Vote blue, forget going green

Published by The i paper (29th July, 2019)

There is one thing we can agree on in our divided nation: last week was very hot. I flew back from the sauna-like Indian city of Chennai, which has run out of water and offers an alarming glimpse of an apocalyptic future, to find London even hotter and – on some measures – more polluted for those breathing its dirty air. Later it emerged we had been sweltering in the hottest July day on record, with flights and railways thrown into chaos by a heatwave that also took the thermometer to unprecedented highs in Belgium, France, Germany and Holland.

A few sweaty days does not prove the climate is changing, but it is increasingly clear that weather patterns are shifting on our warming planet. Britain is 30 times more likely to have heatwaves than three centuries ago. Alaska’s sea ice is melting faster than usual as records tumble. In India, experts told me their monsoons seem to be shortening yet intensifying. Other scientists say the amounts by which some of the records in Europe were broken last week was significant. Lille, for instance, was five degrees hotter than ever recorded before in the city. This followed a June that was the hottest on earth in history.

Some sad individuals still refuse to accept the reality of what is happening to our world, their clarity of thought clouded by distrust of expertise or simply thinking they know more about science than the vast majority of specialists who conclude humankind is causing climate change. Yet for the third time in my life, this issue has hurtled back up the political agenda. One recent survey found more than two thirds of Britons see it as a more pressing long-term priority than Brexit, while nearly the same numbers believe Westminster is not doing enough to tackle the crisis.

So it was no surprise to hear Boris Johnson give a nod to the environment in his speech on the steps of Downing Street last week. It was, typically, wrapped in his usual British exceptionalism as he claimed this country was ‘leading the world in the battery technology that will help cut CO2 and tackle climate change and produce green jobs for the next generation.’ Yet these words showed this to be an issue that cannot be ignored, even by a government grabbed by a hard-right faction who were so critical of David Cameron’s green makeover in the early days of his leadership.

It is, as on many issues, hard to discern our buffoonish new prime minister’s real beliefs on climate change. In his journalism, Johnson has cast doubt on the idea that humanity is responsible for global warming as ‘without foundation’ and often praised Piers Corbyn, the Labour leader’s weather forecaster brother and prominent denier. He has also taken cash from key financiers of the anti-green lobby. Yet during his brief stint at foreign secretary, he criticised Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the landmark Paris agreement and urged the United States ‘to take climate change extremely seriously.’

Far better to judge him by his actions. As London mayor, despite being a dedicated cyclist, he scrapped a major extension of the congestion charge zone for all its success in cutting traffic and carbon emissions. He also delayed plans for a low-emission zone. As foreign secretary, he slashed the number of climate attaches serving around the world, which damaged efforts to push for global action, before begging then-chief scientist Sir David King not to let the news get out into media. “I’m nervous about Boris,” said King last month.

His new cabinet, stuffed with hardline Brexiteers or slippery careerists who ditched principles for a top job, contains several sceptics. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s views are, typically, as outdated as his image. He has attacked ‘climate alarmism,’ dismissed clean energy as unaffordable, and said we should not ‘go back to the stone age’ by cutting emissions. Liz Truss says solar farms blight the landscape and cut subsidies for them as environment secretary, bizarrely saying they threaten food security. Esther McVey opposes a zero carbon target, sneering in her brief leadership bid at ‘wealthy environmental activists’ who want to impose extra costs on families.

It is good – on this issue at least – to see Michael Gove moved into a central role, given his energy and efforts as environment secretary. Yet there is a philosophical cause for concern, highlighted to me by Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth’s chief executive. Brexit is a concept founded on ‘taking back control’, of freeing our nation from the ‘shackles’ and regulations of Brussels. It is backed by libertarians and ultra free-marketers at Westminster, politicians who see the state as an enemy and recoil at restrictions on citizens and firms.  This explains why polls have found Remain voters more likely to see climate change as a key issue than those that backed Leave – and why this faction can raise cash easily from rich donors who don’t like being harnessed.

Johnson’s instinct has always been contempt for state interference. This is why he rails at ‘nannyism’ and waved that kipper to make false claims about European red tape. It is the one constant in his career, beyond self-adoration, and is matched by many of his acolytes and the older voters they aim to enlist. The Tories have a better record on the environment than many credit, despite serious failures, yet we are only in the early skirmishes of the fight to save our planet. This is one more reason for concern over the Westminster coup that has captured our country, since protection of the environment demands leadership and the kind of firm regulation loathed by these fanatics. Deal or no deal, this does not bode well for our future.

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