In a properly edited publication, the letters page is of central importance. So, thank you to Mike Brown of New Galloway who chastised me for omitting climate change as part of the sea of troubles facing Britain. I kiss the rod: I write this with sweat trickling through my eyebrows on what is a record-breaking day of intolerable heat.
The Conservative Party’s leadership race is not serious about global warming. The candidates have had every chance but they don’t want to talk about climate change, or what steps need to be taken to slow it down. In the televised hustings they treated the government’s net-zero commitments – which are enshrined in law – as an embarrassment or worse. For Kemi Badenoch they are “arbitrary” and similar to “unilateral economic disarmament”.
Penny Mordaunt and Badenoch have previously accepted donations from Michael Hintze, the anti-net-zero campaigner and billionaire. And the trade deal that Mordaunt negotiated with Australia has been criticised for the impact it will have on deforestation. As for Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, what have they said about the climate crisis?
Worse still, the candidates know their audience. In a survey by YouGov of Conservative Party members published on 18 July, the emissions target was ranked last in importance in a list of ten policy areas. They don’t care.
In my last column I argued that unfunded tax-cutting pledges by would-be Tory prime ministers were fundamentally not serious, and outside of the “real world”. But the real world is far worse. As the candidates snipe and make arch debating points, there are monsters at the window.
Russia seems to be winning, albeit very slowly, its war against Ukraine. Using inflation, starvation and fuel poverty as strategic weapons, Vladimir Putin hopes to break Western unity this winter. He may succeed. Then he will attack the next country on his list. The possibility of world war has never been greater in my lifetime.
But catastrophic climate change is as big and immediate a threat as war in Ukraine. In the melting tar under our feet, the shortness of breath and the sweltering shadows, we can feel the danger. The trouble is, there are cooler, greyer weeks ahead, and we often prioritise only what is happening now, and our political system reflects that. The parliamentary structure is the institutionalisation of prevarication. It is easy and cheap to blame the politicians – I suppose I’ve made a career out of it – but they take their cues from the public.
Climate change, species extinction, the consequences of global migration, starvation and the upending of the world order for cosy little Britain are horrible issues to think about. Most people will only consider them when doing so is unavoidable – and therefore when it is too late. If you are old, you may not live to see the worst. If you have no children, you may not care. In 2017 the Bow Group said the average age of a Tory party member was 72; more recent academic research suggests it is around 57. But either way, in prioritising winning the next election and paying energy bills over targets for reaching zero carbon emissions, the leadership contenders are thinking more like the general population than New Statesman readers may want to believe.
It is because Extinction Rebellion activists understand the deadly problem of short- and long-term thinking that they get so frantic. The group’s problem, however, is that by blocking roads and railway lines they simply make other people angrier – those usually with them, not with “global capitalism” or the coal industry.
What we need, with the monsters at the window, is not simply protest but genuine political leadership. Is it pathetic to say that at the age of 63 I yearn to be led? That I want to be inspired; I want to be moved to behave differently, to be able to believe in a better future. I want to be told true stories by people who have thought deeply and are dedicated and brave.
To respond to the climate crisis we are all going to have to live differently – eat differently, travel differently, work differently and adapt our homes. This unexpected future requires real leadership.
There are plenty of green Tories who are well organised and articulate. They arranged a hustings and chivvied the candidates into committing to the 2050 target, albeit with conditional clauses dangling in all directions. Despite strong language from Zac Goldsmith, the minister for the Pacific and the international environment, and Alok Sharma, the president of Cop26, there are more weasel words about the climate crisis being proclaimed in parliament than you’d find in the wild woods. Both Mordaunt and Truss committed themselves to dropping the green levy on energy bills. There is still a general Tory view that “green stuff” is fine if it in no way discommodes voters.
This is fatuous. There are hard choices ahead. The problem for would-be popular Conservatives is that the answers are loaded with class privilege. The rich can always insulate better, move somewhere else, congratulate themselves on expensive, “green” lifestyle choices. The rest will be left to swelter – or to endure flooding when that season returns. Lectures about how we are all in it together won’t go down well in more deprived areas of the UK.
Labour is going to have to look hard at its policy in response to the climate emergency. Its multi-authored 2019 Green New Deal is radical. It calls for dramatic land reform, a 2030 carbon neutral target, a national food network to cut reliance on imports and much else. Its tone is more Jeremy Corbyn than Keir Starmer, so it is unclear how much will be acceptable to the leadership. But there ought to be a serious discussion about it during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool in September.
Back in Conservative Britain the government’s attitude to boiling temperatures remains woeful. On 18 July the High Court ruled, in a case brought by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project, that the government’s Net Zero Strategy was in breach of its own Climate Change Act: because of inadequate information about how carbon targets would be met, the policy was unlawful.
[See also: The Tories’ new nightmare]
On the same day, as the temperature soared Cobra, the cabinet’s crisis committee, met – albeit without the outgoing prime minister, who was too busy looping the loop in an RAF fighter jet joyride. The government offered little official advice on what to do in the heatwave, and Tory commentators contented themselves by attacking the “nanny state” for telling people to stay in the shade and drink water.
You see? Not serious. There has never been a time when we needed inspirational leadership more. The summer coup against Boris Johnson, ejecting the big dog from office and moving him off to a well-appointed kennel, was essential for Britain’s reputation. But the consequent populist beauty contest is not much more serious than a barbecue at Chequers. It’s sugar-rush politics lite.
We need a beady focus on the hard science of climate change, plain language and an understanding of how essential the state remains. In specific terms, we may now need a department for national resilience, looking at everything from transport networks to flood plains, basic food prices to warm refuges for the vulnerable in the winter. We began to get a glimpse of this kind of quiet ruthlessness during the pandemic. Where has it gone?
I’ve now been writing for more than an hour and the sweat is trickling down my back. But this is nothing. This is a tap on the window. Kindly, the climate is giving us warning after warning. Out there, the monsters are real. The horsemen have always ridden together. We are lucky that in our part of the world and in our lifetimes, they have always been distant. But now they are coming a little nearer. So let’s get real; let’s get back to talking about tax cuts.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman; subscribe here.
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party