A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever
by Ian Sinclair
21 May 2018
Looking back from today, we can now see the mid to late 2000s marked a high point in activism, media interest and government action regarding climate change in the UK.
Increasingly large and prominent Climate Camps, drawing attention to climate endangering infrastructure, were organised every year between 2006 and 2010; the direct group Plane Stupid occupied runways and the roof of parliament to highlight the danger of airport expansion; and Climate Rush, inspired by the Suffragette’s campaign for the women’s vote, carried out media-friendly actions including a picnic at Heathrow departures and dumping a pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.
With documentaries like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and 2009’s The Age of Stupid attracting huge audiences, David Cameron’s Tories sensed the shift in public opinion and rebranded themselves as an environmentally-friendly party. The slogan “vote blue, go green” was adopted and famously the old Etonian hugged a husky.
Ridiculous and shameless as this PR campaign was, the political arms race created by Cameron’s supposed green shift both proved the power of the green movement, and produced the political landscape it needed to win several important victories for the climate. Driven forward by a huge Friends of the Earth campaign, the 2008 Climate Change Act legally bound the UK to making 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow after the 2010 general election, and, following actions and campaigning by a coalition of groups on coal, analysis by Imperial College London showed the dirtiest fossil fuel dropped from generating 40 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 to just 2 percent in the first half of 2017.
Zoom forward to today and the climate crisis that green activists devoted their lives to averting in the late noughties has only become more urgent.
For example, whilst senior climate scientists have repeatedly explained carbon admissions need to fall immediately and rapidly to avert climate catastrophe, the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions hit a record high last year, increasing by 1.4 percent. The New Yorker’s David Wallace-Wells provides some much need reality to the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement, which committed the 195 signatories to keeping the global temperature increase to below two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees. “Not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, Wallace-Wells notes, citing a November 2017 New York Times report based on data from Climate Action Tracker. “To keep the planet under two degrees of warming – a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe – all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments.”
Speaking to the Morning Star after the Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it was “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that” – by 2100, if not before. The corporate world has already come to terms with this likely future, with an internal Shell planning document predicting a 4oC increase in the short term. Similarly in 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers told businesses and governments that they “need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”
“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term”, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, recently noted in an Environmental Justice Foundation report. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.” Speaking in 2011 about the risks climate change poses to Australia, Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was even more direct: “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”
As these warnings highlight, the importance of the looming climate chaos is hard to overestimate. “Every single day, climate change is the most important thing happening on the planet—there’s nothing even remotely close”, argues US climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writing in the New Yorker magazine.
In contrast to this urgency, with a few important exceptions (e.g. the nationwide anti-fracking movement) the green movement in the UK seems to have been in a serious rut since 2009/10. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations climate summit was a massive blow to the green movement’s morale, while the Coalition Government’s austerity programme led many activists to move from climate-specific work to campaigns such as UK Uncut and housing battles. In addition, since 2015 it is clear many activists on the Left who are concerned about climate change have put their time and energy into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many joining Momentum.
Indeed, Corbyn’s environmental policies have broadly been positive. Friends of the Earth graded Labour’s 2017 election manifesto 34 points out of 48, behind the Green Party on 46 but above the Liberal Democrats (32) and Conservatives (11). That Morning Star columnist Alan Simpson is advising Corbyn on environmental issues is welcome, as is Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent announcement that Clive Lewis MP had joined his team to “drive the climate change issue into the heart of Treasury policy making, and therefore into the centre of government policy making”. However, there are still huge problems within the Labour Party when it comes to creating and pursuing effective policies on climate change. Many Labour MPs are still wedded to the ideal of a corporate-dominated neoliberal economy. The GMB union supports fracking. And, most importantly, Labour under Corbyn is still a pro-economic growth party – the word “growth” is mentioned 15 times in the election manifesto – despite this economic dogma being exactly the thing that is driving the planet over the climate cliff.
Rather than this old, 20th century thinking we desperately need new, radical ideas and action. We need, as Sir David King notes above, a wholesale transformation of our economies, which will only be possible with a profound shift in our politics and societal values. “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?”, worries Canadian writer Naomi Klein in her essential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She cites the historical examples of the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against Apartheid, the abolition of slavery and the New Deal to give an idea of the scale and influence of the mass movement that is now needed to defend the climate. Others have suggested the societal mobilisation that occurred during World War Two is closer to the level of change that we need to aim for.
This, then, is why a reinvigorated green movement is needed now more than ever – to pressure the current Tory government and Corbyn’s Labour Party to take proactive and effective steps to deal directly with the threat of climate change.
And we need to act now. As McKibben notes in his New Yorker article: though “it feels as if we have time to deal with global warming… In fact, climate change is the one problem that the planet has ever faced that comes with an absolute time limit; past a certain point, it won’t be a problem anymore, because it won’t have a solution.”
Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.