In the past month we’ve learned four important things. Over 90 per cent of the world's children are breathing toxic air; humanity has wiped out 60 per cent of animal species since 1970; the world’s scientific authority on climate told us that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” if we are to avoid disastrous climate breakdown; and the former Archbishop of Canterbury joined nearly a hundred other civic leaders to declare a willingness to break the law as part of a national “Extinction Rebellion”.
Would you know any of this from this week's Budget debate in parliament? ... Not a chance.
Given the turmoil in the Tory Party, perhaps the chancellor takes extinction for granted. The rest of us don't have to. Someone has to challenge a Budget that failed to even mention climate change; promising instead to spend 500 times as much on building roads as on planting trees.
Someone has to say that any Budget which doesn't begin and end with the IPCC call for a 50 per cent cut in CO2 emissions within the next twelve years isn't living on the only planet we've got. Someone has to insist that “existential economics” must become the centrepiece of a new politics of survival.
The only options now open are radical ones. Clinging to business as usual is its own form of extremism; we know now that it will kill us all. So the choice society faces is between a radicalism of the right and a radicalism of the left. Both will disrupt the status quo; one by division and bellicose nationalism, the other by demanding a new agenda of justice and internationalism as the only alternative to war and climate disaster.
Faced with an astonishing level of political denial and evasion on climate and the environment it can be hard to remain positive. But in the UK at least, we have some grounds for hope. Any solution to the coming crises demands a radical change of direction, and Jeremy Corbyn’s bold promise to radically rebuild our economy means that the next UK government might actually be one that has the courage and vision to become a world leader on climate and the environment.
It’s a role that Britain’s history demands. We were the first country in the world to carbonise our economy and to reap the huge economic rewards that followed and it is right that we now invest some of that wealth in fully decarbonising. In doing this we will buy the world precious breathing space, and in particular the economies of the global south who still need to grow to escape the terrible poverty that still afflicts so many of their citizens.
Let’s act as though the evidence that surrounds us on all sides is real, and let’s have the courage to act on it. That would make a refreshing contrast to the chancellor on Monday. The only nod to the environment in his entire speech was a half-hearted and inadequate consultation on a plastics tax – but he went straight from that into boasting about freezing fuel duty for the ninth year running.
Britain has to construct Budget measures that put a culture change ahead of revenue streams. It can't all be revenue neutral. But Labour must make the case that such change doesn't involve the poor carrying the burden. Because climate change is a social justice issue too.
The richest 10 per cent of the population are currently responsible for half of our carbon consumption emissions. The poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 10 per cent. If the top 10 per cent cut their emissions just to the European average it would cut UK CO2 emissions by 30 per cent. This process begins with the most profligate, not the most vulnerable. Poor people can’t cut their emissions – they don’t make them. Poor people don’t drive the toxic form of economic “growth” that is destroying our environment.
If the chancellor won't lead the way into this debate, the rest of us will have to. This isn't a call for cheap and cheerful counter offerings, but for a completely different national debate. A failure to do so could just mark us down to be the first species in history to actively organise our own extinction.
We are surely in an epochal moment in the history of our species. It’s time for us all to face that reality, frightening as it sometimes is, and to speak up for bold and decisive action to stop stumbling down the suicidal path we are on and to strike out for life and hope.
Clive Lewis is the shadow treasury minister for sustainable economics
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