Climate change will be at the “absolute core” of what we do, Boris Johnson told MPs in his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister.
He has changed his tune. The guy has in the past doubted the reality of climate change. Writing in his Telegraph column in 2013, Johnson cited “reputable scientists” who think global warming is “complete tosh”. These included Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy, who he called a “learned astrophysicist”. Piers Corbyn currently spends a lot of his time tweeting that the world needs “MORE C02 NOT LESS” and that the “globalist warming hoax MUST BE DESTROYED!”
But now that Johnson apparently cares about climate change, what will his government do?
For more than a decade the Conservative Party has treated the environment as a kind of nightmarish PR exercise. Watching David Cameron hug a husky or Michael Gove give a speech about plastic pollution is like seeing a Marvel villain talk a hero through his tragic childhood.
This elongated corporate social responsibility project has been matched with action, or more specifically, targets to take action at a later date. Theresa May’s government pledged to ban some single-use plastics by 2020, to make sure that half of all new cars are hybrid or electric by 2030, and for the UK to produce net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Emissions have been reduced over the last decade, thanks partly to the growth of solar and offshore wind technology. But efforts to further green the economy have been hamstrung by the Conservatives’ fanatical commitment to austerity and the power of the private sector.
In April a decision to end subsidies for new solar installations for households saw the number of installations drop 94 percent. Last month, a move to reduce incentives designed to encourage motorists to buy hybrid vehicles was blamed for the first slump in sales of electric vehicles in 11 years.
Conservative antipathy for the public sector means that they treat being a minister as an opportunity to commit acts of sabotage. If you reduce the money for public services enough, you reduce the level of good the state can do in ordinary people’s lives, and so the public will lose faith in any government’s ability to do anything worthwhile. Which is a win-win for free-market Tories. It’s this ideology that makes the two man-made crises that dominate our daily lives – Brexit and climate change – possible.
A group of scientists that advises the government on the climate crisis warned earlier this month that the UK has no proper plans in place to protect people from the extreme weather events caused by climate change. The Committee on Climate Change said targets to reduce emissions in 2025 and 2030 would be missed and stated that funding for programmes aimed at dealing with things like flash floods and heatwaves has been cut.
This stands in stark contrast to the government’s urgent rhetoric around Brexit. Diverting millions of pounds from already cash strapped government departments to prepare for a no deal won’t better prepare the UK for the climate crisis. And even if we leave the EU with some kind of deal, it’s likely there will be a decline of the UK’s environmental standards.
Liz Truss, the new International Trade Secretary, told an audience at the free-market US think Cato Institute in Washington last year: “Our Brexit plan gives us a huge opportunity to re-invigorate liberalism, unshackle entrepreneurs, build a more dynamic economy, and shape a new relationship with America.” Which is likely to mean a bonfire of environmental regulations.
Researchers at Sussex University noted in May that in its preparations for no deal, the government has moved to weaken existing EU regulations on pesticides as it copies them into UK law. Given the number of turbo-Thatcherites in Johnson’s cabinet, we can probably look forward to more of the same.
Johnson has assembled perhaps the most right-wing cabinet in history. Its first job will be to deliver Brexit on 31st October and fight an autumn election.
In the absence of a clear vision, this government will spin and lie. If we leave the EU with no deal, if the pound crashes and insulin stocks fall critically low, it will be the fault of Brussels. Not them.
As heatwaves become more severe and extreme weather events more frequent, our leaders will find someone to shift the blame onto as well.
Last week, as temperatures in the UK rose to record levels, a mini-riot broke out at Brockwell lido in South London, as people were prevented from entering the crowded pool. Commuters were generally told not to travel, but on one train leaving Waterloo, the intense heat forced the air conditioning to stop working.
You can imagine a society that has an abundance of free public pools and frequent, well-maintained public transport; so that when it gets hot you can go for a swim and travel to work without feeling like you’re in a sauna.
You can imagine a society that works. A society where a no deal Brexit would be unimaginable. A society where the chance to deal with climate change is more than an opportunity for a cynical politician to appear human. But it’s not the one we live in right now.