Former peatland forest converted into palm oil plantation in Aceh Jaya district in Indonesia. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Climate change has finally returned as a mainstream issue

More than the floods, it is interventions by politicians that have led to a spike in public concern.

Last week, an opinion poll by YouGov found that public concern for the environment had spiked to levels not seen in any national poll since the late 1980s. Twenty three per cent of people polled stated that "the environment" was the number one issue for the country currently. This is up dramatically from the six per cent who chose it the previous week and ahead of issues including health, crime and education.

Undoubtedly the devastating flooding still affecting Britain accounts for part of this sudden spike in concern. The UK has just experienced the wettest January in 250 years; the Thames Barrier has had to be closed a record number of times against high tides; thousands of people have had their homes flooded. Nor is this just a freak occurrence; it is clearly part of a rising trend of extreme weather. Four out of the five wettest years on record have been since the year 2000, and in a separate poll last year over 80 per cent of people said they had experienced more flooding in their lifetimes.

But something else appears to have happened within the last fortnight to have caused such a sudden jump in public concern. We have been experiencing record-breaking floods and storms across the UK since the start of December but only the previous week, concern stood at just 6 per cent. What has changed is that politicians have finally started talking again about climate change.

It is a tragedy that it has taken devastating flooding to make it happen, but over the past fortnight, the relentless weather has forced Westminster to break the climate silence that it has kept for far too long. David Cameron has stated that he thinks "climate change is a serious threat". Ed Miliband has warned that we risk "sleepwalking into a climate crisis" by failing to prepare for global warming, and called on politicians of all parties to rebuild a cross-party consensus on climate change. Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, said that climate change "is a national security issue, definitely." And an "anonymous cabinet minister" has inveighed against Owen Paterson, saying he’s "not climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid."

Other important voices, have weighed in too. Lord Stern, author of the seminal Stern Review on the economics of climate change, has said that climate change is here with us now and could lead to global conflict. Peter Kendall, outgoing President of the NFU, says "climate change does now really challenge mankind's ability to feed itself", and has attacked Owen Paterson for downplaying the risks. The Met Office has been unusually forthright in stating the links between climate change and extreme weather. And Matthew d’Ancona, foremost chronicler of coalition politics, has captured the dilemma facing Cameron perfectly: "if the PM truly believes that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for potentially catastrophic changes in the weather — then it ought, logically, to be his priority, more important even than economic recovery."

Taken together, these quotes tell us one thing overwhelmingly: climate change has returned as a mainstream political issue.

Let's be clear, while these levels of environmental concern have not been seen since the late 80s, polls have consistently showed huge support for green issues. Whether it's the majority of people who support renewables or the increasing numbers opposing fracking. But what we're looking at here is how much "the environment" is at the forefront of the public's mind as a pressing concern for the country. YouGov themselves don't have a dataset running back very far, but Ipsos MORI's long-term polling data shows that over the past thirty years, concern for the environment as "the number one issue facing the UK" rose dramatically in two periods. The first of these is from 1988 to 1992; the second is 2006-7.

Notably, these two moments of history saw leading politicians repeatedly make prominent speeches on environmental issues; fight for the title of the greenest party; and seek to actually lead public debate on the environmental challenges facing us. In 1988, for example, Margaret Thatcher made a celebrated speech to the Conservative Party conference in which she spoke of the threat of global warming and even claimed, "It's we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth - we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come." Her ministers went on to produce the first ever Environment White Paper and drive negotiations for a climate change convention at the landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In 2006-7, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown responded to David Cameron’s efforts to green the Conservative Party by commissioning the Stern Review and ultimately getting behind the world’s first Climate Change Act.

On each occasion, a vibrant movement made up of the public and pressure groups pushed politicians into articulating green concerns. But to really bring that concern to the fore, to elevate it to an issue of national importance, often requires leadership on the part of politicians.

The question is whether now, in the wake of the floods, we will see renewed leadership from politicians to redouble the UK’s efforts on tackling climate change. A half-billion pound gap has opened up between current flood defence spending and what’s required to keep pace with rising seas and worsening downpours: will politicians come together to tackle that challenge? With climate change loading the dice in favour of more extreme weather, will all the parties commit to properly assessing the risks climate change poses to our country and the world? And given that prevention is better than cure, will all parties see the sense in renewing our efforts to cut domestic emissions, press for a global climate treaty, and do more to tackle climate change in the first place?

One final thought. Clearly, warm words about climate change will come to nought if no one at Westminster backs it up with the necessary regulations and investments. But words, too, have power. When Clement Atlee was asked what he thought Churchill had contributed to the war effort, he replied: "He talked about it." The characteristically understated Atlee did not mean this sarcastically; rather, he meant that it was Churchill's ability to articulate the conflict in terms that summoned up the blood and stiffened the sinews that was itself vital to the prosecution of the war.

And so, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg: you do now need to actually take action on climate change. But please don't stop talking about it, either.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser