Elaine Graham-Leigh explains how the People's Assembly demonstration outside the Tory conference in October presents another opportunity to build the movement against climate change
At this Tory Party conference, in the leadup to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, we can expect to hear lots of self-congratulatory talk about how under the Tories, Britain is leading the world in action on the climate crisis. We are world-beating, apparently, and the task is just for us to encourage other countries to match our ambition. As a climate activist, I’ll be marching in Manchester because none of this is true.
There’s been no shortage of government reports on the climate crisis recently, although at time of writing we’re still waiting for the roadmap for getting to their (insufficient) target of net zero by 2050 and a 78% cut in carbon emissions by 2035. You might think we’re a long way from David Cameron’s famous dismissal of environmental policies as ‘green crap’. Some Tory backbenchers clearly feel this, with mutterings about rebellions if they’re dragged too far into this unfamiliar territory. ‘We’re not the Lib Dems’ one unnamed Tory MP recently told PoliticsHome, ‘we’re not hippies in sandals.’
That the party of climate-change denial has been pushed this far into hippy sandal land is testament to the work of the climate movement in the last few years. If you read their proposals, though, the main message is that nothing is really going to change. As Grant Shapps said of their transport proposals, for example, ‘it’s about doing the same things differently … We will still drive on improved roads, but increasingly in zero-emission cars.’ Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, took pains recently to send a similar message to the City, that the Tories are still all about using the market to cut emissions. ‘For those of you on the right, this can sound a bit state-y, and a bit command-and-control-y’, but they shouldn’t worry, the market would still play a vital role.
The detail of the plans we’ve got so far reflects this business-as-usual strategy. In transport, it’s all about electric cars, despite the fact that concentrating transport policy on these rather than on public transport has been called delusional. For industry, there’s a clear focus on carbon capture and storage, despite the fact that this hasn’t yet been shown to work at significant scale. For the difficult bits, like aviation, there’s offsetting.
This is how we should understand the apparent contradiction of a government trumpeting its green credentials while approving or considering a new coal mine in Cumbria, a gas-fired power station in Yorkshire and a North Sea oil field. It isn’t just hypocrisy, or the right hand not knowing what the even further right hand is doing. The Tories really do believe that all that the climate crisis requires of government is a few technological tweaks. We can, example, carry on using fossil fuels, we can just capture the carbon and store it under the sea for ever. Because nothing could ever possibly go wrong with that plan.
To be fair, the Tories would agree that the scale and seriousness of the climate crisis we’re facing is going to need more than just the restricted actions they’re proposing. It’s just that they don’t think that it’s the government’s role to do more. With quite breath-taking cheek, the government that we’ve been demonstrating at for years to do something about the climate crisis has launched a campaign called Together for our Planet, in which they are calling on us, ‘businesses, civil society groups, schools and the British public to take action on climate change.’ The website doesn’t currently specify what those actions should be, but given the hashtag #onestepgreener, it’s reasonable to suspect that we’re in the nudge territory of rinsing plates and freezing leftover bread.
The Tories have learned from the last few years of climate strikes and XR actions that they have to talk the talk on the climate crisis, safe in the knowledge that as individuals, they’ll be ensconced in their seats in the Lords long before the failure of their market mechanisms and techno-fixes has become apparent. What they should have learned is that ordinary people are way ahead of them.
We understand that the climate crisis needs far-reaching collective solutions, to create green infrastructure for 100% renewable power generation, to ensure that everyone can use public transport rather than the car, to find practical and fair solutions to issues like domestic heating and aviation. These are things that need state action, not profit-driven pseudo-solutions from the market. We need the government to act, not fold their arms and retort that they told us to do something. We’ve dragged them this far by getting out on the streets, but we need to drag them further. That’s why I’ll be marching in Manchester.
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Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate Crisis. Her sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.
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