A climate of urgent complacency

James Murray
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A climate of urgent complacency

Yesterday's Commons debate suggested a Net Zero emission target is within reach, even if most MPs did not want to discuss it

The first Commons debate on climate change in over two years was nearly 90 minutes old before anyone delivered the emotional heft the subject so desperately required.

With the discussion winding towards a slightly underwhelming close, Labour's Alan Whitehead stood up. The Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister is widely regarded as one of Parliament's nice guys. He may be far too reasonable and softly spoken to be on speed dial for the TV studio bookers, but his thoughtful, engaged, and broadly consensual approach to politics is sadly undervalued in an era of overtly partisan, deliberately bombastic hostility.

Whitehead started by reflecting on how he had attended pretty much every debate on climate change the Commons had conducted since he was elected as an MP 22 years ago, and this was the first time the "claque" of contrarian, dismissive voices was notable by its absence. Finally, the House is together in agreement, he said, a note of genuine sadness in his voice, "just as it is almost too late".

The murmur of background conversation, punctuated by occasional polite heckles, that had characterised the previous hour and a half seemed to die away. Whitehead continued, admitting he was not feeling "smug" that the climate contrarians had been proven wrong, rather he was "scared stiff" that the acceptance of the seriousness of the climate threat had come at "two minutes to midnight".

He then turned to those colleagues sitting on the sparsely attended parliamentary benches, many of them younger than the veteran MP, and reminded them all that their careers could span much of those final two minutes. The ability to do anything about the climate emergency "is on our watch", he said. The 12 years in which the IPCC says deep and sustained emission reductions have to be achieved - Whitehead is far too precise and cognizant of the carbon budget detail to deploy the shorthand of '12 years left to save the world' - will stretch across the careers of many sitting MPs. As Whitehead reminded his colleagues, success or failure in the battle against climate disaster is on them.

How does that responsibility sit? Are MPs prepared to live up to the epoch-defining nature of the moment? Judging by yesterday's debate the jury is very much out.

For 90 minutes MPs from across the political spectrum provided a near perfect microcosm of the strengths and flaws of UK climate politics. It was in turn, ambitious, underpowered, focused, discursive, well-intentioned, neglected, consensual, partisan, innovative, tired, urgent and complacent, often all in the space of a few sentences.    

First, the good news. There is a growing band of talented MPs who are fully aware of the scale of the climate crisis and hugely committed to building a net zero emission economy. As chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh observed: "When we are talking about climate we are talking about ourselves. We are conducting a vast experiment on the only system that supports our existence." Energy and Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry referred to the urgent need to avert a "climate catastrophe", acknowledging the UK had to meet the challenge of going "farther and faster" so that MPs can "look the next generation in the eye and say that 'we did what we had to do to protect our planet for your future".

Moreover, there remains a robust cross-party consensus in favour of bolder decarbonisation efforts, as well as a growing realisation environmental issues are an electoral consideration. At one point the Tories' Zac Goldsmith referenced his wafer thin majority and attacks from his opponents suggesting he cares more about the environment than Brexit, "I do," he said, "and they can stick that on their leaflets."

And then there are signs the moral authority of striking schoolchildren has achieved at least some of the desired cut through.

Opening proceedings, the Lib Dem's Layla Moran said she would not have applied for the debate without the impetus provided by last month's protesting schoolchildren. Numerous MPs, from the Cabinet-sitting Claire Perry on down, praised the school strikes and chided those colleagues who had rushed to condemn their "truancy". Labour's Thelma Walker went so far as to quote the UN convention on the rights of the child in their defence, declaring that all children have the right to express their views and have their concerns taken seriously. "We hear you," she said, expressing heartfelt thanks to the protestors.

Crucially, there is also widespread support for the adoption of a UK net zero emission target and plenty of interesting policy ideas bubbling away to help enable its delivery, ranging from targeted measures to improve soil quality, curb agricultural emissions, and mobilise green finance, to sweeping proposals to engineer "system change" across the economy and deliver social justice and climate justice as one.

The Greens' Caroline Lucas and Labour's Clive Lewis were characteristically eloquent and combative in dissecting the inconsistencies in the government's record and making the case for dramatic economic reforms and a Green New Deal.

Lucas was one of the few MPs to link the climate crisis to the UK's wider Brexit challenges, arguing Westminster needed to deliver "something big" to restore confidence in politics and start to heal the divisions that have scarred society over the past decade. A Green New Deal defined by the pursuit of both deep decarbonisation and a Just Transition could be that "something big", she argued. Lucas was also one of a number of MPs to offer a specific, actionable policy recommendation, calling for a new cross party select committee on Climate Breakdown and asking for climate change to be formally embedded in the remit of all committees and departments.

Lewis similarly argued that climate action must present a challenge to the neoliberal economic orthodoxy "that the benches opposite champion". There is a valid debate about whether or not it is helpful to green businesses for the left to try and "own" the climate narrative, but regardless of how that debate plays out in the coming years Tory strategists who know they already have an issue with younger voters will be extremely wary of the clarity of Lewis' pitch. The students are not just protesting about climate change, he suggested, they want "system change".

Alongside this macroeconomic debate several MPs stepped forward with specific policy proposals. Former Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey made a compelling case for a major overhaul of finance regulation to help urgently mobilise green investment and deflate the carbon bubble. Goldsmith called for more UK aid funding to be used to protect and enhance the environmental services that so many developing world communities rely on. Creagh suggested the public sector should lead the transition to EVs, arguing there is no point midwives and nurses travelling across cities, polluting the air, and then talking to people about how to keep their children healthy. Several MPs called for more action to restore peat carbon sinks and tackle agriculture emissions. Labour's Alex Sobel argued not for a Green New Deal, but for an "Environmental Marshall Plan" that is commensurate to the scale of the "climate emergency".

Most pertinent to the debate's nominal focus on net zero emissions, Whitehead called on the government to inject some much needed urgency into its decarbonisation efforts and pre-empt the CCC's imminent review of whether to set a new target by starting work immediately on a net zero strategy - a strategy he insisted should start with a reworking of current plans to ensure the government meets the carbon targets for the late 2020s that it is currently on track to miss.

The problem was that this crucial debate, its encouragingly conciliatory tone, and its many useful proposals were all overshadowed by the elephants that were not in the room.  

As the Guardian and every climate hawk on Twitter have already noted, MPs yesterday debated climate change for the first time in two years and only a handful could be bothered to turn up. Having chastised schoolchildren for not attending lessons the empty swathes of green benches, especially on the government side of the house, provided a stark visual illustration of why so many young people have been moved to protest.

Government ministers may bristle when accused of complacency in the face of what they accept is a looming "climate catastrophe", but they have now given their many critics an image that lends weight to the accusation that climate action is not a priority.  

This sense of complacency also stalked the chamber. The government is right to defend its decarbonisation record. Only yesterday, new statistics were published confirming record levels of renewables and clean energy generation last year. Perry is right to say the challenge for the UK is to continue to lead from the front. But the sight of Conservative MPs lauding the government's track record in the midst of a winter heatwave felt tonally jarring.

It is important to highlight the UK's successes, but given the scale of the climate challenge ahead you probably want one part celebration, to three parts resolve to do better, not the other way round. Telling schoolkids the UK deserves credit for passing the Climate Change Act, when climate impacts are escalating and we are on track to miss emission targets that fall due just after they leave school is not a winning strategy. It is better than branding them truants, but it still has too many echoes for comfort of Senator Dianne Feinstein's unnecessarily dismissive viral pushback against US student campaigners. 

Those seeking to defend the government's track record also had to wrestle with the unanswerable accusation that it has become distracted by the rolling Brexit crisis. MP after MP stood up to lament the fact it was the first time in two years the Commons had been able to debate climate change - a period during which Brexit has steamrollered everything, including existential issues that many MPs accepted were far more important.

In a rare flash of anger and frustration, Labour's Darren Jones asked why it was the first debate on climate change for so long, why the Prime Minister was not here to lead it, why the government's response to the IPCC report had not been the fast tracked adoption of a net zero target, but rather a time-consuming review of what to do next. Answers came there none. Asked to give way, Jones refused asking why MPs were only being allocated four minutes each to speak on the "future of our planet, the world we want to live in". "When we will be coming back to debate this for days?" he asked. "When will more time, more government time, be allocated for this debate?" Again, answers came there none.

There was a beautifully bathetic moment at the close of the debate, when Whitehead picked up on Jones' request and asked the government to confirm it would make government time available for a debate as soon as the CCC delivers its net zero recommendations. He asked for Ministers to allocate at least half a day to such a debate, or perhaps even a full day, knowing full well that he was never going to get any more than that.

When people say politics is broken, they are invariably referring to the corruption and self-interest that has become synonymous with much of Westminster. The truth is such overt cynicism is actually pretty rare. The vast majority of MPs are honest, hard-working individuals trying to do their best in the most trying of circumstances. But where parliamentary politics does look fractured is in the antiquated processes and arcane procedures that appear ever more out of step with the demands of the modern world. To see a debate on the future of the biosphere and the unprecedented transformation of the economy in the space of a single generation shaped by constant unnecessary interruptions, personal hobby horses, discursive tangents, and somewhat tired jokes (there were at least two references to there being "no planet B"), felt like you were watching the 19th century wrestling with the 22nd century.

Worst of all, the debate that urgently needs to be had barely got a look in. Only a handful of MPs addressed the critical practical question of how to build a net zero emission economy, how to accelerate decarbonisation efforts, how to drive green investment and business models (in fact mentions of green businesses were notable for their rarity). The central question of how to build the essential public and political support for such an era-defining endeavour was barely asked, let alone answered.

Meanwhile, those who will inevitably oppose the net zero challenge - several of whom are amongst the frontrunners to become the next Prime Minister - could not even be bothered to attend the debate. As such it was left to Perry to acknowledge the need to manage the costs associated with decarbonisation, warning, quite rightly, that if you can't take the public with you climate action will inevitably stall. It is a fair point, but when the government can't even be convinced to support the cheapest forms of new energy generation, it feels like much more of yesterday's debate should have been given over to properly addressing the dysfunctional short termism that remains the biggest barrier to serious climate action.

Yesterday's scenes in the Commons provided the clearest signal yet that the UK is likely to adopt a net zero emission target in the not too distant future, even if the vast majority of MPs opted not to discuss it. The scientific, economic, technological, geopolitical, and moral case for a more ambitious decarbonisation trajectory is simply too compelling to dismiss. But when it comes the detail of how to deliver on this essential goal too much of Westminster has succumbed to the same paralysing sense of urgent complacency that has undermined the Brexit process from day one. This was the first debate in the Commons on climate change in two years - and at times it showed.

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