The public have their foot on the government’s neck over climate change – now it has no choice but to listen

There is an emergency, even if it does not feel as immediately threatening as say terrorism or Brexit. The complacency shown by the government deserves to be shamed

Sunday 28 April 2019 15:36
Greta Thunberg meets Westminster party leaders

Jeremy Corbyn, long a campaigner for seemingly hopeless causes, might be expected to have more sympathy than most for the Extinction Rebellion protesters.

Even though he apparently displayed some indifference to the handful who glued themselves to a fence outside his home, he has taken the cue and called on the government to announce a climate change emergency.

With the resignation of the fracking commissioner, Natascha Engel, and thanks to those gridlocking stunts in central London, as well as the passionate pleas of Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, the environment is suddenly at the top of the political agenda, and rightly so.

It just goes to show what a damaging distraction Brexit has become, and how much useful work could be done if it just went away.

Of course, the government will do anything but endorse an initiative on the environment from the Labour Party. Even if Mr Corbyn wanted to wish Harry and Meghan all the best, Theresa May would pull a sour face if asked to join in. Such is our tribal politics.

Yet Mr Corbyn is right to do what he is doing. There is an emergency, even if it does not feel as immediately threatening as say terrorism or, for that matter, Brexit. Action – national and international – needs to be taken. The complacency shown by the government deserves to be shamed.

It is no good Michael Gove earnestly declaring that the government can hear the clamour. Radical action needs to be taken leadership needs to be shown.

This about much more than a levy on coffee cups or plastic bags. It goes to the heart of how we live our lives the continuing dominance of the internal combustion engine, the growth in air travel, the way we generate our energy. These are all policy areas where traditional price signals taxation and subsidy can and should be used to “make the polluter pay”. That includes consumers. It may well mean that flight to Bali is more expensive, as is that new big SUV, but that is what tackling the emergency will entail.

It is perfectly true that on some measures China and the US do far more damage than Europe does, but that is no reason to do nothing at home. Besides, global leadership on the new green technologies such as wind and electric cars could give manufacturing an opportunity to reinvent itself, Brexit or not. Offshore wind farms near Hull provide an excellent example of a future that works.

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Of course, Mr Corbyn is a politician, not a secular saint, and there is some element of virtual signalling in his move – a few days before crucial local elections.

He and his team will have noticed the uptick in Green Party support and would deeply wish for something to distract from Labour’s own divisions on Europe. The Green Party are at least clear and consistent in their approach. They may be rewarded for their long struggle at the ballot box, rivalling their last great upsurge back in the Euro elections of 1989. There is even more to protest about now.

It is a moment, then, to appreciate that public opinion, once mobilised, is sovereign. Sentiment is all, and it’s moving the right way. The resignation of the so-called fracking tsar came because she found the restrictions on shale gas extraction too difficult to justify. Her job was pointless, she claims, and she made herself redundant.

That in itself shows the effect of public pressure on this new source of fossil fuels. There now seems little chance that ministers will relax the rules so people in Lancashire can suffer more earthquakes and we can generate more CO2. Just imagine the protests if they did...

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