Who Won Channel 4's Climate Change Election Debate

Boris Johnson couldn't be arsed to turn up, which was a bad start.
Simon Childs
London, GB
November 29, 2019, 12:54pm
An artist's impression of what the sculpture put in the Prime Minister's place by Channel 4 News last night should have looked like. Screengrab: Channel 4 News

The Channel 4 News Climate Debate kicked off with a news package full of the kind of climate imagery we're now getting used to – a koala that was saved in Australia’s recent bushfires, floods in Doncaster, fires in the Amazon. It ends tragically: "Oh, and the koala bear saved from the bush-fires? He was put down this week, his wounds untreatable, his pain unbearable."

It was heart-rending stuff, but it wasn’t clear that presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy had actually watched it when it came to his questions. "Cheap flights to the Med will have to end, won't they?" he whined at one point. Well, it’s either that or all life on the planet. Take your pick. Or do you want more burned koalas?

Fair play to Channel 4 News for having a go at hosting a debate specifically about climate change. A good effort, but the whole framing seemed a bit off. With BoJo a no show, each question started with a statement about what the Conservatives are doing, so even in absentia the governing party set the tone. "The Conservatives are committed to reaching the emissions target of net-zero by 2050… so is 2050 the right target? Jeremy Corbyn."


For the rest of the leaders, it was a chance to crowbar climate change into their existing agenda. So for Lib Dem Jo Swinson, "Brexit is a climate crime." For Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP it was about how Scotland is leading the world. Plaid Cymru's Adam Price said Wales needs more power to sort this out. Sian Berry of the Greens was in "I told you so" mode (which, frankly, is fair enough) and for Jeremy Corbyn it was "Labour is on your side and the side of the environment too".

By his absence, Boris Johnson had also stuck to his election campaign script – in his case that’s showing total contempt for democracy and cowardice in the face of scrutiny. Channel 4 took the brave decision to empty chair him as well as Nigel Farage. Taking their place were a pair of ice sculptures.

Before the debate started, Michael Gove turned up with reality TV star and father of the Prime Minister, Stanley Johnson, to try to take part. It was very much like sending your dad round your neighbours' because you're too scared to ask for your ball back.

It was a leaders' debate, but Gove was claiming that by not debating him the other leaders were running scared – it’s hard not to conclude that the Conservative strategy is trolling at this point. To be clear, what really happened is that the leader of the Conservative Party was invited onto national television to debate the most important issue facing us all, and he decided he couldn't be arsed. To complete the farce, Gove was given a dressing down by a 15-year-old environmental activist.


Less farcically, the Conservative Party is threatening to review Channel 4’s public broadcasting licence for this display of disrespect / basic journalistic integrity. The Tories are running this election like a mob and you will kiss the ring.

It was quite disappointing to learn that we wouldn't – as I had hoped – be treated to sculptures of the men themselves, slowly melting before our eyes. Instead, there were two things that looked like gravestones with the party logos inscribed on them.

To properly empty chair someone, I think you should make a huge deal about how they're not there – grill an inanimate representation of the candidate as you would if they had showed up, as Kay Burley did to James Cleverly on Sky News:

"Mr Johnson are you really taking climate change seriously?"

*camera focuses on a slowly melting sculpture of Johnson for an uncomfortably long time*

"Mr Johnson, your silence speaks volumes."

*Sound of dripping*

Instead, Johnson got away with the limp denunciation of the other candidates and managed to evade scrutiny. The two sculptures looked kind of cool.

But back to the people who could actually be bothered to turn up.

It wasn’t great. Near the end, Green Sian Berry came closest to mentioning the elephant in the room, when close to the end she said what was needed was "a comprehensive system change".

But what is that system called? Nobody seemed to know.

Without naming the problem – capitalism – the debate quickly descended into questions about lifestyle choices, as if Nicola Sturgeon switching to a green energy provider makes a difference while she's yet to draw a line under further fossil fuel exploration.


Even Jeremy Corbyn talking about improving rail travel around Europe and making it affordable – an easy win – was met with concerns that we’d have to fly less.

The standout moment came with the question, "What is your personal climate change resolution to cut your carbon footprint?" Jeremy Corbyn – already derided for being a hippyish marrow-fancier – tried to move away from small personal things and answer that he would personally ensure greater rates of recycling by local councils. “What about your life?” Guru Murthy interrupted. Well, the guy is personally trying to become Prime Minister so that in his life he can be the figurehead of a green industrial revolution. But apparently the main question is whether he leaves the telly on standby or gets up and switches it off at the mains.

What the debate so badly needed was someone to impose themselves on the situation, throw the script out of the window. Climate change is the product of a system that denies people basic rights, forces people into poverty, precarious jobs, mental health crises and the rest. Rather than talking about it in the same framework as any other policy – basically some unimaginative griping about taxes – we should talk about how stopping climate change necessarily involves liberating ourselves from all of that.

Maybe that’s too lofty for now. The Overton window is not there yet.

The ice sculpture representing Boris Johnson will have been mopped into a bucket by some poorly paid cleaning worker by now. It's all still to play for. The only poll that matters is the one on the 12th of December. But as things stand, the puddle is expected to be returned to Prime Minister.