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The climate movement will not be forgotten in this election

'Restore Nature Now' channelled the fury of neglected voters.

By Megan Kenyon

On 22 June, a balmy Saturday, a group of more than 60,000 nature protesters took to the streets of central London. A sea of green placards lined the route from Marble Arch to Parliament Square – among them calls to “Just Start Soil”, “Save our Tits” and, chiefly, “Restore Nature Now”. Birdsong played through portable speakers could be heard all along the route, and there were regular chants of “there is no planet B!”.

The organisers believe this was the largest public demonstration in Britain ahead of the general election. But, despite coming at a make-or-break moment for the environment, it seems politicians have rarely been less interested. Last month was the hottest May ever recorded globally, and marked 12 consecutive months of record-breaking warming, while last year’s State of Nature report found almost one in six UK species are at risk of extinction. There are six years left to achieve the worldwide target of 30 per cent nature restoration by 2030.

In the face of these glaring warnings, the climate crisis has barely featured in the election campaign, despite ranking consistently high with voters (YouGov ranks environment as the fourth most-important issue to the electorate). Instead, the dominant themes have been tax, immigration and, following damaging allegations in the past week around election betting, Tory sleaze.

Here to restore climate to the news agenda was an unprecedently broad coalition of campaigners. The “Restore Nature Now” march was made up of over 350 environmental groups from the National Trust to Extinction Rebellion, and was endorsed by some famous faces, including Judi Dench. The actress Emma Thompson, former MP Caroline Lucas and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham were among those solemnly leading the charge at the front of the crowd.

For some on the march, this silence on environmental issues during the campaign was a key reason for attending. One woman tells me that in her Oxfordshire constituency, “local candidates aren’t even discussing climate change, let alone biodiversity”. But for another protester, this is also about sending a message to central government. She tells me that candidates in her Berkshire constituency, “really understand what local people want in terms of nature and the climate” but that this is not being translated at a national level. Both tell me they feel “powerless” on this issue and that taking part in the march is a way of feeling like “you’re actually doing something”.

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This disappointment – and in some cases fury – is echoed by some of the march’s main organisers, in particular the movement’s de facto leader, Chris Packham. Sporting a t-shirt that straightforwardly reads, “I want to save the world,” Packham describes the neglect of these issues as “short-sighted” when we meet in Hyde Park ahead of the march. “Politicians at the moment either don’t understand – or they won’t admit that they do – that there’s a connectivity between environment and all of the other issues they’re campaigning on,” he says. “We’re confronted with the biggest issue in our species history; it’s not about jobs tomorrow. It’s about life the day after.”

Tanya Steele, the chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund UK agrees: “At the moment, politicians don’t fully recognise that nature underpins our economy, prosperity and our health.” Polling by the WWF released to coincide with the march found that 80 per cent of voters care about nature and climate, but over half of them also think that politicians simply don’t care. She tells me the next government must introduce “a series of environmental rights for citizens” to allow them “access to nature”, adding that people “shouldn’t be faced with filthy water”.

And, while the natural world may not be top of the election agenda, it’s clear that the sewage crisis has captured the public imagination, even before the election was called. Campaigning on this specific issue has been spearheaded by Feargal Sharkey, the former lead singer of The Undertones who has since become a prominent activist, featuring at 32 on the New Statesman’s Left Power List. He took a break from his “Stop the Shit Show Tour” of UK constituencies to attend Saturday’s march.  

“Everywhere I go, I still have random people walking up to me, and going: ‘Brilliant job about the rivers. Can I talk to you about shit?’” Sharkey says. He goes on to tell me that while he’s keen to go back to “talking about music”, he won’t stop until he feels the issue has been dealt with. And he’s furious about how things have been handled thus far. “We’ve been lied to, we’ve been abused,” he says, visibly seething. “People have destroyed our rivers and beaches, all for driving somebody else’s profit. It’s corporate greed.”

Sharkey and Packham are clearly the figureheads of this movement. Chatting to some protesters, it became apparent they were attending in the hope of meeting them as much as engaging in direct action. But neither celebrity is running in this election (although Sharkey is the chair of Sera, Labour’s environment campaign). And perhaps that explains their popularity. At a moment when trust in politicians is at record lows, and voters do not feel listened to, they are instead turning to moments and movements like these.

Politicians would do well to watch this carefully. A recent poll by the Stonehaven found one in six climate-conscious Conservative voters from 2019 will change parties at this election. As Boris Johnson said upon his resignation from Downing Street: “When the herd moves, it moves.”

[See also: George Osborne still governs the UK economy]

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