There’s been a refreshing shift in the news coverage of the last couple of weeks. As MPs sloped off to their constituencies for Easter, exhausted by the limitless agony that is Brexit, another quick-fix issue took the limelight: our world’s impending destruction. Extinction Rebellion’s radically peaceful protests across London dominated front pages, opinion pieces and social media, but are they likely to impact Government climate change policy?
Over ten days the apolitical activist group targeted Parliament, central London, the City and Heathrow to publicise their discontentment with the way our politicians are dealing with climate change. In response, plenty of MPs dedicated a minute of their (or their staff’s) time to supportive tweets. All party leaders other than Theresa May met with Greta Thunberg, the young activist who has inspired youth protests across the world. Ex-Labour leader Ed Milliband was granted an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on the subject in which about 11 Conservatives and 20 Labour MPs spoke (out of a possible 650). On 1st May Parliament approved a motion declaring climate change an emergency, capitulating to Extinction Rebellion’s first demand. All in all, it’s been an encouraging show of support for the protesters and proved that our elected representatives were taking note.
Whether we can be confident this is the beginning of a change in government policy direction is another matter. Environment Minister Michael Gove said it was now time to have “a serious conversation about what we can do to collectively deal with this problem.” But revealingly, Energy & Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry intoned in a speech, “We must now continue to act.” That’s the Government’s way of saying, “We hear your suggestions but we quite like the way we’re doing things, thanks.”
“What’s lacking at the moment is a reshaping of the debate.”
Reluctance from our politicians to adequately tackle climate change stems from the fact that it’s a mammoth beast of a task without an equally mammoth public drive to solve it. The solutions require drastic action at all levels of society and curtailing luxuries the west has come to see as rights (flying, meat, regular showers, affordable fashion, air conditioning etc. never-ending etc.). And whilst the public at large gets more riled by whether or not they belong to a supranational trading bloc than by the fate of their planet, climate change will inevitably fade into the background of parliamentary business again.
Herein lies the problem. Generally, politicians and governments start to change their policies when public opinion overwhelmingly swings towards or against something — they depend on our votes to remain in office, after all. Look at the poll tax, marriage equality and the debate around medicinal cannabis right now.
What’s lacking at the moment is a reshaping of the debate. We almost all acknowledge that climate change is happening, and that it’s bad. We’re also all reluctant to take the steps to prevent it, preferring to lay the responsibility at someone else’s door, because those steps directly affect our daily lives. Just look at our opinions on plastic: though there’s been a massive public focus on plastic pollution in the last year and it’s unquestionable that we use too much and recycle too little, a recent YouGov poll found that only 46% of Brits feel guilty about the amount of plastic they use. Most of us are failing to take responsibility for our actions because of the effort required to tackle the problem.
Before we can convince our elected representatives that climate change should be top of their agenda, it needs to be top of ours.
We need to reframe industry’s and our own bad habits in a way that turns public opinion against them, so as to quash the demand for planet-killing products and practices. Once we have most of the electorate on side, we can lobby Parliament and Government en masse to legislate against the old ways, whilst supporting sustainable innovation and cultural shifts. This approach is radical, but it needs to be. We are collectively destroying our future by ignoring the impact of our actions, and in turn our politicians are doing the same.
As Extinction Rebellion has shown, we’re on the road already. But until we can collectively change our ways, the end is a long way off.