Climate breakdown: where is the left?

Climate change is fuelling record temperatures and sweeping fires, but the progressive response is lacking

The newspapers read like something from a dystopian sci-fi film about a world ravaged by climate breakdown. But it’s today, and it’s real. 

Heat records are being smashed. Deadly wildfires are sweeping across Greece and far beyond; there are even some in the Arctic Circle — the Arctic, for heaven’s sake. We had our own taste, on Saddleworth Moor. The three hottest months of June ever have all come in the past four years. It’s a season in the sun for climate scientists, who are saying: this is what we expected, get used to it. A new report from Parliament’s green watchdog agrees. This stuff kills people.

We should be freaking out. But we’re not, are we? Not in our guts. Not properly. Not even, really, at all.

It’s easy enough to have pops at the Government’s increasingly Janus-faced cognitive dissonance – with ministers slipping between trying to badge the UK as world leaders on climate change while merrily giving the green light to fracking.

But where’s the UK left, right now, on climate change?

It’s not a question of knowledge. Progressives get it – intellectually speaking. You’d have to be a bit of a doofus not to. Climate change is clearly a problem. A great big, era-defining, ecology-changing, civilisation-disrupting Problem. And it makes logical sense for us as a matter of justice. We know it will make life tougher for people and places where life is already tough, and that those that who do the least to cause the problem are left on the sharp end: more likely to be displaced, or starved, or flooded, or dead. 

But brains and hearts are different things. For some on the left, environmental justice remains as important to their DNA as any other type of justice: their heart always has been, and still is, firmly in it. But more generally, some things still feel a bit… lacking.

Things like this:

1. A modern, compelling narrative on why climate change really matters for the left in the year 2018.

    An new progressive story on climate change in the UK is needed urgently. One that feels urgent, authentic and contemporary. One about how climate breakdown is intimately connected to the things that we worry about and the values that we hold. One about people, not systems; principles, not lines on graphs. Not a vague aspiration for jobs in clean energy, but one about work, and home, and international solidarity, and justice, and fairness. 

    It is, after all, fundamentally a story about the same old issues. How do economies work? Who holds power, and who doesn’t want to change? Who owns things and who doesn’t? Who lives? Who dies? Who decides?

    2. Big ideas to bring climate action right into the heart of a radical policy platform. 

    The fossil fuel age must end. We need to leave most oil, coal and gas undug and unburned. And we need to adapt to the climate change we’re already on the hook for, reshaping how our buildings, towns, cities and landscapes work so that the poorest don’t bear the brunt. 

    Too much has been left to markets for too long and this has played a huge role in getting us into this mess in the first place. So tinkering won’t do it. We need to see ambitious and responsible climate action as a fundamental purpose of economic policy. Massive changes are needed to the types of investment — in people, places and kit — we unleash. It means actively intervening in what we tax, spend, support, don’t support, and how major establishment institutions like the Treasury understand their role. 

    We need to see ambitious and responsible climate action as a fundamental purpose of economic policy.

    And all of that has to be done in a way that closes the gap between rich and poor, and takes power and ownership out of the hands of polluters. It’s no small challenge: it will take not just big ideas but the verve to sell them as part of a bigger suite of transformative economic reform. NEF’s work on greening the Bank of England, major new taxes on polluters, and frequent flyer levies are just three such proposals.

    3. Getting real about the just transition’.

      There is far too much tiptoeing around the unpleasant reality that ending the fossil fuel age means many people will have to change jobs, and not necessarily on a timescale of their choosing. The increasing intensity of climate will ultimately force changes in policy; technology is already weakening the business case for fossil fuels. 

      There’s a right and a wrong way to transition industries. It mustn’t be a tale of desecration and abandonment, as it was with the coal mines in the 1980s. But it must happen, so let’s do it in a democratic and empowering way. Trade unions have an important leadership role here, as they grapple with how to respond ambitiously to climate change while representing members who have jobs (and often good jobs) in climate unfriendly industries. 

      Most importantly, those with the most to lose from the transition should be in the driving seat of designing, then demanding, a national plan for the skills, investment and opportunities they need. As a start, progressive politicians could establish a grassroots just transition commission in which those in, for example, oil jobs in Aberdeen or smelting steel in Port Talbot get to initiate a transition plan, working with businesses and local leaders.

      NEF will focus on all three of these areas over the coming years, as part of our mission to help build an economy that works for people and the environment. There really are, after all, no jobs on a dead planet. 

      To find out more, sign up for our updates below.

      Subscribe to Energy & Climate Briefing

      Sign up

      If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

      Make a one-off donation

      £5 £10 £25 £50 £100

      Make a monthly donation

      £3 £5 £10 £25 £100