If future historians ever identify a single moment when citizens in wealthier countries grasped the extent of climate catastrophe – and how planetary warming has real-world consequences – they may well pick the Summer of 2021.
In the United States the Dixie Fire, which has ravaged more than 700 square miles, is now the largest in Californian history. Meanwhile, Italy had three times its average number of wildfires last month, while Syracuse in Sicily – one of Europe’s oldest cities – just hit 48.8C, a record high for the continent.
A sequence of nationwide blazes in Turkey has destroyed around 160,000 hectares, with Cizre, on the country’s border with Syria, hitting 49C. Greece, which is seeing its hottest Summer for 30 years, has evacuated thousands from their homes and 93,000 hectares have been reduced to ashes. In Algeria, meanwhile, 65 people were reported dead on Wednesday as a result of some of the worst forest fires in the country’s history.
Yet such devastation across the Mediterranean and North America pales in comparison to Siberia, where the Russian government is presently fighting more than 190 forest fires. According to Greenpeace, firefighters and the Russian military have tackled fires across more than 62,000 square miles so far this year – an area roughly twice the size of Austria. In Canada, a June heatwave saw the record high broken on three consecutive days, with the mercury finally topping 49C in British Columbia.
Extreme weather events have gone beyond fire and heat. Last month’s floods in Germany brought a death toll of 177, while in the Chinese province of Henan 300 people lost their lives, and 800,000 were evacuated, as a year’s worth of rain fell in just three days. Both the New York subway and London underground have seen station closures as the result of flash flooding in recent weeks.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence, and ‘once in a century’ events unfolding with predictable regularity, few continue to claim climate change isn’t real or that its impact is negligible. Instead, we are faced with a relatively new, but increasingly infuriating phenomenon: the ‘progressive’ politician who acknowledges the scale of the crisis, and insists on urgent action, and yet appears to think business as usual can carry on.
One example of this is Labour’s Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. As Londoners were menaced by monsoon-style conditions, he eloquently highlighted the relationship between extreme weather, climate change and the need to decarbonise. Yet in 2018 Pollard, who is Labour’s shadow environment secretary, voted for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. While aviation is only 3% of all CO2 emissions globally, and there is far lower hanging fruit than people’s holidays, there is no environmental case for more of it in Britain. Heathrow is already the country’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and anyone who wants to expand it simply isn’t serious about climate change.
A more egregious example – simply because they are in a position of power – is Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan. According to Ed Miliband Khan has been a “true climate leader as mayor right from day one”, while Khan himself, like Pollard, recently drew attention to the link between extreme weather events and climate change, saying “bolder action” was needed.
Yet Khan is responsible for the Silvertown Tunnel, a multi-billion pound piece of infrastructure opposed by activists, locals and voters of all stripes. Indeed it is so widely loathed that a motion opposing it was passed at Labour’s London regional conference last month. The Mayor insists that the tunnel, due to open in 2025 and currently under construction, is essential. Yet all the evidence suggests that building more car infrastructure simply means more cars. Social scientists even have a word for this: induced demand.
While electric vehicles will be part of the mix as we decarbonise, it is indisputable that we need to be making fewer car journeys. If Khan was serious about climate change he wouldn’t just reverse the Silvertown decision, but would also propose the closure of City Airport in the Docklands – a hub principally for the wealthy which creates profound noise and air pollution for local communities. In the last mayoral election the Greens, to their credit, said the Airport should be converted to affordable housing and green space.
If this all sounds like Labour-bashing fear not, because the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, is no better. Last week she was confronted by activists from Green New Deal Rising and the Stop Cambo campaign at an event in her Glasgow constituency. Asked whether she would explicitly oppose plans for a new oil field near Shetland, Sturgeon did little beyond extending her ‘sympathy’ on the matter adding how “it’s not an issue for the Scottish Government”. That may be true, but it’s hard to square claims of climate leadership – so often recited by Sturgeon and the SNP – with failing to oppose new oil fields. As recently as April the SNP claimed Scotland “must continue to lead the world on climate change”, yet such leadership was painfully absent when Sturgeon was cornered.
A Scottish government spokesperson said it remained “wholly committed to becoming a net-zero economy by 2045” with support for fossil fuel companies in the North Sea “conditional upon them contributing to a sustainable and inclusive energy transition”. For all the fancy talk, this is akin to saying it’s a good idea to open an abattoir to help reduce people’s consumption of meat.
Indeed in May, the International Energy Agency declared there must be no new investment in oil and gas projects from this year to have any hope of limiting warming to 1.5C. Following the publication of the IPCC report on Monday, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said: “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.” Scotland’s government, with its self-proclaimed ‘global leadership’, thinks it knows better.
Finally was the bizarre moment when the Labour leadership claimed Tory targets to reduce 1990 CO2 emissions by 68% were inadequate. Sounds promising you think, until you realise their proposal is that any target should start at a 70% reduction instead.
If you think I am attacking ‘progressive’ politicians while neglecting the Tory’s lamentable record on climate, you are absolutely correct. Like any sensible person I expect very little from the Conservatives on the issue other than the inane (plastic straws) and superficial (also plastic straws). Yet unlike the Tories, who are at least open about their erroneous priorities, centre-left politicians daily concede how climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity. But despite such rhetoric what is offered is either menial or contradictory. Increasingly it feels this is little more than a vote-grabbing exercise in a policy area – climate change – where their adversaries are weak. Keir Starmer keeps mentioning a figure of £30bn to help decarbonise – the truth is that won’t scratch the surface.
Other than the Green Party – who lost some credibility on the issue by focusing instead on overturning the Brexit vote for three years – the three politicians I take most seriously on climate change are Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey. There are others too, of course, but it is that trio that generated the only remotely serious response to what remains an unprecedented challenge. Today one is suspended from the parliamentary party while the leadership repeatedly lies about their reintroduction, while another is on the backbenches having been sacked from her position in the shadow cabinet. That leaves John McDonnell who, it’s fair to say, is as likely to get a fair hearing from Starmer as Gary McKinnon. Things are so bad that on the very day of the IPCC report Labour chair Anneliese Dodds tweeted how the party’s priority is… policing.
We know that the Tories offer virtually nothing on climate change, but the grim truth is Britain’s centre-left parties are offering little more than a slight delay to inevitable calamity. With a challenge like climate change, the task is to live without illusions without becoming disillusioned. More than anywhere else that means honesty about how ‘not being the Tories’ – whether the SNP in Scotland or Labour in England – isn’t enough. There is no compromise with rising sea levels and mass species extinction; politicians either offer solutions, or they don’t.