The climate crisis isn’t a matter of personal responsibility but of economic class

Polluters benefit by encouraging us to think of environmental breakdown as an individual problem.

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In advance of Channel 4’s climate change debate last Thursday, rumours were circulating that Boris Johnson would be replaced with a giant ice sculpture of himself that would slowly melt under the studio lights. Sadly, the spectacle ended up being slightly more prosaic – in one of the more memorable parts of the evening, two ice sculptures of the earth replaced Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

The debate could have been one of the most exciting and combative moments of the campaign. There is a vast disparity between Labour’s climate ambitions – net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 – and those of the other major parties (the Conservatives opted for 2050, the Liberal Democrats for 2045). But there is also a large gap in substance between Labour and the Greens – as was made painfully clear when the party’s co-leader Sian Berry discussed plans to impose the costs of decarbonisation on working people through a meat tax. What differentiates Labour from the other parties – including the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP – is the focus on climate breakdown as a class issue.

The party is seeking to promote a just transition under which the costs of transitioning to a green economy are imposed on those who are most able to bear them, who are responsible for the greater portion of carbon emissions. Higher taxes on the wealthy, job-creating investment across the country and the reskilling of those displaced from jobs in polluting industries are all central parts of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution.

But these issues were barely mentioned over the course of Thursday’s debate. Instead, the leaders spent much of their limited time talking about how we might tackle climate breakdown by encouraging individuals to make small changes to their lifestyles.

When the leaders were questioned about their individual carbon footprints, Jeremy Corbyn, the vegetarian, gardener and train enthusiast, clearly came out on top. But the question should never have been asked in the first place. Because dealing with climate breakdown isn’t a question of personal responsibility – it’s about making permanent changes to the structure of the economy.

A significant part of that transformation would obviously involve reducing our use of fossil fuels. This would require dramatic investment in wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy – Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution includes plans to build 7,000 offshore and 2,000 onshore wind turbines, and enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches. Governments must also encourage research and development into green technologies, which would increase the efficiency and affordability of these technologies over the long term.

Eventually, of course, this would put the fossil fuel companies out of business. But action is required in the short term too. There is now evidence that the big polluters have known about the impact of burning fossil fuels since at least the 1960s, and yet they have earned billions of dollars’ worth of profits since then – some of these even used to sponsor climate denialism.

The big polluters must be made to pay for the damage they have caused out of the profits they have generated. Labour’s plan for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies would achieve just that.

In the context of these policy proposals, it would be very convenient for the oil companies if the public conversation around climate breakdown focused on plastic straws, recycling and veganism. Polluters benefit from actively encouraging us to think about climate breakdown as an issue of individual responsibility.

More worryingly, much of the media – including, apparently, Channel 4 – has blindly followed their lead. When I raised the issue of big polluters funding climate denialism on Sky News, presenter Adam Boulton claimed that the fossil fuel companies were at the forefront of the battle against climate breakdown.

The Channel 4 debate was a missed opportunity to challenge the individualistic notion of climate breakdown that pervades our society and benefits the oil companies. As long as voters are convinced that responsibility for the climate breakdown lies with individuals, we will never achieve the radical policies needed to break the grip of the big polluters over our economy.

It is not too late to change the conversation. Over recent weeks, I have visited 24 constituencies throughout the UK – mainly in the midlands and the north. Many voters in former mining communities are deeply aware of the need to deal with the climate crisis but they know that the only way to decarbonise fairly is to ensure jobs are created in new, clean, green industries.

Labour’s promise to create a million jobs in the green economy is hugely popular in such places. Many of them voted significantly in favour of Brexit but the credible promise of a Green Industrial Revolution is often enough to counter their scepticism about Corbyn’s offer of a second referendum.

In fact, recent polling from the New Economics Foundation shows that 70 per cent of voters in the north and the midlands believe climate change will be an important deciding factor in this general election. In the 10 days that remain of the campaign, Labour would be wise to focus on bringing the country together around a common goal: delivering a just transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

Grace Blakeley is the New Statesman’s economics commentator and a research fellow at IPPR.