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The gathering storm

Climate change hits the poorest people hardest. Rich countries got us into this mess. Now they must

To fly above the islands on the Jamuna River in Bangladesh is to see, close up, the physical effects of climate change. Here is a set of islands literally sinking into the sea. Meeting the local villagers, it hits you: the argument that global warming ravages the world's poorest people more than anyone else is so much more than just a cliché.

The main island, which will disappear in the lifetime of many of its inhabitants, frequently suffers major floods, the worst of which was in 2007, leaving behind rapidly spreading disease, homelessness and starvation. Firoza Khatun, a 25-year-old mother-of-three, told me: "In 2007, the water came up to my waist. We tried to stay in the house, we raised our bed higher on bricks and bamboo, but when it came to my waist we had to leave . . . We saved the roof but lost the house. We only had food for five days. I was scared."

Before my trip with the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Mili­band, and the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, I was shamefully in denial of this truth. Like others in a mercifully shrinking minority, I saw "climate change" - that technocratic, uninspiring term - as a second-order, middle-class preoccupation, somehow separate from poverty itself. But visit Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, and the link between the two becomes undeniable.

Thankfully, some progressive politicians have been quicker to recognise the importance of the environment to the social-democratic cause. In 2006, Ken Livingstone, guest editor of this issue of the New Statesman, warned in the Guardian: "I just do not think that politicians understand the implications, which at the very extreme is the end of most large life forms. If we slip into irreversible climate change, it means hundreds of millions of people migrating, and deaths. It means the poorest being hit the hardest."

Today, Labour ministers see climate change as a crucial part of their politics. As Alexander told me during our flight over Bangladesh: "I came into politics to change things . . . For our generation of progressive politicians, climate change is the defining test."

Alexander is helping Miliband in the seemingly impossible task of bridging the gap between a developed world (which must be forced to lead the way on carbon emissions cuts) and a developing world (which has often been reluctant to skip the conventional forms of industrialisation previously enjoyed by the west). As Miliband pointed out in Delhi, between 1850 and 2000, 30 per cent of carbon emissions came from the United States, 27 per cent from the European Union, and 7 per cent from China. There is a clear inequality of responsibility, but today the daunting task is to make the whole world carbon-conscious. NGOs talk of the west's "debt" to the developing world and Miliband accepts our "historic responsibility". On 10 September, the EU environment chief, Stavros Dimas, declared that rich countries should be paying €100bn a year by 2020 to cover the cost of mitigation in developing countries, with €15bn coming from the EU itself. It was the first time the EU had acknowledged the cost of global warming to poorer regions.

This is the backdrop to the negotiators' dilemma, just two months ahead of what Miliband has called the "make-or-break" UN summit in Copenhagen. The stakes could not be higher. The British ministers, moving on from Bangladesh to Delhi, emerged "optimistic" after successful talks with their Indian counterparts, particularly the new environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. On the same day, the Indians - assumed to be reluctant to commit to carbon cuts and hostile to US demands for them to do so - projected a modest level of carbon-dioxide emissions in 2031: between 2.8 and five tonnes per person. Current per capita emissions are estimated at 1.2 tonnes, well below the global average of four tonnes. India is now heading towards producing 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, and is skipping some of the usual steps towards industrialisation: in Kolkata, the ministers were shown the country's first ever housing complex run on solar power. Days later, hopes were raised further when another sticking-point country, Japan, announced that it would cut its emissions by 25 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

But Miliband, whose department is leading the way with a commitment to a 34 per cent reduction in the UK's emissions by 2020, warns against complacency. So does his brother David, the Foreign Secretary, who has been touring the EU presenting slideshows on the extreme potential results of global warming, and says that a deal "hangs in the balance". "There's a real danger the talks scheduled for December will not reach a positive outcome, and an equal danger in the run-up to Copenhagen that people don't wake up to the danger of failure until it's too late," the Foreign Secretary told reporters.

There is still a question mark over whether any proposed deal would be enough to make a difference. It has been agreed that the developed west must cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020 to prevent a global warming increase of 2° or more. But campaigners warn that this may be too little, too late. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that this target be increased to 42 per cent to ensure a 50-50 chance of preventing the rise. But as Tom Picken of Friends of the Earth asks: "Is this a morally acceptable level of risk?"

So, what would be the result of failure to reach an adequate deal when, according to Ed Miliband, there is "no plan B"? Campaigners have long emphasised how climate change hits the poorest hardest, even in Britain. A study by Oxfam and the New Economics Foundation think tank this year noted that the one in five Britons who live in poverty will be the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. They will be the hardest hit by higher taxation on fossil fuels, the least able to afford adequate insurance against the effects of storm damage and flooding, and the most likely to lose out in the move away from carbon-producing jobs.

But it is the international imbalance that causes most concern. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is the latest organisation to call for a long-term programme of work on climate change and social justice. "Rich countries got us into this mess and they have the money and the technology to get us out of it," says Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International. "This gives them a double duty to deliver major emission reductions at home and provide the money that poor countries need to start tackling their emissions, too." As the UN has warned: "[I]t is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs."

This is not simply a western, liberal concern. As Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (who won a Nobel Prize along with the campaigning former US vice-president Al Gore) has said: "It's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit."

Now, in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, the UK Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development has warned that unless governments step up efforts to tackle climate change immediately, the result could be significant incursions into what it calls "future democratic freedoms". The organisation's director, Halina Ward, says: "There is a real risk that as the decision-making implications of huge social challenges like climate change begin to bite, politicians will be tempted to tighten the reins on our democratic rights and limit our access to public decision-making on difficult issues." She adds: "We have to get climate change out of the environmental margins and into the social mainstream . . . The sooner we come to understand it as an issue of democracy and of social justice, the better."

Meanwhile, the spectre of natural disaster looms largest over poor countries. The total number of floods, cyclones and storms has quadrupled in the past two decades. Over the same period, the number of people affected by disasters has increased from roughly 174 million a year to more than 250 million on average. Environmental threat is acute in countries such as Bangladesh, where 119 million of the population subsist on less than $2 a day. For them and millions of others, talk of climate change is not a fad or fashion, a label to help "modernise" a political party, or the subject of dinner-party self-justification; it is literally a matter of life and death. For their sake, long-standing green campaigners and late-coming progressive converts alike must pray for a deal in December.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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