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Theresa May must act on climate breakdown – or step aside for those who will

The Prime Minister's no-show for Greta Thunberg is typical of the Conservative Party's record on our greatest challenge.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton
29 April 2019
Image: PA

Greta Thunberg is one of the only public figures who is being honest about environmental breakdown. Her speech in the UK Parliament contained a litany of truths that are almost entirely absent from the political debate. The scientific community has unequivocally warned that we have to roughly halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to have a shooting chance of avoiding catastrophe. This assumes away dangerous tipping points and feedback loops and relies on the global deployment of carbon capture technologies that have yet to be invented. It pays little attention to temperature rises resulting from emissions to date.

In particular, she is right to chastise political leaders for spreading false narratives of progress. Global emissions are rising, and nations’ commitments are woefully inadequate, setting us up for warming in excess of 3C, double the 1.5C the world must aim for. Moreover, the conspiracy of silence over issues of justice grows more egregious by the day, by the extra megaton of carbon released. We are speeding through a disaster caused by the economic systems of the wealthy West that falls hardest on those countries and communities who have suffered under the injustices of these systems for generations.

Thunberg began her speech by drawing on one of the most powerful moral arguments around: that the promises made to younger generations have been broken. She is right to try and reclaim this for younger, more progressive movements. A backlash against the broken, false promises of neoliberalism also permeates the narratives of regressive political movements around the world. Donald Trump riles up his base by invoking their lived experience of social and economic marginalisation. He then blames this state of affairs on the most marginalised: migrants and religious and ethnic groups who have been most impacted by the failures of those neoliberal policies that Trump seeks to entrench, from deregulation to tax cuts.

This feedback loop fuels the inexorable rise of ethno-nationalism, whose zero-sum violence is set to inherit the Earth as the seas rise and the food runs out. More blame, more walls and wars, more environmental breakdown, more forced migration – repeat. A catastrophic collapse in international cooperation is the outcome of this process. We need a countervailing politics to counter the threat of ethno-nationalism under conditions of environmental breakdown.

By failing to adequately act on environmental breakdown, the Conservative Party is one of the most powerful forces pushing the UK toward this future. This is contrary to the positive leadership narrative it cultivates and in spite of the many brilliant conservative environmental campaigners and politicians, both past and present. Within this context, Theresa May’s no-show at Thunberg’s meeting with party leaders is consistent with overall Tory attitudes toward environmental breakdown.

Tory grandees support or run organisations that routinely deny the scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of climate breakdown and manipulate the media and political process in order to delay or derail action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The party has given key ministerial portfolios to climate deniers and, in large parts, relies on the views of think tanks, such as the IEA, which refuse to disclose their funders while espousing policies that benefit corporate interests to the detriment of the vast majority of people and the future of the planet. The confluence of these forces is the demand for a ‘hard Brexit’, pushed by the powerful European Research Group (ERG), which has ties to right wing think tanks and lobbyists that call for the erosion of environmental standards.

The current administration is relying on past action to justify their ‘leadership’ on climate breakdown. While progress is being made on reducing ‘territorial emissions’ – those produced within the UK – far less progress is apparent when considering emissions from imports, aviation and shipping, as Thunberg rightly pointed out. Into the future, the government’s official advisors – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) - warns that the government’s policies are inadequate for the UK to meet its legally binding climate targets. After their 2015 election victory, the Conservatives took an axe to the ‘green crap’, in David Cameron’s words, cutting support for wind and solar power, killing off a ground-breaking home insulation scheme, and privatising the Green Investment Bank.

This week, the CCC will report back on the feasibility of the UK setting a target for full decarbonisation, or ‘net zero’, from the 80% target today, bringing it in line with the science. Adopting this target will be meaningless unless the government introduces the policies to get us there. It currently has no strategy to do so, imperilling our futures. Instead it supports fracking, airport expansion, and the continued exploitation of North Sea fossil fuels.

Within the global context, the government has chosen to fund fossil fuel projects abroad, burdening poorer countries with stranded assets and contributing to the global financial risk inherent in continued investment in redundant infrastructure. It is a key supporter of neoliberal policies in multilateral institutions that pursue aggressive privatisation that is, according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, “systematically eliminating human rights protections and further marginalising those living in poverty” – further robbing poorer countries of the wherewithal to handle the impacts of environmental breakdown.

William Hague recently wrote that the “Conservatives have to take the climate crisis seriously.” This is for two reasons. Firstly, not doing so – and continuing down the course charted above – pushes the UK and the world towards a nightmare of environmental breakdown and ethno-nationalist conflict. Indeed, the xenophobic rhetoric from some Tories and party policies, including the hostile environment, increasingly associate the party with such a political outcome. Secondly, the Conservative Party is increasingly implicated in a planetary catastrophe that populations around the world, particularly younger generations, are waking up to and mobilising against. The Met Office warns that we could breach 1.5C within the next five or so years. What then will we think of Owen Paterson, Boris Johnson and Nigel Lawson?

Theresa May wasn’t at the table with Greta Thunberg and the other party leaders because she didn’t want to be. Her and her party, as currently constituted, must catch up or step aside. In its place must come the energy and passion of the climate strikers, Extinction Rebellion, a Green New Deal, those calling climate emergencies, and the voices and insights of communities on the frontline of the injustices of neoliberalism capitalism. Our future depends on it.

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