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AS political parties dust themselves down after the drubbing of local government elections, the good news is that all the answers are to be found in bigger, rather than smaller, issues.
Climate, not Brexit, is the key.
We live in revolutionary times. And we have our children to thank for still filling them with hope rather than despair.
The unthinkable is happening. Parliament, public institutions and the press are waking to the fact that climate change can only be constrained by systems change. This recognition is still in its infancy, but it is already unstoppable.
I recently came across an early version of what will have to be every (credible) party’s next election manifesto. Pasted up on a wall was a simple drawing of an elephant, with the words “climate change” on its back. It summed up what all future political choices revolve around: climate change is the elephant in the room.
Labour can pride itself for having introduced the world’s first Climate Change Act, and for passing the first “climate emergency declaration,” but we shouldn’t pretend that Parliament wasn’t “bounced” into doing so.
Since the 2017 general election, there have been ample opportunities for MPs to show real political leadership on the climate crisis. They never did. Instead, Parliament has preferred to play Trivial Pursuit with Brexit absurdities.
Social movements had to step into the vacuum; addressing the big picture issues politicians had been choosing to ignore. They, and they alone, have been the ones insisting that existential threat to human existence forms the centrepiece of political debate. Across the planet, this has been a debate shaped from outside parliaments, not inside.
We now know how much we owe to our children for doing so. But while the kids may have written the script, they weren’t alone. “One Planet” documentaries helped. So too did insightful journalism, climate physicists and church leaders. With the latest protests taking place over Easter it was really helpful for church leaders to have pointed out that, though protesters were undoubtedly breaking the law, Christ too had entered Jerusalem knowing he would face prosecution. Ultimately, however, it was the creative irreverence of Extinction Rebellion (XR) that has turned this into a movement that cannot be stopped.
In place of derision Greta Thunberg is no longer the lonely child outside an indifferent parliament. Without vanity, she trailed an uncompromising challenge to every adult Establishment on the planet. The abuse she received from parts of the press that continue to be at the heart of the problem merely accelerated the growth of the movement.
Britain’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) would not have had the political space to bring forward their own “pull your finger out” report without the occupations that brought London streets to a halt. Nor would they have been listened to. The latest UN report on species extinctions now gets treated as evidence, not argument.
Politicians of all shades queue up, calling for a programme to deliver the CCC rescue plan.
Few grasp the upheavals involved (or that, in itself, this will still not be enough). Over 60 per cent of what the CCC calls for involves behaviour change; all of which is doable. What they duck is that you won’t get behaviour change without systems change.
The gap between Extinction Rebellion and the CCC may be one defined by climate physics, but it can only be delivered through transformative politics. This is precisely what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been calling for. For the party as a whole, though, this invitation is where the problems begin.
Internal battle-lines are already being drawn. How can Labour deliver climate stability if large parts of the party are still locked into airport expansions, fossil fuel subsidies, expanding road programmes and the illusion of a new era of global free-trade deals?
Physics tells us there are no “slow track’ survival options left.
Labour traditionalists insist they need longer timescales than the one (decisive) decade in which the science calls for transformation.
Those pushing for faster change already face criticisms of “trying to play Climate Jesus.”
What their critics fail to see is that the imagery puts slow-track traditionalists into the role of Pharisees; defenders of an order that is about to implode.
The Tories have made themselves almost irrelevant to this conversation. Conservative supporters no longer even look to their party for bigger answers. It is a party in free-fall disarray. Bless. But cross-party Brexit negotiations risk dragging Labour down too.
Theresa May should be left to sink on her own. The last thing Labour needs is a to be part of a suicide pact.
A better starting point lies somewhere between Extinction Rebellion and the CCC. To join in, Labour may need to tear up whatever has been its draft manifesto for the next election, replacing it with a new “climate emergency” one.
Tomorrow’s political stability will revolve around societal mobilisation and ecosystems repair. This requires a new economics that can live within contracting carbon budgets, give fresh life to abandoned localities (as key drivers in tomorrow’s sustainable, low-carbon economics) and offer an antidote to today’s obsessive, self-destroying consumerism.
Conventional pledges to fairness, inclusivity and rebooting an industrial economy don’t automatically answer this existential threat. Suggestions that Labour might do so by expanding production, consumption and world trade would be ridiculed by XR, scientists and schools climate strikers alike. In the ballot box, it would be a disaster. We all need a different script.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband was right in telling Radio 4 that the British economy must be “put on a war footing to tackle climate change.” This “footing” must begin with reversing the damage we’re currently doing. The latest UN report, Nature’s Dangerous Decline, details the risk of 1 million species — not types of plants, animals, birds or insects, but whole species — facing extinction within the coming decades.
The answer isn’t to go building more runways, motorways or shopping malls. What we need is to replant forests, green our cities, and give pollinators places to feed, breed and shelter in. And for the public, we need a national programme to green the nation’s habitat too; delivering warm homes that also produce more energy than they consume.
I don’t care if this gets denounced as “loaves and fishes” idealism. It’s what the science (and the kids) know is our only choice. Today’s Pharisees can protest as much as they like that “the system” needs more time — to cleanse the air, restore the seas and heal the soils.
But time is the one thing they no longer have.
Outside the parliamentary temple, a growing social movement understands that we can either save “the system” or save society, but not both. Like Corbyn and McDonnell, this movement calls out for transformative change. Anyone’s manifesto that offers less will not be seen as Old Testament, just old hat.
Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992-2010 and currently advises Labour on environmental policy.
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