As Westminster fiddles while the world burns, local politicians must show climate leadership
In a shameful week, the two main national parties turned their backs on the environmental challenge just as its consequences became horrifically clear. Adam Lent argues that mayors and councillors need to urgently step into the void left by Westminster complacency and start having real, difficult conversations.
Let’s not sugarcoat it – humanity is in very deep trouble.
The environmental catastrophe is now here, and intensifying at an alarming rate. The shocking floods and heatwaves of the last few days are merely a taster of much worse to come. And the extreme weather is just one part of the unfolding nightmare. The migration, economic, and hence political, consequences of environmental breakdown will be severe. That is hugely significant for our island. We may be spared the very worst of the weather (although it will still be bad) but we will not escape the disruptive impact of a new era in human affairs shaped by global economic contraction, geopolitical conflict and mass movement of people.
Just as all this was being brought home by the wildfires and torrential rain, Westminster looked the other way. Rishi Sunak decided that the main lesson of last week’s byelections is to use climate backsliding as a campaign tool. While Keir Starmer was so freaked at securing a 7% swing in a seat that Labour has not won in fifty-seven years, that he made the scrapping of a vital environmental policy his top line.
Despite the lessons of history, Westminster is not about to change course. Neither main party offers a meaningful analysis of the emerging crisis, let alone a strategic vision as a response.
I hesitate to use this analogy but I think it is warranted: Westminster’s complacency will soon be viewed in the same light as its behaviour in the 1930s. A huge and lethal threat was rising in Europe but those warning of its dangers were marginalised. Instead the political mainstream embraced denial, accommodation and fantastical thinking. All ideas that were amplified by the press and fringe parties. The result, of course, was that when the dam finally broke, Britain was woefully unprepared for the deluge and came very close to total catastrophe before gradually, painfully and expensively fighting its way back.
Despite the lessons of history, Westminster is not about to change course. Neither main party offers a meaningful analysis of the emerging crisis, let alone a strategic vision as a response. Its most senior figures parrot stale phrases about delivering economic growth just as the global conditions for that aspiration turn hostile. Party strategists are caught in a dysfunctional relationship with the mass media in which any honest assessment of reality risks being stigmatised as a career-ending gaffe.
There is thus an obligation on other parts of our democratic system to step up. Members of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, mayors and councillors need to urgently fill the void left by Westminster and begin a conversation with their communities about the now unavoidable catastrophe ahead. And it needs to be a genuine conversation, one in which politicians should be brave enough to admit they don’t have the answers (who does?) and thus need to draw on the wealth of experience and insight that exists across our populations to chart a way forward. The distortions and confected divisions of ordinary political debate should be set aside in favour of a deliberative, consensus-building model, similar to the approach taken by many councils on a wide range of issues in recent years.
The distortions and confected divisions of ordinary political debate should be set aside in favour of a deliberative, consensus-building model
Where exactly those conversations might go is difficult to say precisely but I suspect there will be a strong focus on the need to build a deep resilience into every aspect of life in Britain. That might mean much better planning and more investment in hard infrastructure than is currently the case. But discussion is likely to go well beyond this to include social resilience: creating the community networks and resources to allow people to support and help each other as things get tough. Shining a spotlight on the role that cynically divisive politics and deepening economic inequalities play in weakening us as a nation would also seem unavoidable.
But whatever the outcomes, this is a conversation we desperately need to have now. Those with a democratic mandate must step forward and initiate it while our supposed leaders in Westminster are stuck in a regressive paralysis that endangers us all.
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