Action is what is needed even if some are reluctant to call what is happening to our planet a ‘crisis’ – and action was what we got.
On Wednesday, 10,000 people flanked the banks of the Thames, snaking towards Parliament to lobby MPs to pass a strong Environment Bill and commit to setting a net zero emissions target.
Established and organised by The Climate Coalition, the lobby was one of the friendliest and most welcoming political events I have attended. Children with their faces painted as pandas brandished banners alongside a Women’s Institute delegation dressed head to toe in green; scientists from Manchester University chatted to surfers from the Cornish coast. But underlying the camaraderie and frivolities was an urgency, a frustration that the climate crisis is a footnote on a political agenda dominated by Brexit and leadership battles.
Earlier this year, The Guardian recently updated its style guide, and now favours terms such as ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ rather than ‘climate change’. Climate scientists, the UN General Secretary and The Green Party are also using more urgent language when discussing the environment. But despite declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in May 2019, the Government continues to push forward with fracking and the extension of Heathrow. Targets of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and ending the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 remain in place, despite increasing pressure from climate scientists and activists that emissions need to be well on their way to zero by 2030.
The ambitious demands of Extinction Rebellion — to halt biodiversity loss and reach net zero emission by 2025 — are regularly dismissed as pie-in-the-sky and ruinous by industry leaders. Yes, shutting down the carbon-based industry will lead to job losses; but the low-carbon economic sector is growing four times faster than mainstream economy. Sacrifices will have to be made, but they come with their own benefits. Even those that don’t, may still be worth it if they halt our path to self-destruction. Meanwhile, during the political debate following the Extinction Rebellion protest, MPs spent as much time congratulating themselves on progress already made as they did examining steps to be taken. Without wanting to seem melodramatic, self-congratulation seems somewhat out of place when facing the destruction of our environment and future.
Credit where credit is due. My own MP, Esther McVey came down to speak to those of us representing Tatton at the lobby on Wednesday. In total, over 300 MPs spoke to members of their constituency. Much of the discussion was engaging and vibrant. Children shared stories of their walks to school through stifling pollution; the WI pushed for action against plastic; activists advocated birth strikes and higher taxes on aviation. But when I spoke to Ms McVey, she demonstrated the very attitude protestors find so frustrating; a distinct lack of commitment and a belief that the climate crisis is a PR opportunity rather than a genuine and pressing problem that needs to be prioritised. During much of the discussion, Ms McVey emphasised the global and the local. The global argument is that the UK is almost irrelevant when compared to nations such as the USA, China and India. The local argument is that it is down to the individual to limit their plastic use, cycle rather than drive and embrace veganism. Stuck between these extremes the middle ground — national legislation and action — is granted a meagre role, deemed ineffective and redundant.
Of course larger nations are having a significantly greater impact on the climate crisis than the UK. Of course cycling to work or school will reduce an individual’s carbon emissions. But If we want to influence the major global powers, we have to stay ahead of them regarding not only targets but also how successful we are at hitting them. Plastic-wrapped produce is cheaper than loose produce; the recycling system is inconsistent and ineffective; the hydrogen economy requires funding and innovation. These are issues which require government leadership and action. They require an unprecedented prioritisation of the climate crisis, cross-party cooperation, consultation with industrial leaders and youth involvement.
The children with pandas painted on their faces deserve to see a green and luscious planet where both they and the bears can thrive, but only if we act. The time is now.