Time for climate politics

Today, on World Environment Day, our political institutions are still failing to address the climate emergency, argues Martin Franklin

A wealth of policies and strategies can be drawn upon to address the environmental crisis, to increase social justice and create a sustainable economy. It requires a different kind of politics that departs from the current narrow neoliberal framework, alongside a concerted campaign to persuade the public of the urgent need and benefits from reform and change.

Environmentalists have played the role of Cassandra, granted foresight but destined to be ignored. Now climate breakdown cannot be ignored. The warnings are starker with the United Nations declaring a “red code for humanity” and a leading climate scientist stating that we face dangers “greater than anything we have ever seen in the past… Every living thing will be affected.”

Despite such warnings, environmentally damaging industries will continue with business as usual until they are forced to stop. The contradiction between the pursuit of profit and humanity’s need for a habitable planet is a global one. From the Arctic poles to Central Africa, the extraction of natural resources is destroying indigenous lands and communities. The struggles to defend these cultures and ecosystems and the campaigns for clean air in our cities are connected.They are conflicts related to the control and ownership of the ultimate commons, our environment.  Struggles for climate justice are about power and equality. 

Environmentalists have campaigned against heavily financed industrial lobbying and a largely sceptical and hostile mass media. But eco-politics has advanced from the fringes to become a global protest, now reaching into the centre of institutional politics. The toppling of the right wing Australian government in the May 2022 election was partially due to their complacency and failure to act on increasingly frequent extreme weather events.   

With acknowledgement that the environment crisis is real, agreements have been reached in national and international forums. Since 2008, the UK has a Climate Change Committee to monitor government progress on carbon targets, and climate emergencies have been declared nationally and locally.  But pledges and targets are being missed and policy continues to be shaped by neoliberal thinking which seeks to turn the environment crisis into market opportunities.

In mainstream politics, the environment remains a secondary issue and commitments to environmental policies are easily displaced. The war in Ukraine prompted calls to suspend climate goals and increase fossil fuel extraction to bolster energy security. Politicians are wary of raising environmental issues, fearing that they will be seen as zealots, alienating colleagues and voters.

The Conservative Government continues to grant exploration licenses, provide tax breaks and subsidise fossil fuels.  As energy bills soar and our rivers and beaches are polluted by effluent discharges, there is no sign of a change to the dysfunctional privatized utilities which prioritize shareholder value and profits above all else.  The Government’s management of the Covid 19 crisis and floods earlier this century, demonstrate the incompetence and corruption they would bring to (mis)managing environmental breakdown.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto offered a serious policy shift towards tackling the environment crisis and resolutions have been passed at the Party conference reflecting the growth of eco-socialism amongst activists.  But overall, the Party and some unions remain cautious about environmental policies, seeing them as unpopular and a threat to jobs.

The Labour Party has reviewed and weakened its environment policy ambitions, their scope limited by established policy discourses and pinned to increasingly inadequate environmental targets. The belief that environmental policies are not election winners means the Party directs little energy to building public support for them. Currently Labour does not look like a vehicle for transformative economic and environmental policies.

At local level there are positive initiatives from progressive Labour councils. Community wealth building following the ‘Preston Model’ provides a grounding for the development of circular economy initiatives and Green New Deal policies. Local government should be a seedbed for policy development but central government stifles initiative through tight budgets and legal constraints. In these circumstances councils are prone to present small-scale projects as significant environmental advances and employ greenwashing to cover poor environmental decisions.

Muted opposition and weak commitment to strong environmental policy from within our political establishment leaves the task to civil society groups. XR and others campaign loudly on the streets and social media. A legal challenge against the Government’s inadequate Net Zero strategy has been taken by the Good Law Project, ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth. 

Policy makers do not have to look far for a ready resource of research and ideas to draw on. Organizations like the New Economics Foundation and Institute for Public Policy Research provide alternative policies and economic models – Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is perhaps the best-known –  that would enable a transition to a sustainable and socially just economy. The union-backed Campaign Against Climate Change has published Climate Jobs: Building a workforce for the climate emergency, setting out the possibilities for a just transition and green industrial job creation strategy which should be read by everyone in the labour movement.

The Green New Deal provides a rallying point and vision for eco-socialists. At its most radical, it would integrate economic, welfare and environmental policy towards a new social contract. Besides creating jobs through investment in green infrastructure, it would expand jobs in health, education, the arts and welfare which are ‘green jobs’ as much as those in the renewables and other sectors. In addition, a shorter working week would transform the work/life balance, create more jobs and time for caring responsibilities and reduce carbon emissions.  All this requires state regulation and control.

Our political institutions are failing to address escalating inequality and environmental breakdown. Young people are particularly concerned about environmental issues as they face a degrading natural environment and the economic and social consequences that will impact on their lives.  Green New Deal Rising reflects these concerns and the labour movement needs to join campaigns which engage the young and provide hope. The left needs to be flexible, imaginative and open to collaborating in the face of a giant challenge and a political system designed to protect and maintain a crumbling and chaotic status quo.  The current crises and government failures provide fertile ground for an opposition offering a vision for a positive future.

As Milton Freedman said, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”  Neoliberals use crises to push though their reforms to restructure society.  The left and labour movement need to seize the day.  If not, there is a danger that authoritarian and racist politics and ‘solutions’ will continue to gain ground.

Martin Franklin is one of the Environment officers for Islington North CLP. 

Image: c/o Mike Phipps

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