Forget the Brexit election, it's time for a climate election

New polling suggests that three quarters of voters think that the government cares more about delivering Brexit than combating climate change. But with a majority saying the climate crisis will influence how they vote, it’s clear there is a mandate for a different conversation

Beth Irving
Friday 01 November 2019 14:07
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MPs are debating the climate emergency as Extinction Rebellion activists protest throughout London

Over the last year, the climate justice movement has been impossible to ignore. A combination of School strikes, Extinction Rebellion and increasingly urgent warnings from scientists has led to the largest ever demonstration of public concern over climate change.

More than Brexit, it is crucial that the general election focuses on the climate and ecological crisis. This must be our first “climate election”, not just our second Brexit election.

However, despite this, recent polling data shows most people in Britain think politicians are not talking enough about it. Among young people these numbers are greater. It is therefore unsurprising to see the same research reveal that over half of Brits, say climate change will influence the way they cast their ballot in the general election.

Nonetheless, the climate crisis continues to be sidelined in political discourse, resulting in the emergency we now find ourselves in. The government’s advisory group – the Committee on Climate Change, who are responsible for assessing the current government climate policies – have warned of 4C of global heating on current trends, described by the global scientific community as “catastrophic”.

The science is clear. If we do not take urgent and transformational action to curb greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade, we’re committed to a future of irreversible climate breakdown and catastrophic social, economic and environmental impacts. In order for parliament to declare a climate emergency, it took a two week shutdown of London and a public scolding from Greta Thunberg. That was a good sign, but sometimes it feels like we’re not going to truly see the action needed from politicians until the flood waters threaten the House of Commons itself.

The task ahead is a big one, but addressing the climate and nature emergencies is entirely possible and utterly beneficial. A wartime national emergency led to rapid and large shifts in the way our economies operated; it is possible to act with the speed needed to address the crisis, but we’re sorely lacking the political will. With only a small window of time to not only ensure a safe and liveable future, but also to create a fairer and more prosperous society, it’s imperative that we act now. This election is the last best chance we have of electing a government capable of addressing the climate crisis with the ambition required. Moreover, taking the necessary action now also means tackling air pollution, fuel poverty, creating employment in renewable industries and revitalising our communities.

And yet, as the leaflets slide through our letterboxes, the conversation being thrust upon voters is an agenda set in Westminster, characterised by endless inward-looking squabbling with no appreciation for much but a polarisation of “Leave” and “Remain”. In order for voters to make an informed decision on the government they’re electing, there must be an effective vehicle in place which gives climate change and restoring nature the attention it desperately deserves.

That is why I am calling for a televised party leaders climate and nature debate before the general election. We need to see where our political leaders stand on the single biggest election issue of the day - and we need to know their immediate plans to tackle the crisis. Every election in recent years should have been a climate election, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of our last chances to finally correct the failures of the past.

The world’s first climate and nature election debate would centre our environmental emergencies, increase public engagement in policy solutions and provide a new opportunity for political engagement for a public energised by recent protests but not always clear what to do next. It would also help drive a party political race to the top of ambitious climate and nature policies. Far from an attempt to trump other issues important to the electorate, a debate of this kind would shine a light on just how closely the climate emergency impacts all areas of the economy such as housing, health and education.

A general election means that it has to cover the general concerns of the general public. A recent poll by Opinium found that three quarters of voters believe that the government cares more about delivering Brexit than combating climate change. But with a majority saying the climate crisis will influence how they vote, it’s clear there is a mandate for a different conversation. Hundreds of thousands have been taking to the streets demanding change, and millions are set to take that energy to the ballot box. We need this to be our first climate election. For that we need the world’s first leaders climate debate.

Beth Irving is a campaigner with the UK Student Climate Network.

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