Demotix/ Peter Marshall. All rights reserved.The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party comes as welcome news to many in the environmental movement.His Protecting our Planet manifesto contains significant pledges and a refreshing vision for a transformed economy. He supports the call for one million climate jobs, opposes fracking and handouts to dirty energy projects, acknowledges the need to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, and advocates a more democratic and cleaner energy system. He rightly maintains that “tackling climate change will only be effective if social justice is at the heart of the solutions we propose”.
Corbyn’s suggested policies are certainly imperfect, but they far outweigh those presented by the remaining Labour candidates, and clearly overshadow the myopic understanding of environmental action advanced by the Conservative Party.The current government, in little over a hundred days, has taken us back enormously in the fight for climate justice and a just low-carbon economy. Leading environmentalist Tony Juniper called the last few months “the worst period for environmental policy that I have seen in my 30 years’ work in this field.”
Fracking has been fast-tracked, with a fresh round of licenses granted for oil and gas exploration across the country. Standards for zero carbon homes have been scrapped. Funding has been pulled for the flagship Green Deal scheme to encourage energy efficiency in homes. As new investments in North Sea oil have been unveiled, support for onshore wind and solar energy has been axed. Over half of the Green Investment Bank is likely to be sold off. Ambitious renewable energy projects have been blocked, while mega gas-fired power stations have been approved. David Cameron’s key adviser on energy and climate policy is now an oil and gas consultant.
All these disastrous measures, and all those that will come, must be firmly rejected and repealed.But for Corbyn to be a genuine leader on climate change, he must do far more than oppose and propose. He must change the terms of debate. For most politicians, irrespective of political loyalties, climate change is merely a page in the manifesto, a single issue amongst many.
This is partly explained by the nature of short-termist politics. In the world of political time, the urgent replaces the important. The breaking story hides the broken trend. Every political day brings a commotion of new media challenges, new requests for comment, new party predicaments, new interventions, new manoeuvres to save face and exact political benefit.
But climate change defies conventional political time. It’s not a packable election issue. It’s not a neat problem soluble through a few shrewd policies. The disturbed chemistry of the atmosphere doesn’t allow for stalling or deferment. It’s a severe challenge to our economic system that requires an enormous, sustained, and far-sighted response.
We desperately need a government and an opposition which reacts to the devastating scale of the climate crisis. So what should Corbyn do?
Firstly, he needs to use his privileged position of leadership to help pierce public consciousness. Every media appearance is a precious opportunity to move the agenda, and increasingly using his profile to discuss climate change will allow for the promising ideas in his manifesto must emanate into the realm of mainstream discussion.
Secondly, he needs to inject a moral urgency into the discussion on climate, telling stories of those impacts by our polluting economy. From the tens of thousands who die from air pollution and fuel poverty in the UK ever year, to the millions suffering the consequences of unravelling environmental disruption across the globe, he must humanize the stakes of inaction. The procrastination and duplicity of politicians should be criticised for what it is: an assault on current and future lives.
Thirdly, rather than depicting climate change as an ancillary issue, he needs to start positioning the case for climate action at the heart of a progressive vision for a new economy. We know that addressing climate change is an imperative, but we also know that the solutions required are tools that can help us build a healthier, fairer, and more peaceful world. Taking the necessary steps to cut emissions can bring more liveable cities, millions of dignified jobs in the clean economy, more democratic and independent energy systems, extensive and affordable public transport, improvements in public health, preserved natural ecosystems, and innumerable other benefits. The case for reversing austerity can be enriched by illustrating these possibilities, and weaving together an affirmative, galvanizing vision of renewal.
The difficulties Jeremy Corbyn faces, from the hounding of the media to the internal divisions of his own party, are immense. But if he manages to survive and flourish, he could lay the groundwork for the deep transformation required to avert catastrophic climate change.