One small step for the politicians

Two speeches and a draft bill may not make for a revolution, but Mark Lynas hails a significant shif

If Gordon Brown got one thing right in his speech to the Green Alliance, it was his admission that we have entered a "new era" in world events. As Brown and his prime ministerial challenger David Cameron have both begun to recognise, old certainties are falling away as the public recognises our planetary ecological emergency. We are left floundering in unfamiliar political surroundings. The process is happening not just here in Britain, but worldwide.

Some of the likely results can already be identified, and the most important one is this: our position on the environment will be the defining question of the 21st century, just as ideology on wealth distribution was in the 20th, and religion in the 18th. Conventional polarities of left and right are ceasing to matter: neither points the way ahead for a civilisation that must completely alter the way it operates if it is to avoid a biological collapse and climatic meltdown, which most of humanity would not survive.

British politics is in flux, still adjusting to this new reality. Sensing the changing mood of the electorate, all major parties are vying for the new green ground. But awareness of the need for change is far from being universal: much of the Tory press, for example, is historically sceptical of environmentalism and violently opposed to Cameron's new stance. Conservative MEPs, too, seem less than convinced. They have the worst environmental voting record in the EU of any party. The furore over John Redwood's "global warming is good" blog entry illustrates both the divisions within the party, and how far the mainstream has shifted. Whereas Redwood's views might once have commanded majority support, he now looks like a crank.

Head to head

On 12 March, both Brown and Cameron (his shoes are pictured, left) made ground-breaking environmental speeches in a head-to-head battle to seize the green initiative. (The real Greens were left fuming as they saw their policies, like clothes, stolen one by one.) Brown is still some way behind - his moves to ban old-style light bulbs and to speed up the transition to low- carbon homes are welcome, but hardly radical. By contrast, Cameron's recognition that the growth in aircraft emissions must be constrained - even at the risk of upsetting frequent flyers - suggests a willingness to tackle damaging lifestyles for the first time.

Nor are national politicians the only ones making the change. In London, Ken Livingstone has transformed himself from Red Ken to Green Ken with an admirably ambitious programme to reduce the capital's carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2025 - a target which, if adopted more widely, might actually make a big dent in the global problem. Livingstone has made common cause with the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose participation in a five-state initiative to cut emissions shows how US politics is also changing. Al Gore may not be planning to storm the White House brandishing his Oscars, but it is no longer conceivable that any future president - Democrat or Republican - will echo George Bush's line on global warming.

The same change has happened across the industrialised world. In Canada, the Conservatives were elected on an anti-Kyoto platform, but have had to reverse their stance due to widespread pressure. In Australia, John Howard's government was once second only to Bush in outright climate-change denial - but it, too, has had to shift with the times. Now Howard makes speeches proposing carbon markets and ramps up investment in renewables. Australia has become the first country to agree a full ban on incandescent light bulbs. In France, presidential candidates have all hurried to sign up to a "green pledge" to avoid being challenged by a popular environmentalist TV personality. Where once immigration might have been the key issue, now it is global warming. In business, multinational companies such as Wal-Mart and DuPont are falling over themselves to convince consumers they are serious about going zero-carbon.

Translating this political shift into real emissions cuts remains the hard part, but it is becoming easier as electorates across the developed world signal their readiness to participate in big lifestyle changes. Livingstone's assertion - that "to tackle climate change you do not have to reduce your quality of life, but you do have to change the way you live" - nails the challenge for policy-makers across the globe: how to transform the need for emissions cuts into the kind of progressive social change that people are likely to welcome rather than oppose.

In the UK, David Miliband's proposed climate-change bill gives the first signs that the government is confident about such a move: the bill is a real milestone towards the eventual transformation of this country into a low-carbon economy, and puts the UK in a true leadership position as the only nation to commit to legally binding reductions in CO2. That these cuts will come about in the form of five-yearly "carbon budgets", rather than the annual targets demanded by Friends of the Earth (to whom much of the credit for the bill must go) is disappointing, but not critical. The government will still have to answer to parliament on its progress every year, and its performance will be scrutinised by an independent committee on climate change. The idea of carbon budgeting being just as important as economic budgeting is also crucial. Moreover, the new "enabling powers" contained in the bill allow for the introduction of personal carbon allowances (or "carbon rationing") without any further legislation being necessary - a highly significant move.

For his part, Brown has a chance in his remaining days as Chancellor to back up his words with some hard cash, particularly for the Department of Trade and Industry's Low Carbon Buildings Programme, which is being throttled at birth by a shortage of funds. A government that continues to pump billions into road-widening schemes while choking off the already miserly funds provided to the emerging renewables sector will struggle to be taken seriously - by climate campaigners and by the general public.

It will take more than a single speech for Brown to convince environmentalists that he will make a green prime minister, but many will now be viewing his impending premiership with a little less dread than they did previously.

The real lesson of the week's events, however, is a larger one: just as no US presidential candidate will be able to deny climate change and get elected, no future British prime minister will be able to contemplate politics without putting the environment at the centre. To both men's credit, it seems as if Brown and Cameron, the two main contenders, have begun to realise this.
Mark Lynas's book "Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet" is published on 19 March (£12.99)

See also . . .
From Trident to tax to climate change: the party speaks by Peter Kellner
A YouGov survey indicates a divided mood among Labour members. Here we publish the full results of the poll

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times