Unfit to Govern

Britain swelters in an unprecedented heatwave. Tens of thousands of people across Europe flee from fires that defy public control. The Climate Change Committee reports that Britain is falling behind in its existing climate commitments. And scientists warn that even if we meet the 1.5°C target todays heatwaves are likely to become the summer norm.

You would have thought all this would have made avoiding climate breakdown the centrepiece debate amongst Conservative contenders to become Prime Minister. It is a measure of the crisis we are in that ‘climate’ is being forced into the debate by interviewers and commentators rather than the candidates themselves.

I never thought there was anything I’d be thankful to Boris Johnson for, but the leadership debacle sparked by his resignation has thrown the paucity of Conservative leadership into stark relief. One after another, Tory ‘hopefuls’ have been demonstrating that the Party as a whole is unfit to govern.

It isn’t just that some candidates are being funded by climate-denying lobby groups or by fossil fuel interests. The entire debate remains fraudulent or self-deluding. The fight doesn’t revolve around targets for 2050 (or later). Everything will be determined by what we do within the current decade.

So even Conservative candidates who claim to support net-zero commitments struggle to explain why they back policies that would do the opposite. These range from permits for further North Sea oil exploration, expanding aviation, excluding climate targets in trade deals, axing home energy efficiency programmes, dumping the zero-carbon homes standard, through to support for new coal mines, fracking and road building.

If you thought Boris was just a naked opportunist, take a long look at the nakedness that is set to follow. All the wannabe Tory Leaders adhere to a belief that the policies that took us into today’s crises are precisely the ones needed to rescue us. The contest is no better than a bunch of drunks arguing about whose turn it is to ride the bicycle. Each is a disaster waiting to happen.

Taxing times

Arguments about tax cutting are the most obvious starting point. The most rightwing Tory candidates insist that dogmatic manifesto pledges must override the economic and existential crises.

Almost certainly none of the ‘hopefuls’ will have read Tim Jackson’s prescient book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’, written back in 2009, which outlined a different framework of sustainable economics. None grasp that circularity will become more important than productivity. None understand that the economics of repair must replace those of self-reward. Instead, Tory obsessions with globalised trade, conventional growth and deregulated markets litter the political jousting areas.

None of the hopefuls even mention that billionaire wealth in Britain has grown by £1billion/week over the last year, and has increased progressively throughout the last decade. This wealth now stands at over £700bn.

The lives of the super-rich go untouched by the cost of living crisis. But a simple 3% tax on individual wealth over £10bn would raise enough money to pay all today’s public service pay claims and put the money into domestic circulation rather than speculative acquisition.

Moreover, in his last Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak squirrelled new tax subsidies of between £2.7bn and £5.7bn into the pockets of oil companies. Even the lower figure, if put into a national energy efficiency programme, would have saved £700m in annual household energy bills. The trouble is that this isn’t what Boris’ successors are squabbling about.

Net-zero to not zero

Everything we have neglected, weakened or destroyed in the past is catching up with us at a rate that will overwhelm economic orthodoxies. Much that will be classed as ‘wild weather’ has ramifications that will redefine national, international and local priorities like nothing else.

Even before fires raged across western France, the country faced severe losses in this year’s wheat 25%. production. Italy has Wild just weather declared is a fornational ecast to drought to reduce emergencyyields . Its by harvests of olives, grapes and grains are all under threat.

Heatwaves in India and Pakistan are causing crop losses and grain shortages that will kick on to food pricing. Only Russia seems to be the beneficiary of a bigger harvest.

The USA fares no better. California’s largest reservoirs are at their lowest ever levels. Arizona’s Glen Canyon dam (the second largest in the USA) is locked into a 22-year drought, threatening the water supplies of over 40 million people. If its water level drops by another 32ft the dam’s turbines, producing electricity for the region, will also cease. No amount of productivity improvements will put this right.

But before the region’s lights go out (and household taps dry up) a civil war will break out. Municipalities, indigenous tribes and multi-national agribusiness will go to war over the 80% of the water supply currently taken by agribusiness. It won’t be a pretty sight.

One way or another, climate is the only place for todays politics to start. Yet not a single Conservative leadership candidate will say this.

Blaming Ben & Jerry

Before she fell out of the leadership race, MP Suella Braverman probably summed up what most of her party believes. Speaking at a business gathering, Braverman lambasted the “Ben & Jerry environmentalism” surrounding food and production policies. For her, crude profiteering is all that matters. Kemi Badenoch MP went further, describing climate commitments as acts of “unilateral economic disarmament”. The scary thing is that this can’t just be put down to a couple of loopy MPs who have lost the plot. Behind it lies a much bigger, scarier disconnect.

Climate awareness may have rocketed up the thermometer of public consciousness, but the opposite is happening within the Conservative Party. A YouGov poll of Conservative Party members showed that climate came in as their lowest ranked political priority.

So, steeped in their gin and tonics, cooled by sprinkler soaked lawns or on beaches far from the sweltering crowd, this 0.3% of the population will soon decide who is to be Britain’s next Prime Minister. To do so without embarrassment, they will do so without any televised debate between the final candidates.

If this doesn’t feel much like democracy, it isn’t. It is a reassertion of the right of the rich to rule over the rest. As an electorate, we have the right to be offended. As a species, we must do more.

Climate physics will take no notice of the election of the next Tory leader. It is already presenting us with existential choices that are non-negotiable. To survive, we need a different economics and a different politics. All the rest is just ‘going to hell in a handcart’.

The choice is still ours…but only just.

Alan Simpson

July 2022

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