The climate tragedy of Brexit

James Murray
The climate tragedy of Brexit

A badly mismanaged Brexit risks having disastrous consequences for the climate - the UK now risks squandering one of the biggest economic opportunities in history

Worrying about Brexit is really eating into my worrying about climate change time. And that's worrying.

As the UK today faces the latest self-orchestrated national humiliation, its elected leader kicking her heels in Brussels' corridors as the nation's fate is decided by its more powerful neighbours. As those (erstwhile?) allies and friends consider how best to respond to our Prime Minister's 'begging tour'. As they mull the merits and pitfalls of a 'cruel to be kind', 'just pull the plaster off' no deal crash versus a lengthier delay to Article 50 incorporating the entirely understandable demand the UK accept the patriotic affront that is frequent checks on its compliance with any extension agreement; because, let's face it, we can't really be trusted not to shit the bed again. As we are left to process a scandal that, as Robert Harris put it yesterday, "makes Suez look like VE Day" it is time to reflect. Reflect on how we came to be here. And reflect on where we could have been instead.

There are many reasons why the UK has found itself in this position, but the central flaw in Brexiters' narrative - a narrative adopted almost wholesale by the May government - was that leaving the EU would be easy and painless. The basic reality of trade-offs and costs and compromises was never accepted, let alone explained to the public. Instead the untruths, distortions, and outright lies have proved so shameless and so damaging they have entered the national lexicon: £350m on the side of a bus; 'the easiest deal in history'; the auto manufacturers and prosecco producers who would ride to the rescue; the communities who were led to believe immigration would be curbed and the communities led to believe they would find it easier to get visas; the campaigners told environmental standards would be maintained as ministers in the same government hinted regulations were for the chop.

The contradictions have been so blatant that you almost wonder how some of the leading Brexiters - people who in a different context would lament the decline of shame and embarrassment in public life - can show their faces in public, let alone accept invites to speak on national TV. And then you realise the full spectrum narcissism that helped get us to this point would never be dented by something as trivial as being repeatedly proven wrong on matters of national import.

At almost every turn Theresa May gave the Brexiters precisely what they wanted. She gave them the hardest possible Brexit short of the self-imposed civil and economic emergency of a 'no deal' Brexit and the breaching of one of the world's more successful peace treaties - scenarios, remember, that during the referendum campaign leading Brexiters insisted would never come to pass. She gave them combative rhetoric, the reddest of red lines, an end to freedom of movement, and a deal that met all those conditions if only they could bring themselves to accept that the technical solutions to the Irish border issue that they kept saying existed actually did exist. And still the people who wanted Brexit refused to deliver Brexit, instead retreating to the comfort blanket of blaming Remainers and the combustible, contemptible, and downright dangerous tactics of ratcheting up the divisive nationalist rhetoric.

Overly simplistic metaphors can be damaging, especially when dealing with topics as complex as multilateral geopolitics, modern economics, and international trade. David Cameron and George Osborne's knowingly inaccurate likening of a government budget to a household budget has done almost as much damage over the past decade as their other national prestige-shredding endeavours. But ultimately the similarities between the EU's single market and an actual 'three for a pound, yours for a fiver' market are informative.

The original pitch offered by leading Brexiters, the proposition they still, even at this stage, cling to was always akin to storming away from your pitch, insulting the market inspector, slagging off your fellow traders, yelling that 'the market in the next town is better anyway' as you pack up. And then turning up the next day and insisting that you stand by everything you said about the market inspector being a grasping authoritarian with fascist tendencies, but you still want your old pitch, with all the 'exact same benefits'. And no you won't be paying your pitch fees or adhering to the rules and checks all the other stalls abide by, because your stall is special and everyone else should be grateful you are here at all.

That was always the core casual assumption at the root of Brexiter assurances that a deal would be an easy, low cost endeavour that would unleash a new golden age for the UK. That was the absurd level of hubris that shaped Theresa May's self-defeating red lines and arrogant unpreparedness. It was and is as ridiculous as asking to leave a market, while remaining a part of the bits of the market we like. A few, far too few, principled Brexiters may have acknowledged that this endeavour would be complex, costly, and require the very highest levels of statecraft. A handful accepted there were huge risks inherent to Brexit, but offered the principled argument that the long term gains of flexibility and agility on offer outside the EU would deliver net benefits to the UK in the multi-decadal long run. But such honesty has been in sparse supply and those Brexiters who have admirably engaged with the immense complexity and era-shaping risks of their endeavour have been far too accommodating of their unicorn-peddling and rabble-rousing colleagues.

It is to the UK's eternal shame that the self-evident nonsense of a pain-free Brexit, peddled by a rag tag bunch of delusional charlatans and occasional electoral lawbreakers, has been allowed to persist for so long. A body politic in better health would have demolished these arguments in the first instance. A government with a firmer grip on the UK's long term national interest would have levelled with the public that compromises and trade-offs were essential if Brexit was ever to be delivered. A Parliament capable of properly exercising representative democracy would have coalesced around a least worst option long ago. Instead, here we are. A supplicant to our closest neighbours, the most serious of tensions bubbling on the surface of our faltering democracy as we tear ourselves apart in search of the best way to give up influence and erect barriers.

Green opportunity cost

Why write about all of this on a site dedicated to green economic progress and climate action? Because we could have gone somewhere else instead. And, perhaps, still might.

The chronicles of Brexit have developed an entire opportunity cost subgenre exploring the challenges we could have wrestled with and the initiatives we could have sparked were it not for Brexit's oxygen-gulping, spectrum-hogging dominance. As MPs repeatedly acknowledged in the recent Commons debate on climate change - the first in two years - climate action is at or near the top of the list of issues that could and should have enjoyed more focus. The billions spent on no deal planning and corporate stockpiling, the hours spent planning for the myriad scenarios that could result from tearing up trading arrangements with the world's largest market, the investment postponed or redirected in response to the political turmoil the government unleashed, the parliamentary hours spent repeatedly debating the same interminable issues - all could have been more productively allocated in support of the construction of the net zero emission economy that the government accepts is essential to the UK's long term prosperity and security. 

And then there are the future risks. Earlier this week, Dustin Benton of Green Alliance published an excellent and uplifting blog on the UK's continued international influence as a global leader on climate action and policy. It started with the line "this is not a story about Brexit", reported on a recent climate resilience conference in South Africa hosted by Wilton Park and the Foreign Office in partnership with the Africa Climate Reality Project, reflected on how the UK's soft power and institutions are helping countries and communities around the world enhance their climate preparedness, and concluded that "Britain's place in the world is being defined by its approach to climate change". If there is to be a 'global Britain' post-Brexit "it will be green", Benton predicted.

It was a heartening read, and it was similarly encouraging to see Energy and Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry tweeting her endorsement of Benton's argument, declaring that we should "lift our eyes from the Brexit turmoil and focus on the future".

But while the sentiment that we should focus on the future is surely correct, the idea we can simply lift our eyes from the Brexit turmoil is surely wishful thinking. For while Benton may insist his story is not about Brexit his suggestion that we should seek to deliver a green 'global Britain' gives the game away. Of course, it is about Brexit.

The reason Brexit has come to dominate everything these past few years is not because the entire media and political class lives for the drama or fails to understand that other things are more important. It is because all those other things - be it knife crime, NHS underfunding, and leaking school roofs or runaway climate change, collapsing biodiversity, and carbon bubbles - become so much harder to address if we get Brexit wrong.

Take the Foreign Office's admirable climate diplomacy as just one narrow example. Its impressive outreach work may continue, but as The Guardian reported last year, the number of diplomats working on the issue was cut by a quarter under former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Would such cuts have been proposed without the economy dampening and resource consuming impact of Brexit? Would they have been signed off without the auto-satirical over-promotion of a congenitally unserious self-publicist who is not above flirting with climate sceptic tropes?

The UK will no doubt continue to invest in climate diplomacy and continue to play a leadership role in global climate efforts, but equally there is similarly little doubt that a mismanaged Brexit that undermines tax revenues and further diverts civil service resources will curtail such efforts. Moreover, what of Britain's vaunted soft power? Part of the UK's strength is drawn from its historic position as a bridge between the EU, the Commonwealth, and the US. If one of those bridges is damaged or even torched can Britain offer the same strategic value to its partners? As China makes overtures to developing nations and, for all its green rhetoric, often tantalises with the offer of a more carbon intensive growth path, can the UK help countries navigate an alternative lower carbon path if it is condemned to spend two decades wrestling with the fallout from a catastrophic Brexit?

Every component of the green economy and the UK's wider decarbonisation efforts face similar questions. If the government fails to avert the worst case Brexit scenarios and unleashes a constitutional crisis and political turmoil then what do the short to medium-term prospects look like for the vision of a net zero emission economy before 2050? The more moderate Brexit scenarios are little better, bringing with them the very real risk that lost investment, curtailed growth, hampered competitiveness, and political instability all combine to delay and derail climate policies. What hope is there for a massive low carbon infrastructure blitz, a rail electrification push, a credible green aviation and shipping plan, a national energy efficiency programme, and fast-tracked net zero target and strategy in the midst of an entire decade defined by Brexit?

Why does all this matter? Because we are on the cusp of two of the most important decades in human history. The scientific consensus is that the window for delivering deep and sustained emissions reductions on the way to building a global net zero emission economy is closing fast. Fail to make it through that window and we risk being locked in the burning room that is runaway climate change.

Hope comes from the fact that these crucial two decades coincide with the emergence of the technologies capable of delivering the fastest industrial revolution civilisation has ever seen, driven by a peaceful global uprising of those young people who simply will not tolerate the intergenerational injustice of a climate ravaged world. The ladder that could enable our escape is being built - a ladder that could simultaneously navigate a path through the related health, security, and technological challenges that are already defining the first half of this century.

And the UK has a critical role to play in this global escape plan. As the historic crucible of the first Industrial Revolution, an established world-leading hub for trade, education, and finance, and the industrialised economy with the best decarbonisation record to date, it has both a moral responsibility and an economic opportunity to demonstrate, catalyse, and export the green industrial revolution. A mismanaged Brexit makes it much more likely that we will shirk that responsibility and squander that opportunity.  

There are, as ever, still sources of optimism. Under almost every Brexit scenario it is possible to construct a future where the UK does live up to its climate obligations and delivers on the green 'global Britain' vision. 

Even if we were to crash out of the EU without a deal you could argue, and some have, that the megatrends of climate change and clean tech cost curves will couple with the UK's academic and financial expertise to ensure that an influential net zero economy is built in the wake of the inevitable short to medium term political and economic turbulence.

But the only polite response to such an upbeat outlook is 'are you not being a touch optimistic?' The less polite response is 'are you high? Have you been paying attention for the past three years? What is it about the currently febrile political atmosphere, the ethno-nationalists on the streets, and the assorted bunch of amoral chancers on manoeuvres that makes you think a self-imposed political crisis will provide the cleansing fire needed to build a clean, healthy, and sustainable 21st century economy? Is it not just as likely that those politicians who have done little to conceal their desire to turn the UK into a deregulated, polluter friendly, tax haven will deliver on their not so secret plan?'

May's battered and bruised deal, which could yet scrape over the line, contains some encouraging pledges on continued co-operation with the EU on climate action and the framework for a 'Green Brexit'. It is possible to envisage a scenario where the post-Brexit dust settles and the UK finds itself with a net zero emission strategy, an overtly green agricultural strategy free from the EU's deeply flawed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and broad alignment with Europe's more progressive climate targets and policies.

Equally, in backing a deal that they once denounced as a one way ticket to a 'slave state', the more astute hard Brexiters have realised that there is nothing to stop them unpicking much of the agreement, including its environmental elements, once the Prime Minister has been ejected from Number 10. Moreover, May's plan is still a relatively hard Brexit with all the loss of influence, increased economic risk, and continued calls for deregulation that implies. It is poor soil in which to plant the seeds of a national net zero emission renewal programme.

The kind of softer Brexit that could yet command a Commons majority through the on-going 11th hour talks between the government and Labour could prove much more fruitful for the green economy. It promises lower trade barriers, minimised economic impacts, and close alignment with the EU on environmental rules and goals, while still retaining the freedom to reform the CAP. There is plenty to like about such a scenario.

And yet, as the Guardian's Rafael Behr argues in an essential column today such an agreement may offer a short term fix to the current political stalemate but it would be extremely fragile. The UK would still be giving up control to Brussels, becoming a rule-taker and enduring taxation without representation. It would still fuel the inevitable 'betrayal myth' risking a political backlash that hands yet more influence to the Hard Brexit brigade and some of their genuinely dangerous supporters on the hard right. The distraction from longer term priorities would likely continue. It is surely no coincidence that the emergence of the Trumpist, populist, nationalist right has emerged at precisely the point in history when global environmental pressures begin to pinch and the need for an international and co-operative response has never been more acute.

Similarly, an election or referendum may be the inevitable next step and would hold out the promise of diverting the UK onto the economically advantageous course of continued EU membership, but this whole exercise was only ever partially about economics. A renewed mandate for no Brexit or a defined form of Brexit could help draw a line under the current turmoil, or it could serve to pour petrol on the flames. It could allow the UK to move on and play a leading role in driving the EU's pursuit of a net zero economy. Or it could lock the country into Brussels' multiple environmental compromises and inconsistencies, at the same time as sparking a political backlash that would only further deepen the divisions already marring British society. It could result in a Labour government promising a Green New Deal. Or it could result in a Labour government destined to be torn apart by the same Brexit schisms that have pushed the Conservative Party to the brink.

To summarise, as the Prime Minister jets to Brussels to discover the UK's fate and her colleagues wait at home sharpening their knives there are no good options. At a time when all our combined powers and resources need to be focused with laser-like intensity on the climate challenge and green economic opportunity before us, the UK's political and corporate leadership is lost in the foothills of Brexit with no end to its journey in sight. The sunlit uplands, if they ever existed, have never seemed further away. The path to a net zero emission economy is now littered with Brexit bear traps and the deep ravines of political extremism.

I am worried about Brexit because I am worried about climate change. There are some causes for optimism, but on both fronts the outlook is far too bleak for comfort.

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