Cast your mind back to 2019, to a world so different than the one today. Over the course of the year there was a massive buzz in the air, surrounding the climate movement. Extinction Rebellion (XR) were making headlines across the world, and every Friday millions of school children would lead the charge to demand climate action from our policymakers. As a candidate in the December 2019 election for the Green Party this presented a massive opportunity, because finally mainstream discourse was talking about the one biggest issue of our time. Our generation were finally seeing our futures being taken seriously.
It can feel slightly demoralising, then, to reflect on how the pandemic has partially neutered this momentum. The school strikes and XR protests have all had to be suspended to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and policymakers have had limited capacity to consider anything other than the pandemic. However, as the vaccine rollout continues to accelerate, we are left with a golden opportunity to bounce back. Nobody has forgotten how crucial the climate crisis is, even if sometimes it may feel that way. And many of the excuses used to justify climate inaction have been shattered. No longer can governments and legislators internationally claim that responding to this crisis is too costly, too radical or too much of a sacrifice to our way of life. If there’s anything the pandemic has done, it’s proved that when faced with a crisis we can throw the kitchen sink at it.
While the UK gears up to hosting the COP26 summit (UN Climate Change Conference) in November we’ll see plenty of rhetoric from leading politicians and corporations about their ambitions for achieving carbon neutrality. Expect huge amounts of ‘greenwash’ and declarations of climate positive action without substance. We must not fall for this act. Instead, we need to gather once again to hit the streets every week, to stand strong and firm in defence of our future.
History does have a habit of repeating, in the short-term as well as the long. Indeed in that election, which now feels like it was from a different lifetime, each hustings and media appearance I took part in would inevitably include a question on the state of the planet. This was much to my delight and I was well prepared to give detailed answers about the contents of our ambitious £100 million annual Green New Deal. But what quickly became apparent was that while my fellow candidates had learned to talk the talk well on the climate, under any scrutiny their plans were hopelessly inadequate, holding no relation to what the science tells us is necessary. Too often they would treat the climate as a compartmentalised policy area, separated from every other policy. They would view it in terms of monetisation, and so often would fail to make the link between improvements of living standards alongside sustainability.
I was particularly amused by a tree-slinging contest, which saw each party aiming to outdo each other on numbers of trees planted (often purely for show, not even being included in their manifestos). Trees are absolutely a crucial component of tackling the crisis ahead, but they are just one part, and the climate crisis cannot be treated as an isolated policy area, when it links to everything the government does. The unfortunate realisation from my experiences in the election was that, as expected, economic interests were prevailing, and the environment was largely being used as a tool to get votes.
The climate strikes and momentum has definitely secured the climate crisis’ position on the agenda, and given how little it was discussed in the 2017 election only two years prior, it’s clear that in a short space of time the climate action networks were having a massive impact. But there’s still essential work to be done to cross the next hurdle; securing genuine, meaningful action. We cannot allow politicians to say they stand with us when they are doing anything but.
As soon as it is safe to do so, we need to return to the streets. Our mission, each and every one of us, is to continue to lift and motivate one another to action, to educate one another and especially other generations on what needs to be done. We must leave terms such as ‘climate change’ in the past and replace them with ‘climate crisis’. Simple framing tools such as this ensure the severity of the situation is entrenched in minds. This way, we shift the Overton window further and further towards radical action.
As individuals, there are certain behavioural shifts we can make, most significantly by going vegan, but the real solutions lie with major structural changes and at every opportunity we must remind our elected politicians of this. The status quo has got to go. COP26 presents a major opportunity because, as per the Paris Climate Agreement, it is the first time states will present their updated plans for addressing their contributions to the climate crisis. So far the Paris plans have been rather weak and meaningless, and there is a real risk the new plans will be more of the same. These 2021 updated plans must not be presented in November without accountability from the public to ensure the same thing does not happen again.
The momentum that existed at the end of 2019 has not died, it is merely resting dormant until the world can reopen once again. If anything, there will be a renewed vigour to rebuild the world in a more sustainable way. Once it does, we have a duty, not just for our own future, but for generations to come and for nature’s sake itself, to once again demand better, and refuse to settle for anything less.
MSc Environment, Development and Politics
Green Party Parliamentary Candidate 2019.