There aren’t many global issues more entwined with the political arena than climate change. Its effects reach so far into almost every industry that pretty much every job, lifestyle and money-earning sector in all corners of the globe will be irreparably damaged, along with the planet itself. With governmental policies in the past that encouraged the industries that contribute to global warming, from fossil fuel subsidies to pushing diesel cars, it only makes sense that they’re the ones to fix it. And yet the politicians and their parties seem determined to distance themselves from the responsibility.
There has been much talk from the UK government about policies on plastic and perhaps a more comprehensive waste disposal system, and that air pollution is probably dangerous, but there is a critical lack of meaningful political initiatives that directly tackle climate change. Beyond earnest but ultimately unsubstantiated speeches about how important renewable energy is, the action actually being taken serves only to bolster the fracking industry and reject innovative renewable power systems like the Swansea Tidal Lagoon. This avoidance of the real issue at hand is damaging to the planet and our lifestyles, but in the future will be even more damaging to the political parties themselves. With concern about climate change rising across all sides of the voters’ spectrum, it may be the parties themselves set up for annihilation as the storm of global warming looms closer.
Every age has always had it’s ‘big issue’ that sets the political narrative of the time. During the Cold War era, nuclear defence, space, and communism all featured heavily in party manifestos. During the Troubles in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the topics were the state of Northern Ireland and terrorism. Most recently, since the 9th of September 2001, it has been terrorism and consequently, immigration. As the threat of global warming begins to appear at an overt level, with soaring temperatures, strange seasons, and a noticeable lack of wildlife, the environment and policies aimed to tackle climate change will become the characteristic subject of politics in the 2020’s.
In the past, green issues have often come as an addendum to regular environmental problems like flood risk and water supplies, with the role of environment secretary being handed down to whoever recycles the most. Real environmental issues have long been considered a battle of private interests between the likes of Greenpeace activists and big oil companies. Often as a branch for some peace and quiet, but not change, the UK government wedge in a few policies that put a little limit on emissions and resource use or perhaps some taxes to dodge, to offer the environment a small caveat of hope. For years politicians could ignore the issue or outrightly question the necessity or certainty of global warming and the solutions because environmentally damaging industries are just too profitable to stop. Oil has been revered for centuries as the most valuable asset of our time, given that it literally heats our homes and fuels our transport. From hefty revenue to payouts from fossil fuel lobbyists, oil is far too big of a commodity to let it go easily. But support for fossil fuels doesn’t stop governments from attempting to get green brownie points. From the current governments ’25-year Green Plan’ and ‘The Green Deal’ to David Camerons ‘Greenest Government Ever’, political manifestos are awash with greenwash jargon worth little more than the paper it’s printed on. As public opinion inches closer to horror by images of albatrosses gorged with plastic packaging, accounts of untimely deaths from unidentified gases in the air, and the heat of this summer proven to be exacerbated by climate change, governmental support for the culprits may cost them more than lost revenue.
As people become more engaged with the environmental issues and the impact to lives ramps up, the protection of the planet will become one of the most prominent topics discussed in politics. Last month, activist environmental law firm ClientEarth commissioned UK polling group YouGov to survey public opinion on climate issues. Of over 2000 people questioned, 62% believe that too little is being acted on by the government to curb and prepare for climate change; 71% want the government to invest more in renewable energies; and nearly half of the participants are in favour of taking the government to court if the UK doesn’t meet its Paris Agreement commitments. With an increasingly restless public with the power of a ballot in hand, it seems that the party that takes environmental measures to the lords will be rewarded with their votes.
Political parties have long been possessed by the notion of appealing to ‘the base’; the unyielding supporters of a party who turn out to every election and vote for who they’ve always voted for. Most of the time, this base consists of people who have already made up their mind about a party and cannot be convinced otherwise by new facts or better arguments. This relentless pursuit of entrenched loyalists results in stagnant ideologies that churn out the same old stuff expected of each party. Getting votes from the converted is a sure way to win by narrow margins and prevent the political landscape from moving. The real victories for election day and the planet, come from earning votes from some of the more than a third of registered voters who don’t use it. These people either feel strongly about politics but don’t think their input will change the situation or those who don’t engage with governmental affairs at all. With climate change predicted to hit the British Isles with weird and extreme weather, food price hikes and an increased risk of tropical diseases reaching our northern hemisphere, the direct and personal impacts of global warming will persuade more people to vote, and they’ll be looking for a party that promises the solution. In the climatically changed future, deep-rooted partisans won’t choose the next government, it’ll be those who escape the party’s narrow scope.
With the Conservative party’s poor track record on climate change mitigation, from allowing Heathrow to go ahead, scrapping renewable energy subsidies, to quashing incentive for electric vehicles, the younger turnout of engaged voters could leave the party floating out to sea, along with its core voters. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Labour party is proving loathe to pick up the climate solution slack. Labour’s newest manifesto which featured tackling air pollution while expanding airports and roads, has been criticised by Green party co-leader Jonathan Bartley as “cherry picking a few good Green policies, then contradicting them”. In a traditionally 2 horse race, unencumbered by parties political histories, the youth vote could see other parties like the Green or ones not yet established, pip them to the post.
With other social issues like migration and our divorce from the EU getting more airtime than the environment, will politicians be too blinkered to see this shift? The political landscape in recent years has shifted towards big but straightforward problems that call for big and straightforward solutions. You hate immigrants and shocking health care service? It’s the European Unions fault; let’s ditch them and then everything will be peachy. But this lack of substantial detail or proof behind the issues explains why it’s been so hard to get governments to focus on climate change wholly; it’s big, complicated, and fundamentally affects every industry and sector. But it’s, for this reason, it must however taxing, be remedied by political intervention. With climate change predicted to displace 200 million people as climate refugees by 2050, some, if not all of these issues will be exacerbated by the consequences of global warming.
If the government are slow to act, there will be climate-induced risks that will force their hand, like a stalling agricultural industry dependent on our traditionally temperate climate that is plunged into either warmer temperatures or those more similar to Sweden as the gulf-stream gets ‘turned off’ by an influx of melting arctic water. There is an ever-expanding list of things that governments can do to slow Britain’s impact on global warming, some of which that have been put into motion. We now have days where the UK’s energy supply is met without burning coal, and last year renewable and nuclear energies produced more electricity than fossil fuels. However, what the government currently seems most energised by is plastic packaging. Though a nice topic that certainly within the environmental realm, plastic is largely arbitrary when the country is still spewing out hundreds of tonnes of CO2 directly into the atmosphere. With the time it takes for laws to be pitched, addended, re-pitched and ratified, far more progress needs to be made now if we have any hope of meeting the Paris Agreements goal of 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. While the UK’s democratic system seems determined to throw real climate change mitigation strategies into next terms problem, global warming is not waiting for someone to finally pick up the baton.
Politicians must be prepared to stake climate change intervention at the top of the agenda, listen and encourage public opinion, and commit to the immediate curbing of fossil fuels. It won’t be popular, at least with traditionalists who like business as usual and economists who crudely see the likes of oil as an expensive asset too lucrative to leave in the ground. But for the good of the planet and the country, and simply if you want to be in office, green policies will be essential in the years to come.