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30 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:25pm

While Brexit is ongoing, climate change will never get the attention that it desperately needs

By Stephen Bush

A war footing for climate change? That’s the call being made by Ed Miliband this morning, as the IPPR launches its environmental justice commission, of which Miliband is one of the chairs, alongside former Conservative MP Laura Sandys and the sole Green MP Caroline Lucas.

Climate change is what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a “hyper-object”: an issue so vast that we struggle to comprehend it most of the time. A crystallising event – unseasonable weather, a diverting statement from a former party leader – can briefly bring it into focus but we can’t consistently hold it in our minds. 

What does Miliband mean by a war footing? Essentially that Whitehall, Westminster and the country as a whole need to have the same single-minded focus that was put into winning the Second World War, when the economy and most political attention was focussed on ending the conflict. 

There are two major reasons why the past decade and a half has seen the most significant measures taken by governments to combat climate change. The first of course is that the problem is present and the science settled, making it harder for campaigning forces to resist demands for solutions.

The second is that, for unrelated reasons, the issue has in recent times had more effective champions in Whitehall. There was the close political proximity between Ed Miliband at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, David Cameron’s failure to win a majority and the presence of the Liberal Democrats in coalition, and Theresa May’s political weakness and reliance on the support of her former political foe Michael Gove at the Department of the Environment – all of which meant that there was a degree of active buy-in from both the relevant departments and Downing Street itself. 

But fundamentally despite those advances, we’re still in a situation in which a Corbyn-led Labour Party wouldn’t whip its MPs to oppose the expansion of Heathrow, and where the British government will tax sugar but won’t even issue guidelines about a climate-safe recommended level of meat. The cultural and political change – that shift to saying “what are you thinking? You can’t do that while there’s a war on” – is what Miliband wants.

But it’s hard to get that level of change while the government has another all-encompassing project before it: Brexit. That’s the real question that ought to have a larger prominence in the UK’s debate about Brexit’s end state: whether you want the political project of the next decade to be the reimagining of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, or if you want to use that time for something else. 

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