. The intention was laudable, but the execution was outdated.
Environmentalists have learned the hard way: at most, there are many ways people will change their behavior, so focus on the steps that have the most impact. Your dishes are irrelevant. What matters is what you drive, what you eat, how you heat your home, and how much you travel. If the government wants to involve people before the summit, it should offer incentives to buy electric cars and heat pumps.
There is no time to move slowly. Dimbleby’s Food Review proposed that UK meat consumption will drop 30% by 2030. If the government is not to tax meat, it must work with supermarkets and schools to change more subtly the diet of the British.
Our best hope is that the pandemic and climate action are part of the same story – of how our ingenuity overcame prevarication. But that won’t happen if politicians continue to treat the climate as another political silo.