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Climate breakdown is deeply political. But you wouldn't know it from Channel 4’s climate debate

By focusing on superficial tropes about the environment, it’s hard to see how the debate will have helped undecided voters distinguish between the parties.

Angus Satow
29 November 2019
Image: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

Last night saw the first ever election ‘climate debate’, the result of a year of climate chaos and determined organising by activists including the youth strikers. It comes amidst what several polls have determined is the UK’s first ‘climate election’.

The aftermath of the debate was, of course, taken up by the Tories’ attempts to distract from their absence. Channel 4 went one better than the traditional empty chair treatment for Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, replacing them with melting ice sculptures at each end of the panel, neatly encapsulating their indifference to the climate crisis.

For a decade the Tories have slashed support for renewables while backing fossil fuels to the hilt at home and abroad, from introducing fracking to exporting fossil fuels. Boris Johnson is perfectly content with a status quo which sacrifices working class communities here and across the world to the ravages of climate catastrophe, from air pollution or flooding, so long as it enriches him and his Big Polluter friends. Jeremy Corbyn crystallised the seismic choice facing us when he said the best thing for our planet is to get Boris Johnson out of No 10.

Sadly, the rest of the debate was an indistinguishable slurry of dates and unrelatable policy debate about things like ‘district heating systems’. Littered with references to furry animals, it’s hard to see how this debate would have helped any undecided voters distinguish significantly between the parties, or even realise that it was about them and their future.

Sian Berry regularly restated her party’s systemic ambitions on climate, with a Green New Deal to reach net-zero emissions by 2030, a target the Greens share with Labour. Taxes on meat, dairy and carbon are other notable elements of the Green plan for a Green New Deal.

Nicola Sturgeon gave a typical performance: an assured smoothing over of the paucity of the SNP’s ambitions, evinced by their abysmal 2045 decarbonisation target. Climate scientists finally held her to account on her party’s continued support for oil and gas, debunking her attempts to explain it away.

Jo Swinson managed to go all of one sentence without bringing up Brexit. The Lib Dems didn’t come out particularly strongly – likewise fifteen years behind the decarbonisation pace. She highlighted the Lib Dems frequent flyer tax for those taking more than three flights a year, but offered little in the way of systemic transformation.

All candidates, including Adam Price of Plaid Cymru, talked about improving public transport, increasing renewable energy and protecting the natural world. Viewers could be forgiven for nodding off as the talk turned to keepcups.

This was the double-edged sword of a climate debate: a success in forcing the climate crisis onto the agenda, but a failure in siloing it away from the rest of our economy and society. Channel 4 stuck to superficial tropes of environmentalism, choosing to ask the leaders what their personal pledge to be greener was, rather than how their parties’ climate plans would benefit ordinary families or people displaced from their homes.

They led the show with images of a koala burnt in the recent bushfires, not people in Yorkshire whose homes have been devastated. And they closed it with a panel of climate scientists, confirming the message that climate breakdown is a question of technocracy, not politics. The truth, however, is that climate is a class issue.

The leader who was most successful in explaining how their party’s plans would benefit those are suffering under the current economic system was Jeremy Corbyn, putting forward Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution. Corbyn laid out Labour’s £250bn Green Transformation Fund in comprehensible terms, from a million green jobs to investment in new green industries and infrastructure (particularly on transport) for communities abandoned for over forty years.

Corbyn was attacked on airport expansion, where Labour offers environmental tests as a hurdle, and latterly on nuclear – a topic where parties are reluctant to credibly address the challenge of ensuring a 100% renewables mix alongside justice-based supply chains.

Nonetheless, it is Labour who are offering climate action which appeals to the whole country: rapid decarbonisation embedded in a programme of social regeneration. It is Labour pledging to cut families’ energy bills by over £400 every year and eradicate fuel poverty through an unprecedented ‘Warm Homes for All’ plan; to work with trade unions (not against them) to create a million new green jobs; and crucially, to make the Big Polluters pay for a just transition, rather than ordinary people, to transfer power and wealth from corporations to workers. It is a programme to transform our economy at home and forge a new internationalism premised on climate justice, not fossil fuel neocolonialism.

At Labour for a Green New Deal, our whole intention has been to bring together climate and class politics, demonstrating that the economic system burning the planet is the same one imposing brutal austerity on the working class and making billions for the super-rich. Only a new economic model can set us free, and garner mass support.

Labour have set that model in train – with new regional manifestos launched today, power redistributed equally across the country and public ownership of rail, mail, water and energy – a vital tool for rapid decarbonisation (missing in other parties’ armories), given the market’s blatant failure to address the current crisis. 

The climate crisis is as much about finance, austerity, inequality and borders as it is science and numbers. Tackling it means replacing an extractive and exploitative economy with a just one built on democracy and stewardship. 

We could be on the verge of transformative change.

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