Climate as mainstream: The new age of politics

‘This election is crucially about the immensely fragile, overstretched state of this plastic-choked, pesticide-soaked, nature-depleted planet’. Catherine Rowett, Green MEP candidate and Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, underlines that the European elections go far beyond whether to leave or remain in the EU and straight to the heart of the future of our planet.

Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge
Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge

Martin Hearn / Flickr / cc-by-2.0

Catherine Rowett

There has always been a percentage of people who voted Green on purely environmental grounds – people alerted by the growing evidence, from the release of The Limits to Growth in 1972 onwards, to the reality that we can’t have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. But they have been, as the Green Party discovered in its early years, only a small percentage of total voters.

But we are now in a new political age, and not just because Brexit has split asunder the two fractious, unhappy coalitions called the Labour and Conservative parties.

Building on the IPCC report last October that injected new urgency into global debates, we have seen in the UK an awakening in the people, and a turnaround in public opinion, about the ecological emergency. From 'something for the grandchildren to worry about', it has become a major, immediate concern for voters, including the grandparents themselves.

When the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ burst onto the streets of London in mid-April, the media turned an almost unremittingly hostile gaze onto the inconvenience that it was bringing to motorised traffic in London. But the public, even those directly affected, were surprisingly accepting and supportive, and many chose to join the fun, on bridges and roads that were suddenly welcoming, pleasant spaces open to pedestrians.

Within a fortnight, aided by the timing of the visit of youthful Nobel Peace prize nominee Greta Thunberg (hosted by Caroline Lucas MP), and David Attenborough’s ‘Climate change: the facts’ documentary, the entire landscape had shifted. Opinium polling found that 63 per cent of the public believe we are in a climate emergency and 76 per cent say they would vote differently to protect the planet and climate.

And now there’s an electoral test of those opinions.

Brexit, of course, is front and centre of this European elections campaign, although even on that issue it is telling to see that in a recent study of how clear voters think politicians have been about their position on Brexit, only 13 per cent of voters say that Labour’s position on departure from the EU is clear, while voters are only marginally more clear on the Conservative position at 17 per cent.

A shift away from two-party politics

You might say that this just shows the wisdom of voters, and, indeed, that it explains the huge shift in the polls away from what have hitherto been the two largest parties. The old parties’ vote has split between the parties with clear pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit positions – which, of course, includes the Greens. The Green Party is now within striking distance of overtaking the Tories at these European elections and is forecast to potentially double its number of seats. This follows on from our unprecedented results in the local council elections this month, when we more than doubled our council seats across England.

The Brexit crisis, and the prominence of ‘Remain/ Leave’ stances in party manifestos for the EU elections might appear to be muddying the waters, so that it becomes impossible to tell whether voters who are turning to the Green Party are doing so because of their response to climate fears or whether they are merely driven by the desire for a clear Remain message.

But in reality, the two issues are very closely linked: the Brexit Party and UKIP are disproportionately stuffed full of climate change-deniers (indeed, I have yet to meet a member of either of those parties who does not start by suggesting that the science is not clear on this topic); equally there are still fossil fuel proponents in the Conservative Party – frighteningly many of them. By contrast, the EU has been a locale for some degree of climate leadership – at least relative to other large power blocs – thanks largely to the presence of a healthy proportion of Green MEPs, not just from the UK but from across the 27 nations.

Brexit puts environmental protection at risk

Environmental NGOs are united in expressing their fears about Brexit, particularly a ‘no deal’ Brexit, leading to a bonfire of so-called ‘red tape’, by which they really mean the very regulations and protections that have been agreed in painstaking discussions to keep us and our environment safe. The risks go far beyond a potential influx of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef into this already dreadfully nature-depleted land.

And with the government now acknowledging that these MEPs, whom we shall (despite all the odds) be electing on 23 May, will indeed be taking their seats – and with the likelihood (which grows by the day) that they will serve a full term, what kind of MEPs we elect really does matter. Whom we send to represent us could make all the difference to how the next five years goes for the UK, as part of the EU (or, indeed, outside it, given that we shall be trying to trade with it).

Brexiteers like to suggest simultaneously both that MEPs are powerless in the EU hierarchy, and also that they are faceless bureaucrats ruling everything. Of course neither is true, for they are elected representatives, chosen through a system of proportional election that is far more democratic than the system used for Westminster government or local councils; and they make collective decisions about crucial, albeit sometimes rather dull, matters of considerable importance to us all.

The European Parliament has the power to take action on many crucial environmental issues. Green MEPs were instrumental in ensuring that the Parliament as a whole – whose consent is needed for EU Trade Agreements – has held out for relatively strong environmental (and also labour) standards – though the standards are not yet strong enough to achieve what is needed in the next few years.

The EU has shown some degree of climate leadership, thanks largely to the presence of a healthy proportion of Green MEPs, not just from the UK but from across the 27 nations.

For example, Green Party MEPs were the driving force behind an almost complete ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, and they are currently leading the way towards condemning glyphosate, which has come increasingly under fire and will surely soon be outlawed. Their work to secure an EU ban on plastic straws, plastic plates and cups is but one visible front in a huge and far more wide-ranging drive towards achieving a circular economy.

On energy policy, besides pushing for renewables, Green MEPs have been at the forefront of demanding improvements in energy efficiency, which has the additional benefit of saving consumers significantly in energy costs. After all, the greenest, cleanest energy is the energy you never use.

These ambitions and achievements on the part of the European Green Party are enough to make your average deregulation-at-all-costs, “UK as the new Singapore” Brexiteer turn purple with anger.

Elections about more than just Brexit

Which brings us to why this election, and what we offer in seeking election, is only partly about Brexit.

It is also and crucially about the immensely fragile, overstretched state of this plastic-choked, pesticide-soaked, nature-depleted planet, heating so fast under its increasingly weighty blanket of greenhouse gases that even the EU is already almost powerless to stop it (while the UK, left alone in the North Sea, would be even more powerless).

Furthermore, it is about the kind of society we are going to be: whether we shall grow up as a society that acknowledges that there are, in fact, sufficient resources in the world to ensure that everyone has a decent and secure life, provided we share them out fairly, or whether we shut off the bowels of compassion, and seek to become a divided world in which the fortunate few measure their success by their ability to grab from the weak and vulnerable, while building walls and “securing our borders” against “the others”.

So this might initially look like a strange and chaotic mess of an election, occurring when many thought European elections would never happen again in the UK. But it is a most precious and fantastic opportunity, a last gasp chance to vote for, and get, a coherent, principled, consistent model for the future of our country, and the world, in which the measure of success is not getting but giving, not grabbing but sharing, and not squandering but preserving.

In fact, we must stop counting growth or exploitation as a measure of good. These things are a measure of how bad a society is. Instead we should measure a society and its government by its balance of carbon emissions to carbon capture, and grade its social wellbeing by the equity of its distribution mechanisms both within and across its borders.

Catherine Rowett is Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and lead MEP candidate for the East of England for the Green Party.