Brexit and the Climate Crash: Time for a Reality Check

by Steve Rushton

9 December 2018

David Holt /Flickr

12 years to deal with climate change sounds dramatic enough, but the reality is worse. Unprecedented disasters show we are beyond tackling climate change, meaning we must now decelerate the crash.

The IPCC 1.5C special report, released in October, states that to make the world as habitable as possible, human-made emissions must be cut 45% by 2030, dropping to zero by 2050. Politically, everything from here on should revolve around limiting climate catastrophe. Yet within the Brexit clusterfuck that will define our near future, the issue of the world’s habitability has largely been neglected.

Big oil billionaires bankroll the Brexit project. The research group DeSmog has brilliantly mapped the connections: 55 Tufton Street in Westminster hosts many pro-Brexit, hardline neoliberal and climate denial organisations. These include Lord Lawson’s Global Warming (Denial) Policy Foundation and environment minister Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign. Climate deniers back Brexit because it provides an opportunity to shred existing commitments, but it also creates a political distraction from urgent climate issues. It’s time to bring climate change to the centre of the Brexit debate and start asking what it could mean for our climate policies.

Tories vs. the environment.

It appears the least likely Brexit outcome is the deal which is currently on the table. Since the referendum, nothing has united people like opposition against the fudged withdrawal agreement. From a climate perspective it is not the worst-case scenario as it pledges ‘no regression‘ on the UK upholding current EU legislation – but only for as long as the transition lasts, which could only be until end of 2020. The new climate watchdog set up by Michael Gove – intended to hold the government to account after Brexit – is only advisory.

Brexit aside, the current government only threatens the climate. Ten years ago the UK took strong steps with the Climate Act, but Theresa May’s premiership has only worsened the regression since then. In her first year, oil bosses gave her £400k in political donations. Was this reward for axing explicit ministerial responsibility for climate change in her first days?

Escalating climate destruction includes enforcing fracking, selling arms for oil to enable despotic states like Saudi Arabia, and expanding Heathrow. Meanwhile the government has dropped Swansea’s Tidal Lagoon, through which Wales could have started ‘taking back control’ of power generation, blocked onshore wind, cut feed in tariffs for renewables and bungled retrofitting homes for energy efficiency. Furthermore, the research cooperative Platform recently revealed the UK is using its aid budget to back fracking across the Global South.

So whichever Brexit is on the table, a Tory government is bad news for the climate. But a hard Brexit or no deal would be worse, as this would enable Britain to negotiate free trade deals that dump climate commitments.

Hard Brexit, harsher climate change.

Hard Brexiteers’ plans are unclear, even to themselves. But the connections of key agents of Brexit demystify their motivations.

  • Boris Johnson and David Davis support a hard Brexit plan from the Institute of Economic Affairs, a group of high-profile free-market fundamentalists and anti-climate lobbyists. The IEA is well connected, and stands accused of taking ‘cash for access’ from US corporate interests, including big energy.
  • As trade secretary, Liam Fox has been lobbying for a US trade deal, working with organisations including the US Heritage Foundation, one of the largest and longest-serving climate denial fronts worldwide.
  • Penny Mordaunt is overseeing UK aid money supporting oil and gas ventures (including fracking) in the Global South as development secretary.
  • Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab sits on board of Leave Means Leave with Owen Paterson, who is tied to Lord Lawson’s climate denial foundation.
  • Steve Baker has allegedly accepted ‘dark money‘ from sources connected to leading US anti-climate billionaires, the Koch Brothers.
  • Andrea Leadsom has received political donations from hedge funds with big oil investments.
  • Michael Gove was backed by climate denier Lord Lawson in his leadership bid. He is also connected to Liam Fox’s web of US big oil interests to resist climate legislation particularly through free trade deals.

If a fudged Brexit drives us off a climate cliff edge and a hard Brexit is worse, what are the alternatives?

Blue-sky post-Brexit horizons.

One essential way to face climate change is to make it part of the Brexit debate. We also must get out of Brexit binaries: remaining in the EU is better for climate policy than a hard Brexit, but by no means utopian.

The EU deserves some credit for pushing international targets, a counterweight to Donald Trump’s climate nihilism. The EU is supporting members like Poland away from its coal love-in. For the first time ever, the EU and Japan have included the Paris agreements in a free trade agreement, and the EU is aiming to cut emissions by 45% by 2030.

But the EU has not gone far enough. Keeping to currently agreed targets would still lead the world to a disastrous 3C warming by 2100. Many EU countries are among the worst polluters in the world, even without taking into account their historical responsibility for emissions. The EU has also failed to step in to curb member states’ policies that are bad for climate, such as Spain’s tax on solar power, while EU privatisation rules hinder efforts to take transport, energy and water into public control where they could be administered in a way that is best for the planet, not profits.

Whether or not Brexit happens, and in what form, doesn’t change the fact that we need to take action now. We need to ban fracking. We need to start retrofitting houses. We need to start supporting renewables and feed-in tariffs. We need to build municipal energy and enable local control of public utilities. We haven’t got 12 years to start this project – the urgency is now. Many of the solutions are ready to go in Labour, the SNP and the Greens’ manifestos.

Above all, we need to see past the distractions of the Brexit show and start asking the important questions. Is it better to stay in the EU to collectively deal with climate change? Or does leaving mean we can brake harder against the climate crash? Or could Brexit enable us to start a new bloc pushing for limiting warming to 1.5C, allied to the vulnerable nations who already have this aim? Could Brexit start the long overdue conversation about our industrial past and start considering climate reparations to the Global South?

The bottom line is we don’t have time to wait for Brexit to burn out – business as usual in the interests of carbon-intensive industries is already burning the planet.

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